- Play title: The Long Christmas Dinner
- Author: Thornton Wilder
- First performed: 1931
- Page count: 29
The Long Christmas Dinner is a one-act play by Thornton Wilder. The playwright traverses ninety years of the Bayard family by focusing on a series of Christmas dinners. The restrained, polite dialogues of the play reflect the solemnity of Christmas day dinners in a religious household. In the first scene are Mother Bayard, her son Charles and his wife Lucia. In subsequent scenes we are introduced to a total of four new generations of the family and the work ends with news of a fifth generation. Birth and death are symbolized in the play by two separate doors that lead off the dining room. The new house of the opening scene, built on land formerly occupied by Indians, transforms into the old house of the closing scene, surrounded by factories. Wilder gives his audience an artistic perspective on the passage of time. The subjects dealt with in the work include ill health, depression, war, industrialization, youthful rebellion, birth, and death.
Ways to access the text: reading/watching.
The text of Wilder’s play is available via the Open Library. One may also find alternative sources of the text via a simple internet search.
If you would prefer to watch the play then there is an Encyclopaedia Britannica film from 1976 entitled “The Long Christmas Dinner”. This version is available on the Britannica website. The film has a running time of 37 minutes.
Why read/watch The Long Christmas Dinner?
The passage of time.
Wilder presents his audience with time accelerated, relying only on the actors and particular theatrical techniques to convey the passage of many years. Although the location and day of the year are fixed, namely a family dining room on Christmas day, the years fleet past and characters appear, age, and disappear in a matter of minutes. The effect is sombre. The playwright uses repeated patterns of dialogue, changed seating positions at table, and even the title of ‘Mother Bayard’ to communicate cycles of life within a single family. Christmas day which is the most joyous of feast days for Christians, becomes a day mixed equally with sad reflections and hopeful prospects for the Bayards. While time is never depicted as an enemy, Wilder shows how whole stages of one’s life can slip by almost imperceptibly and then there is a jolt of recognition when something major happens.
An eerie effect
Many aspects of Wilder’s play are mildly disconcerting. For instance, the actors’ plates are empty so each person simply mimics the actions of dining. Empty plates on a feast day suggest a hollowness to the festivities. Then there are the ever-absent servants whose names are frequently called but who never appear. These ghostly presences who tend to the family’s needs may be understood as indicative of a rigid class system because servitude equals invisibility. The differently decorated portals which represent birth and death are the most symbolic aspects of the work and their location within the house is also salient. The Bayard home is the first and also the last sight for almost every member of the family.
‘The Ghost of a Future Christmas’
In The Long Christmas Dinner, Wilder offers his audience a slice of concentrated time. A selection of festive dinners from various unspecified years are chosen to represent a family’s history. Each scene melds into the next with only sporadic acknowledgements by characters of the years which have invisibly passed. By taking this approach, the playwright must focus on the most salient points in the Bayards’ lives which means a record of births, deaths, marriages, romances, careers, and downfalls. The result is sombre and decidedly un-festive but equally a wonderful contemplation of intertwined lives within one home. What is conspicuous about Wilder’s presentation of time is the artificial nature of it because ninety years is encased in a theatre performance which lasts less than an hour. The central theme of the play is time and the passage of time is constantly referenced throughout the work. Wilder is clearly using this chunk of carefully represented time to convey a message. Mark Currie provides an insightful comment on such literary representations of time.
“In the oral delivery of a story, the future is open, and particularly so if I am making it up as I go along. In written text, the future lies there to the right, awaiting its actualisation by the reading, so that written text can be said to offer a block view of time which is never offered to us in lived experience” (Currie 18).
Wilder’s particular take on the block view of time has overtones of moralistic judgement. It seems that by showing us the predictable consequences of his characters’ life choices, he is also telling us that the straight and narrow road is the key to salvation. This complements the fact that the Bayards are a religious family. Currie writes that, “there are two futures, the future that we envisage correctly, and the future that comes out of nowhere. But whereas in fiction, the future may be lying in wait for us, in life it is not, so that the idea of futures correctly or incorrectly envisaged cannot be meaningful” (43). In contrast to this view, Wilder’s play has a didactic tone where the future can indeed be reasonably predicted based on present actions. When one reads the play then there is no sense of events coming out of nowhere for key characters.
