PLAYWRIGHT THORNTON WILDER is the good old white magician who once had us all handing chairs down theater aisles to feed a stage fire and save the suburb of Excelsior, N.J., from the ice age. He successfully launched Noah's ark from the Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City—despite the fact that Mrs. Noah wouldn't let it shove off without Cain as well as Abel. Novelist Thornton Wilder has re-created 18th century Peru (The Bridge of San Luis Rey), and ancient Rome (The Cabala). In Our Town, he made Grover's Corners, N.H., into some sort of Eternal City of the heart. After all that, it is not much of a hop to Newport, R.I., in the sunny summer of 1926.
That is where Wilder turns up this time, in the guise of his title character, 29-year-old Theophilus North. Like Wilder, the young North (who remembers his stories in extreme old age) is an escapee from a boyhood variously spent in China, California and Wisconsin, a classics scholar, a master of many languages, an ex-prep schoolteacher and Yaleman. He is also an infernal meddler in other people's business, more or less in the spirit (much diminished) of Jesus, Socrates and George Brush, Wilder's insufferably virtuous hero in Heaven 's My Destination.
Theophilus, however, has a sense of humor. He is the first to admit that his only weapons are charm, some mild Freudian therapy, a gift for mendacity and the kind of benign chicanery that in old-fashioned stories used to help gentle, truthful and kindly people at the expense of the rapacious, the pretentious and the proud. Indeed, most of the crises North confronts are genteel and domestic: incipient misalliances (to be blocked), henpecked husbands (to be liberated) and the ill effects of ghastly rumors (to be laid to rest).
No one should be put off by these proceedings or troubled by their gimmickry and lack of realism. In The Eighth Day, the prizewinning novel that Wilder published in 1967, he has a character say: "It is the duty of old men to lie to the young. Let these encounter their own disillusions. We strengthen our souls, when young, on hope; the strength we acquire enables us later to endure despair as a Roman should."
In recent years Wilder, who is 76, has been in and out of hospitals, sadly ailing. Young Theophilus North, similarly, remembers that when he came to Newport after quitting a deadly teaching job, it was like release from a hospital after a long illness. "One slowly learns to walk again, and wonderingly one raises his head." At the start, he says, he had lost his sense of joy and play. He was "cynical and almost bereft of sympathy for any other human being." When the book ends, with all those preposterous tangles easily, magically, straightened out, Theophilus is restored to affection for the world.
Newport is an island. Theophilus North is Wilder's Tempest, a mock world, a playful world, made safe and orderly by kindly meddling. It would take a Caliban or a young curmudgeon to complain that it is a tempest in a teapot.