How to cure love

This afternoon I read Thornton Wilder’s one-act play which is provocatively entitled, “Love and How to Cure It” (1931). Here is a description:

This melodramatic comedy is set in SoHo, London, on the stage of the Tivoli Palace of Music in April of 1895. A young man is hopelessly in love with a teenage music-hall dancer who can’t stand him, thinks he is stalking her (which he is), and fears that he is going to shoot her (which he isn’t). Because she rejects him, he decides to kill himself. The girl’s aunt, an actress and singer, and their friend, an over-the-hill comedian still mourning the death of his wife, try to intervene to “cure” him, and at the same time, teach the thwarted lover what true love really means. This is one of Wilder’s many treatments of unrequited love.

Arthur and Linda are an odd match: he a student at Cambridge University, she a cockney dancer. There are differences in class and education, but none so wide for the reach of love. Arthur is crazy about Linda, however Linda rebuffs his affection because she is in love with herself, described by the playwright as “a beautiful, impersonal, remote, almost sullen girl of barely sixteen.” Arthur’s relentless love is met with Linda’s fierce independence. In this exchange, Linda seeks to cure Arthur of his love for her while the aunt offers wisdom to ears that are not yet ready to hear it.

LINDA (suddenly): Oh, I hate him, I ‘ate ‘im! Why can’t he let me be?

ROWENA: Yes, yes. That’s love.

LINDA (on the verge of hysterics): Auntie, can’t it be cured? Can’t you make him just forget me?

ROWENA: Well, dovie, they say there are some ways. Some say you can make fun of him and mock him out of it. And some say you can show yourself up at your worst or pretend you’re worse than you are. But I say there’s only one way to cure that kind of love when it’s feverish and all upset.

She pauses groping for her thought.

Only love can cure love.

Arthur was prepared to kill himself over Linda because he could not bear to live without her. After receiving the kind hospitality of the strangers at the theater, he decides to continue living. And why?

ARTHUR: I think just loving isn’t wasted.

That single line, so simple, impacted me with force. Indeed, loving is never wasted. I often extend my love to those who love me, assuming that love is only worthwhile if reciprocated. But Arthur’s lesson reminds me that I should love even when I am not loved to the same degree because its propulsion enlarges the soul of the lover and enriches the world. This is why Jesus teaches, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:32).

Unrequitedness is the occupational hazard of love. Esteban painfully realizes this truth with his twin brother in Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey:

Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.

Do a child and parent, student and teacher, parishioner and minister, or patient and nurse ever love one another equally well? Is there symmetry in the love between friends or spouses? An anxiety about being loved “equally well” results in the conclusion that the extravagance of love is wasteful, and better reserved on the self. But I can be saved of this despair if I heed the words of Rowena, “Only love can cure love.” Loving well matters more than being well-loved. To quote the lyrics of a famous Burt Bacharach song, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”

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