In addition, Wilder displays how our subjective views of time often trick us, for example when we ignore or try to postpone the future because the present, fleeting moment is immensely pleasing. Any attempt to hold onto the moment of ‘now’ rather than accepting its ephemeral nature is ominous. In Wilder’s special concentration of time in the play, he gives the moment of now a sticky, gel-like consistency explained by the proximity of the long past and also the connection to the blurry future. In the Confessions, St. Augustine wrote of the normal, slippery nature of the moment of now where he “compares the passage of time to the recitation of a psalm, in which the text of the psalm passes from the future into the past, and the now of this recitation is comprised only of the awareness or memory of that which has already been and the expectation of that which is still to come” (Currie 13). In The Long Christmas Dinner, the moment of now has the same basic characteristics except that it still carries the weight of events some twenty years previous and equally acts as a portent of future events. Such an effect is only possible in art and it is the most fascinating aspect of Wilder’s short play.
The timeframe of the play is constructed in a particular manner by Wilder so that it does not resemble calendar time and forms something more like a circle. This enhances our impression of the play as depicting ‘a block view of time’ where events run a full course, only to begin again. One could set this play in any era as it is unhindered by dates of any kind. The circular effect is achieved through a simple technique of making the end of the play reflect back on the beginning. In the final scene, Cousin Ermengarde reveals to a house-maid the news that Lucia II is expecting a child. Lucia II and her husband along with Leonora (not called Mother Bayard) are celebrating their first Christmas in the new house. As Cousin Ermengarde reads the news in the letter, she slowly begins to drift towards the portal of death but her last words are “Dear little Roderick and little Lucia” (Wilder 29). Most likely she remembers Leonora’s children, Roderick and Lucia, when they were young because as Charles remarked back then, “the twins have taken a great fancy to you [Ermengarde] already” (21). One may also consider the family’s tradition of recycling names and the fact that Lucia II will soon be naming her new child who, if a boy, could well be a new little Roderick. However, since Ermengarde is from the same generation as the first Roderick and Lucia of the play then she may actually have a memory of her cousin Roderick as a child when she was a child too. For an audience, the names crucially remind us of the opening scene which is also populated by a Roderick, Lucia, and Mother Bayard in a new house celebrating their first Christmas. The names are simply a trigger for memory and an audience is reminded of the Bayard family history and future and these points seem to loop and meet as in a circle. The result is that we view the paradigm of a normal family and view the lessons that may be extracted from their combined experiences over several generations.
Predicted & predictable events.
Wilder provides numerous hints in the play that make the futures of certain characters quite predictable. Some of these hints may be read as unmistakably foreboding, for example when the formerly bedbound but newly recovered Roderick considers going ice skating with his son. Roderick is soon dead. Less obvious is the ubiquitous remark made by Charles on his new son, Roderick Brandon, being “a regular little fighter” (20). Roderick does grow up to rebel against his father and abandon the Bayards but the original hint is too vague to interpret accurately or definitively. This feeling of knowing what is going to happen based on clues in the text can be given the formal name of prolepsis which Currie defines as “a form of anticipation which takes place within the time locus of the narrated. It is the anticipation of, or flashforward to, future events within the universe of narrated events” (31). Yet, he asks “Is a hint, for example, a prolepsis?” (38). This is an important point since Wilder does not employ any moments of flashforward in his play. On the other hand, our default setting as readers or as audience members is to invest certain conspicuous hints as indicative of a future outcome.
“So common is this kind of hint, or invited inference, that we normally assume that early events are only narrated if they will acquire significance later that is not apparent at the time of their occurrence. In other words, an actual excursion into the future events of a narrative is not required for the production of teleological retrospect, and we find ourselves projecting forward in the act of reading to envisage the future significance of events as a basic process in the decoding of the narrative present” (Currie 38).
