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What Wilder Wanted

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I write this in response to Adam Langer's review of our production of The Skin of Our Teeth now playing at American Theater Company [September 24]. He states in his review, which I largely agree with, that I, as director, created an ending to the play that is "more flip, nihilistic posturing than a well-reasoned philosophical statement." And that I have "gone to the trouble of making The Skin of Our Teeth contemporary just to make Wilder out wrong."

Wilder himself brings the character of Henry back onstage during those hopeful speeches at the end of the play to deliberately undercut the sweetness that might emerge if we were all able to forget that there is evil in the world. He himself has written that he intended the play to be ended with an unsettling quality that prompts us to remember that we must struggle continuously against feeling comfortable. He had no intention of tying it all up with a big bow, though we might like that. Our ending only brings Wilder's own intention into the late 20th century. Langer is not the only critic in town to assume that Wilder intended the play to be hopeful, and nothing more, with its ending. I am not "utterly unconvinced" that we will survive to see a better world. In fact, I am an active citizen and parent who takes an active role in making sure the world becomes a better place for those who will follow us. But I am concerned that the American society today is craving some simple Panglossian solution to our problem with greed and violence. I feel this production, true to the original intent of its author, an author I respect very much, creates an ending that frames this struggle in a way that might shock us into a response. Any response that moves beyond rhetoric might save a few innocent lives from ending by way of an automatic weapon in a public place.

William Payne

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