Dramatic Technique in The Happy Journey

The Happy Journey by Wilder was first published in a volume entitled The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act (1931). It is experimental in technique. The playwright makes little use of stage settings or scenery. As a result, the imagination of the audience supplies many of the details which are not actually seen on the stage. Such creative participation by the audience is a feature of the Chinese theatrical tradition.

It frees the playwright from restrictions on space and movement in space. He can depict continuous movement from place to place, as in cinema. We realize this as soon as the play begins.

We see a boy pantomiming a game of marbles, a girl talking to invisible friends, and their mother putting on a real hat before an imaginary mirror. The stage manager performs a mono-act, assuming the roles of various neighbors who bid farewell to the Kirby family. He also brings in an improvised car, which takes them on a visit to a married daughter in a nearby town. During the simulated journey, Elmer Kirby, his wife and children talk as though they are seeing interesting people and places on the way. We imagine that they pass through the streets of strange towns, see various signboards, and stop their car to allow a funeral procession to pass.

When they reach their destination and enter Beulah's house, the car is removed and is replaced by a bed on which the mother and daughter sit and talk. This economy of stage settings is remarkably effective, and reveals the author's genius and skill as an innovator. Even more remarkable is the playwright's ability to move the audience deeply. Though we see nothing dramatic happening, and no attempt is made to reach the heights of great tragedies or comedies, the commonplaces of everyday life are presented in such a way that we are moved to laughter and tears. Our senses are subtly stimulated by an awareness of suspense, confrontation and resolution.

In an easy and almost casual manner, the author manages to impart these elements of serious drama to the scenes of neighborly goodwill, excitements of holiday travel, problems of childhood, the responsibilities of parenthood and the joys of family reunion. The Kirby family obviously belongs to the small-town atmosphere of Newark, New Jersey, as it existed half a century ago. But today people from all over America, and the rest of the world too, would see striking resemblances to their own families. Almost everyone will find some event, character, situation, or part of the conversation that brings back an intimate echo from the past.

The Happy Journey Study Center

Summary of The Happy Journey

Roles of Kirby Family Members

Kirby Family and their Relationship

Biography of Thornton Wilder