Excerpt from the Journals of Charles Nolte on Thornton Wilder

April 23, 2010
charlesnolte200.jpgCharles Nolte, Photo by Rob Levine
19 December, 1953
Mimi and I had a pleasant lunch with Gladys Hagblom who wore a white Angora hat and had a bad complexion. But there's nothing wrong with her mind, and lunch rattled along. Much about the puppet shows we used to give when we were kids, laughing boisterously over the time I sang "Manrico," or mouthed the words to Mimi's piano accompaniment. We were doing "The Miserere" from Trovatore. "What voices of terror? For whom are they praying?" I am no threat to Martinelli. On and on we chattered, recollecting happy days. By this time I'd drunk too much coffee, and babbled on about how as a kid I plastered photos of the Metropolitan Opera auditorium over the walls of my bedroom, pictures from the rotogravure sections of Sunday papers. Before I was twelve I was an avid listener to those Saturday broadcasts. The sound of applause coming in waves over the Philco up in my bedroom after an act of Wagner with Flagstad and Melchior, or Ponselle at the end of Carmen, must have had something to do with my growing interest in the stage. If I couldn't be a singer, and God knows I couldn't, perhaps I could be an actor, and some day reap the approval of an audience, and bathe in the narcotic of their applause. I became addicted at an impressionable age. I even used to simulate applause on my own by stirring my collection of marbles in one of Mother's metal kitchen bowls. The more you stirred the marbles, the more it sounded like clapping. Odd behavior for a kid. Raffling marbles in a pan, Flagstad's "Liebestod," Tibbett and Pinza, Milanov and Rethberg. Where has it all gone?

Off to the Y after the matinee, then met Mimi and husband Sam, now back from his trip. They live frugally, keeping very accurate accounts of every penny spent, rigorously checking the gas mileage on the car, itemizing stamps used, phone calls made. I couldn't live this way. It's an attitude toward money I don't much care for. And the fact that Sam has apparently cashed in his stocks and bonds - gifts from his mother - to give to the Baha'i Faith so they can construct temples, makes no sense to me. So home to bed. The atmosphere isn't the same with Sam around. So ends my stay in Boston. On to New Haven

20 December, 1953 - New Haven

At the New Haven station I watched Hodiak ogle a tiny baby while its parents ogled him. He was pretty drunk, looking inane and slack-lipped with his pork-pie hat perched atop his crewcut. Ainsley and Jimbum were solicitously standing guard. And Huffman in his navy coat a size too large, looking forlorn and vaguely Japanese.

On the train down, Mr. Crawford carried his latest camp-follower along with his luggage. One Mady Roy, a girl he unearthed in Boston. Attractive, dark, with her hair worn in a carefully arranged bun. Crawford is playing Svengali again and to the hilt. The two of them stood in the frigid air outside the station waiting for a cab, their faces very close, eyes locked, their steamy breath intermingling.

Getting Hodiak and his palace guard into a taxi was one thing, getting Huffman into his cab was another. With his trunk, large enough to sleep in, he finally sank down in the back seat while the driver swore at me as if I was responsible for the weight of that trunk. Huffman's ferret face gazed through the smudged glass at me, and a small deprecating smile crossed his lips.

Back in New Haven. At Yale. My god, the memories. I walked over to Jonathan Edwards, my old stomping ground, went into the Commons Room and sank down in one of those big leather chairs, thinking back to the last time I was in this room. If memory serves, it was the time Ethridge invited me to that seminar with Thornton Wilder as guest of honor. I wanted to ask Wilder about Skin of Our Teeth, which I saw in December of '43, its first week in New York.

I recall it had embarrassed me, sifting in the audience that night, when the big star TalluIah Bankhead, playing the maid in the household, wearing a little black dress with small white apron and carrying a feather duster, whirled around what looked like a realistic set, the kind you'd expect in a Broadway show. Realistic, that is, until the scenery began to float through the air, and miniature dinosaurs came loping out of the fireplace. Then you knew you were in for something special. That came later in the act, but the first thing to baffle me was the moment when Bankhead suddenly dried on stage. She was alone, chatting about this and that, giving us the obligatory exposition, and somebody obviously missed an entrance cue. She said the line a little louder, but still nobody came on. She began to look a little worried. How do you make up lines with yourself, with nobody else on stage? So then she said the cue quite loudly, and we in the audience heard this whisper from the prompter, "Make something up." I was sure somebody had failed to make an entrance. How could this happen in a big Broadway production? Tallulah looked perplexed, but gamely mumbled something, repeated the cue again, this time very loudly. Nothing happened. She stood there for a minute and the whole audience was beginning to feel uneasy, as you'd expect. And then the crazy thing happened. Tallulah suddenly dropped out of her role completely and stepped right down to the foots facing us, with no attempt at all to remain in the scene, to be that maid Sabina. I remember how exasperated she seemed as she glared out at us, and then she launched into her tirade. "I hate this play and every word in it. All about the human race. Now there's a subject for you. Why can't we have plays like we used to? Plays like Smilin' Through and The Bat, plays with a message you can take home with you." Something to that effect. Then of course we all realized it was part of the play, and everybody started giggling and it grew into a big laugh going all the way up to the balcony. The stage manager was now onstage tugging at Tallulah, and that too was part of it. I was hoping to ask Wilder about that scene, and why did he want to destroy the illusion that way, break the convention of the fourth wall? Did they find that in rehearsal? Was that Kazan the director's idea, or what?