In The Long Christmas Dinner, Roderick and his daughter Genevieve offer the most consistent and interesting hints as to how each of their life stories will develop. These characters are also polar opposites since Roderick enjoys life until it ends far too soon for him whereas his daughter unnecessarily puts her life on hold and lives long to regret this decision. Therefore, the characters reflect the way that time may be subjectively experienced. Given that the play speaks of a devoutly religious family, it is also unsurprising that Wilder adopts a moral tone in regard to characters’ lives. To begin with Roderick, one may say he is the patriarch of the family. He is a successful businessman with a new wife, house, and horse but he has a marked liking for alcohol. The hints in the play that Roderick will pay a price for his imbibing are subtle yet unmissable too. He urges his new wife and his mother to partake in red wine on Christmas day because it’s “full of iron” (Wilder 6). Lucia’s reluctance to drink wine is motivated by her father’s stern views but also hints that alcohol is a problem in the household. Roderick hides behind his motto of “statistics show that we steady, moderate drinkers …” (11), but Lucia reminds him of his doctor’s orders to take just one glass. Illness eventually strikes down Roderick and he is bedbound for several years. When he returns downstairs for Christmas dinner some years later, he finds that he has been replaced by his son who now sits at the head of the table and carves the turkey. Roderick’s pathetic response to the new situation and to his sudden death are precisely the same – “but … not yet” (13). Mother Bayard had once warned Roderick, “I used to think that only the wicked owned two horses” (5), and it seems that her son indeed attempted to journey through life on two tracks simultaneously, one being career and the other being hard living. Roderick ignores the first warning of a serious illness and defiantly says “I’ll live till I’m ninety” (13) and reaches his grave all the sooner for his hubris. In this light, Wilder presents a cautionary tale in quite moralistic tones.
Genevieve Bayard takes a different route to her father. She is a homebird and devoted to her mother. In this case, the hints are far less subtle about Genevieve’s predicted future because she says in plain terms at the Christmas dinner table, “I shall never marry, Mother – I shall sit in this house beside you forever, as though life were one long, happy Christmas dinner” (15). Her desire to artificially freeze time on account of a happy day is immediately recognised as a mistake by her mother who bursts into tears. The significance of the moment is also underlined by the resemblance of Genevieve’s words to the play’s title. Genevieve was due to travel to Germany for her music but her mother’s sudden death immobilizes the young woman. She says, “I don’t want to go on. I can’t bear it” (18). Genevieve is shown to enter a form of stasis and it transforms her into a bitter woman who obsesses on family history, scraping moss off gravestones (21) in order to piece together her family’s ancestry. Eventually, Genevieve has a form of breakdown and says, “I can’t stand it any more” (27) and refers to “the years grinding away” (27). She finally plans to move to Munich or Florence to die an old maid instead of her original plan, 25 years earlier, to study music in Germany. Her inability to live has devalued the years until she now awaits only death.
The problem remains that we may misread Roderick and Genevieve and it is only the conclusion of each character’s story that solidifies our anticipations into facts. As Currie contemplates, “Are we then to say that an event or object is proleptic only when it anticipates an event which does indeed confer significance on it, and not so when it turns out to be a red herring or an instance of redundant detail?” (38). Due to the brevity of Wilder’s play and the repetition of hints relating to specific characters, it is unlikely that his intent is not wholly deliberate and I would argue, didactic too. As Currie notes, “Tomachevsky (1971) outlined a kind of technical sense of motivation, according to which the presence of a gun at the beginning of a narrative anticipates the murder or suicide of one the characters later in the plot” (38). If there is an equivalent of a gun in The Long Christmas Dinner then it is characters’ nonchalance towards time itself, since, as the saying goes, ‘time and tide wait for no man.’
Passage of time.
