Friday, April 13, 2018

The Angel That Troubled the Waters

Thornton Wilder (1897–1975)
From Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theater

The Pool of Bethesda, 1877, oil on canvas by British artist Robert Bateman (1836–1889). Wikimedia Commons.
“It is a discouraging business to be an author at sixteen years of age,” wrote Thornton Wilder at the ripe old age of thirty-one. “Such an author is all aspiration and no fulfillment. He is drunk on an imaginary kinship with the writers he most admires, and yet his poor overblotted notebooks show nothing to prove to others, or to himself, that the claim is justified.” Precocious teenagers—and he includes his younger self among them—eagerly assemble the basics (“especially the title”) of a long book, or they spend hours “adjusting the tables of contents of works they have neither the perseverance nor the ability to execute.”

Wilder made these comments in the foreword to his 1928 collection, The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays. “This book is what is left of one of these projects,” he admitted. The title was to have been Three-Minute Plays for Three Persons, and he had recently unearthed “one of my early tables of contents for it, written in the flyleaves of a First Year Algebra. Quadratics in those days could be supported only with the help of a rich marginal commentary.” Over the previous fifteen years, Wilder had written about forty such playlets, having “discovered a literary form that satisfied my passion for compression.” Wilder selected sixteen of them for the book; they were designed more to be read than performed, although several of them have been staged at various times during the last century. The book went on to sell over 10,000 copies, which is remarkable for a book of plays—especially considering it was a full decade before Wilder made his Broadway debut with Our Town.

Most of the playlets, Wilder wrote in the foreword, “are religious, but religious in that dilute fashion that is a believer’s concession to a contemporary standard of good manners.” The last four in the book, however, “plant their flag as boldly as they may.” They were also the last written, having been completed in the eighteen months before the volume’s publication. “The Angel That Troubled the Waters,” which concludes the book, was finished in June 1928, shortly after Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and was inspired by the New Testament description of the Pool of Bethesda:
Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. (John 5:2–4, King James Version)
The playlet depicts a visitor to the pool who must suffer in order to heal others—a theme readers will encounter again and again in Wilder’s writings.

*   *   *
The Pool.— A vast gray hall with a hole in the ceiling open to the sky. Broad stone steps lead up from the water on its four sides. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute this selection for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.