There was quite a gathering to hear Thornton Wilder that afternoon in this seminar room, with all these deep lounge chairs. Of course, the room was packed. I had to stand at the back with Ethridge, and I remember my old college roommate Dick Mack was there too. As usual he was wearing those blue-jeans, the realty tight Levi Strauss ones he calls "my Make-Believe-Ballroom-Pants." He slept in those pants.

Mrs. French was hosting, and of course Professor French was there to do the introductions in his role as House Master. He did introduce Wilder, in that grainy subterranean voice of his. It seemed to rumble up from the depths, deep inside his innards, oily and rich, like petroleum sludge, a thick dessert of a voice, which he used to enormous effect in class, particularly when he was reciting the juicier passages from The Canterbury Tales. Wife Margaret, our house mom, had gray hair which looked like an agitated halo framing her buxom face and pendulous cheeks. Professor and Mrs. French were straight out of Dickens.

All the stars of the English Department were there to pay homage. Gordon Height, Beecher Hogan and his wife, and just before they brought Wilder in, Chauncey Brewster Tinker himself appeared in the doorway, very frail, mottled facial skin, a few wisps of hair the color of chalk stranded on his scalp. He was the most extraordinary teacher, not only because he gave me an "A" in his Age of Johnson course. Of course Ethridge idolized him, and tugged at my elbow to whisper "Tink" when I turned to look. As if I didn't know "Tink."

Then a commotion at the door and suddenly Wilder was in the room. A smattering of applause as we pressed close, and now Professor French was telling us, in that subterranean voice of his, that Wilder, "Thornton," as he chummily called him, was just out of service back from Algiers and Caserta. Short, vital, black-rimmed glasses, very dark brows almost threateningly thick, a strong chin and jaw. Not much weakness or sentimentality in that face. Fierce eyes, and a way of talking which absolutely bowled me over. I was going to take notes for my journal, as I always do, but instead found myself just trying to keep up with my ears, let alone my hands. You didn't want to miss a thing. I sat there mouth gaping. It's not fair that a mortal brain should be so brimful. I was trying to jot down phrases from that fire-storm of ideas and impressions, but my scrawl couldn't keep up and grew ever more illegible. The sheer speed was exhausting as ideas and comments and pithy remarks poured out. No, not poured. That's inadequate Gushed out, like a hydrant under extreme pressure, full throttle. And the speed, the sheer speed with which he talked!

It was impossible to recall what he said in any logical sequence. I just remember fleeting bits. Carthage and the Roman amphitheatre there. What did Cleopatra say to Caesar three days before the Ides of March? Then he was off on a spiel about Pip in Great Expectations then back to Suetonius, and did we know about the naughty behavior of the Emperor Tiberius on his cliff side Villa above Capri, where little boys - Wilder called them minnows, as translated from the Latin spintrae - little boys of nine and ten in the pool with the Emperor doing unmentionable things to him while holding their breaths under water. Then more about Pip, and James Joyce, and something about the physio-chemical process involved in a sunset.

On and on he talked while we drank it in, our mouths open, like goldfish in an aquarium gulping a stream of oxygen. I could feel Ethridge next to me, breathing in that stertorous way he has, right in my left ear. His breathing would now and then stop entirely, as if his bodily functions ceased, including breathing, in order not to miss a word. I wouldn't have been surprised if he suddenly toppled over in a dead faint and lay there on the carpet twitching like a fish.

No. Wilder was unbelievable. Talk about a fire storm! This was it. An intellectual inferno of major proportions. What can you possibly say after hearing Thornton Wilder talk for an hour? Was he primed on battery juice? It was electrifying.