The play depicts the passage of time in the Bayard household from several distinct aspects. This is true to the fact that time is a largely subjective experience. Therefore, within the ninety years covered in the play, we witness all the various ways time is felt and experienced. There is the stereotypical refrain of time being a healer which is heard twice in the play with the deaths of Leonora’s first baby and then with Sam who dies in the European war – “Only time, only the passing of time can help in these things” (Wilder 17). Since Sam was still “a mere boy” (23) in his mother’s mind, the phenomenon of children growing up is also an important subject in the play. One notices a distinct contrast between, for example, Roderick, who says, “no time passes so slowly as this when you’re waiting for your urchins to grow up and settle down to business” (11) versus Lucia’s view, “I don’t want time to go any faster thank you. I love the children just as they are” (11). Leonora later repeats this sentiment when Roderick II is born, saying “Don’t grow up too fast … stay just as you are” (20). Genevieve latches onto the former line and repeats it sarcastically which is a reflection on her own stasis in life, not progressing, just frozen. While Genevieve is a good example of someone in stasis due to emotional problems, Wilder also touches on career stasis and the perception of stasis from the point of view of a rebellious youth. These latter examples are exemplified by Cousin Ermengarde who has been teaching “the First Grade for ever and ever” (17), and then there is Roderick II who complains that “Time passes so slowly here that it stands still, that’s what’s the trouble” (25). One may compare the sense of unmoving time with the perception of time during periods of excitement and joy. For instance, when the young Genevieve was planning on going to Germany, she told her mother, “I’ll be back in the twinkling of an eye” (16). Charles the industrialist comments on time on a national scale, saying, “Time certainly goes very fast in a great new country like this” (21). Depending on the scenario, time is a comforter, a laggard / a dawdler, a rigid unmoving presence, or an exuberant rusher. Each depiction adds to the complexity of Wilder’s work.
Wilder’s play looks at the fast moving ‘present moment’ for the Bayard family. Yet, we do not witness clock time as denoted by a familiar ticking sound but instead we witness an artificial type of time only available in art. As Currie writes, “The present, as philosophy knows well, doesn’t exist, and yet it is the only thing which exists. The past has been, and so is not, and the future is to be, and so is not yet. That only leaves the present” (8). Wilder emphasises the weight of the present for the Bayards and he manages this by discarding whole chunks of their life experiences and giving the viewer a concentrated rush-through of events. The message of Wilder’s play is difficult to pinpoint. Time as an entity is not malignant but the playwright observes how our disrespectful attitudes to it can horribly taint our lives.
One may follow the proposition that “the reading of fictional narratives is a kind of preparation for and repetition of the continuous anticipation that takes place in non-fictional life” (Currie 6). As previously discussed, the play highlights certain decisions by characters which eventually bear ill-tasting fruit. If Roderick is shown to live his life hard and fast with overuse of alcohol then Genevieve is shown to sourly withdraw from life – neither path is good. Maybe the message is simply that a moderate, middle ground is best. It is tempting to consider if Wilder had John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in mind because in that story, Christian receives the following advice.
“Look before thee: dost thou see this narrow way? That is the way thou must go. It was cast up by the men of old, prophets, Christ and His apostles, and it is as straight as a rule can make it: this is the way thou must go” (Bunyan 36).
One may indeed interpret The Long Christmas Dinner as a moral tale. The way that Wilder makes his play accessible to such a reading is chiefly by making the present, ‘now’ moment of the play fat with meanings and therefore it is readable and communicates a clear message. In real life, we never see the present moment quite as clearly because the past and pre-determined future are not available to us as he depicts. Yet, Wilder makes us thoughtful due to the depiction of others’ faulty paths in life. As Currie writes, “To look back on an event is to give it a significance it did not possess at the time of its occurrence” (33). Wilder’s play performs this educational task for an audience.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Project Gutenberg. Accessed 20 December 2021.
Currie, Mark. About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Wilder, Thornton. The Long Christmas Dinner. Samuel French, 1960.