The book is a rescension of an eighteenth-century original, imaginary and burned save for a single copy, by the Franciscan Brother Juniper, also imaginary and burned.
The reason is plain. Wilder understands, as Beckett later wrote, a "rupture in the lines of communication." The bridge is down, and Wilder understands this as irrecoverable, for reasons which are given at the end and are his ultimate statement on the subject. The great reading public is dead, of course, "and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
There are only two dramatis personae, the author and the reader, with various identities.
Marquesa de Montemayor
the Perichole/Don Jaime
Pepita and Don Jaime are special cases, of course.
There are professional standards. "Whom were these two seeking to please? Not the audiences of Lima. They had long since been satisfied." Wilder goes on. "We come from a world where we have known incredible standards of excellence, and we dimly remember beauties which we have not seized again; and we go back to that world. Uncle Pio and Camila Perichole were tormenting themselves in an effort to establish in Peru the standards of the theatres in some Heaven whither Calderón had preceded them. The public for which masterpieces are intended is not on this earth."
The authorial portrait of the Marquesa is prepared by Brother Juniper, "refined" nearly "out of existence" by Esteban, rendered unconscionably practical by Uncle Pio and apotheosized as the Abbess with a sense of the ground gained in a Ludus Tonalis, bearing in mind what has gone before.
Wilder reads his book, the one by Brother Juniper, transmutes his notations (and translates his Spanish). The new bridge of stone, replacing the one that broke in 1714, "woven of osier by the Incas more than a century before. . . a mere ladder of thin slats swung out over the gorge, with handrails of dried vine," is a stylistic pirouette.
The Roaring Twenties saw this production come to light, and there is a marked influence on South American writers, Borges at one remove, Márquez another.
The peculiar shambling light that flickers among the fractures of the composition steadily moving towards the bounty of its dispensation is a plain cold natural illumination of each aspect, one after another, in a sure thing from last to first, given the structure, or rather the position, adequately faced. The supreme act of criticism is the auto da fe consuming Brother Juniper and his book, the simple testimony of its truth.
The "little red-haired Franciscan from Northern Italy" wants to demonstrate providence in the five deaths on the bridge, and we can see that he does. Tergiversation is the main point, with many interesting and lively happenstances.
His unnamed offense is not worth going into beyond the ascription of heresy. He dies, and his book is burned, for any number of reasons, but principally to show that there is no relation possible between the author and the reader, the bridge is out, that is all.
Apart from the technique of writing, and the several block-pieces constructed thereby, Wilder's cognition of the correct stance in the interplay of the book business is what matters. "All those impulses of love return to the love that made them." It is not necessary to consider a golden past. "Even memory is not necessary for love." It must be, for reasons which Beckett couldn't explain either, that the work exists. The rest is a matter of beating a path to it.
"The Archbishop knew that most of the priests of Peru were scoundrels. It required all his delicate Epicurean education to prevent his doing something about it; he had to repeat over to himself his favourite notions: that the injustice and unhappiness in the world is a constant; that the theory of progress is a delusion; that the poor, never having known happiness, are insensible to misfortune. Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes) could really suffer. Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely read could be said to know that they were unhappy. On one occasion, the iniquities in his see having been called to his notice, he almost did something about it. He had just heard that it was becoming a rule in Peru for priests to exact two measures of meal for a fairly good absolution, and five measures for a really effective one. He trembled with indignation; he roared to his secretary and bidding him bring up his writing materials, announced that he was going to dictate an overwhelming message to his shepherds. But there was no ink left in the inkwell; there was no ink left in the next room; there was no ink to be found in the whole Palace. This state of things in his household so upset the good man that he fell ill of the combined rages and learned to guard himself against indignations."
The Archbishop joins the suppers of Don Andrés, the Viceroy. "All night they talked, secretly comforting their hearts that longed always for Spain and telling themselves that such a symposium was after the manner of the high Spanish soul. They talked about ghosts and second-sight, and about the earth before man appeared upon it and about the possibility of the planets striking against one another; about whether the soul can be seen, like a dove, fluttering away at the moment of death; they wondered whether at the second coming of Christ to Jerusalem, Peru would be long in receiving the news. They talked until the sun rose, about wars and kings, about poets and scholars, and about strange countries. Each one poured into the conversation his store of wise sad anecdotes and his dry regret about the race of men."
But Brother Juniper is not a martyr to the truth he represents, seeing that he is also a littérateur with a basic handling of contents so vociferous for us, Wilder's readers, and silent but for his doubts to the culling friar. "It was just possible that the Marquesa de Montemayor was not a monster of avarice, and Uncle Pio of self-indulgence."
And turning from a cog in Wilder's machine, or a flywheel, let us take advantage of the view afforded by our author with reference to Robert Browning's "How it Strikes a Contemporary", two views. "Doña Maria would have invented her genius had she not been born with it, so necessary was it to her love that she attract the attention, perhaps the admiration, of her distant child. She forced herself to go out into society in order to cull its ridicules; she taught her eye to observe; she read the masterpieces of her language to discover its effects; she insinuated herself into the company of those who were celebrated for their conversation. Night after night in her baroque palace she wrote and rewrote the incredible pages, forcing from her despairing mind those miracles of wit and grace, those distilled chronicles of the viceregal court." At the same time, "Left alone in Lima the Marquesa's life grew more and more inward. She became increasingly negligent in her dress and like all lonely people she talked to herself audibly. All her existence lay in the burning center of her mind. On that stage were performed endless dialogues with her daughter, impossible reconciliations, scenes eternally recommenced of remorse and forgiveness. On the street you beheld an old woman, her red wig fallen a little over one ear, her left cheek angry with a leprous affection, her right with a complementary adjustment of rouge. Her chin was never dry; her lips were never still. Lima was a city of eccentrics, but even there she became its jest as she drove through the streets or shuffled up the steps of its churches. She was thought to be continuously drunk. Worse things were said of her and petitions were afloat that she be locked up. She had been denounced three times before the Inquisition. It is not impossible that she might have been burned had her son-in-law been less influential in Spain and had she not somehow collected a few friends about the viceregal court who suffered her for her oddity and her wide reading."
But all this by way of her cognates, and that goes for the daughter, too.