Afterward we clustered around, all the English Major toadies - I among them - trying to get a word in. But why on earth would Wilder want to hear any idiotic questions we might pose? Of course by this time the party temperature was gradually cooling off after all of the white heat he generated. We were becoming a bit more normal, our usual selves, despite being in the presence of the most abnormal intellect imaginable.

I tried to wedge myself close enough to ask my question about TalIulah and that first scene of Skin of our Teeth. He actually heard what I said in the crush of noise, and was answering something about hating to write 'realistic' plays. What's realistic about Our Town, where a boy and girl sit on a trestle and imagine they're having a soda at the local drugstore? And in Skin Tallulah deliberately broke the convention of the realistic theatre and upset us all until we realized it was a joke, and began laughing, the laughter of self-congratulation our realization that the writer was putting us on. Then of course we pretended we knew it all along.

What a performance Wilder put on. The crowd babbled excitedly as Mrs. French offered the great man coffee and cake. But Wilder was off, followed by the clatter of English majors and their excited chatter, leaving the room suddenly blank. "Tink" had gone too, and Gordon Height. Had Professor Height noted that I was there? That despite my performance in his class on The Victorian Novel I knew enough to pay my respects to a natural phenomenon like Thornton Wider? That I can recognize the ocean when it's thundering over me?

Ethridge and I went upstairs to his chambers for the obligatory martinis, to talk about what we'd experienced, and to hear his song birds. I am the only person my age in the hemisphere who's ever heard of Povla Frisch. Or Gita Alpar for that matter. I guess some could pin-point Amelita Galli-Curci, and we've all heard of FIagstad. But Povla Frisch? This is opera lore on a stratospheric level.

Ethridge's face was flushed. He had resumed breathing. "Wasn't that simply incredible?" Yes it was, and I wanted to know if Ethridge had kept the strands of Wilder's thoughts separate. He was intrigued with Dickens, of course, but why was Pip bobbing about in that torrent of talk? Why Carthage? Or Cleopatra?

There was one totally unexpected detour which did stay in my mind. Wilder was on some tangent about somebody, André Gide, I think. And suddenly I heard, or thought I heard, or maybe misheard, or didn't really understand, something he said about artists. I suppose he was talking about himself, but it was highly ambiguous. Artists show a predisposition to neurosis in infancy, he said. As years pass and the infant grows older, becomes adolescent, the neurosis becomes conscious of itself. Then what happens? The subject, the neurotic infant, now an adolescent, begins to feel that he's an exception. Not really part of society. Outside. Unique. Did he actually say that? Or merely infer it? You have a neurotic child, and that child begins to feel he's an exception in society, and as an exception he wants to tell all about his neurosis to everybody who'll listen, while at the same time he's desperate to conceal his neurosis. Does that make sense?

By now I was downing Ethridge's martinis along with thin wafers, slivers of cheese perched on them, tiny slivers, all but invisible so the supply would last. Ethridge was always on what he called a budget. Others might have another word for it.

As the liquor loosened us and we were talking about Wilder, I mentioned this business of the neurotic infant growing up to become a neurotic adolescent who begins to think of himself as being 'different,' the exception in society; and now in danger of being split down the middle by two conflicting desires: the desire to tell everyone just how unique, artistic, crazy he is, and the desire to keep his craziness a total mystery. Or at least a secret.

Much of what was swirling in my mind I felt uncomfortable expressing to Ethridge. Anyhow, by that time he was forcing me to guess which of his canaries we were hearing on his gramophone. Some of those voices could only be heard after he delicately sharpened the thong needle by means of which the sound reached our ears. Those singers were truly from the golden vocal past. We didn't have Jenny Lind, but Sembrich was there, and of course Adalina Patti, and Lilli Lehmann, who actually knew Richard Wagner, and even des Reszke Brothers, and Pol Plançon. A cornucopia of the great voices from long ago.

Ethridge would put on a record and turn to me with his bony face, cheeks flushed with gin, his watery blue eyes now damp with pleasure. Soon there were tears. Not of despair, or pain, but of pure joy. And Thornton Wider and the whole experience had melted into the background while we heard the limpid tones of Galli-Curci singing "Home Sweet Home", and Ethridge's mouth curled in a smile. He was experiencing something deliciously satisfying. "One of the truly great," he would tell me. "Just hear that glorious rubato."

That was memorable, that afternoon with Thornton Wilder. But I drank too many martinis. After the fifth I stumbled down to my own room where Dick Mack was lying on his bed, still wearing those tight jeans, staring at the ceiling.

This is an excerpt from the journals of Charles Nolte, which are archived in the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota. For more information about Charles Nolte and the collection, please visit the Nolte Collection website. © 2010, University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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