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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Thornton Wilder was one of the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated of American writers. Born in the Midwest on April 17, 1897, he was educated in China, in German language schools, in America, and in Rome. He was thoroughly familiar with classical literature, translated and adapted the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the noted novelist James Joyce at a time when the general public dismissed the Irish writer as incomprehensible, obscene, or both. In 1938, before Our Town opened, Wilder was a critically acclaimed writer and a member in good standing of U.S. intellectual circles. The day it opened, he was the author of a smash hit, a play that has been enormously popular in both the United States and Europe ever since. In fact, it is quite possible that almost any day of the year you can find Our Town being performed somewhere by either a professional or an amateur group.
How did this happen? How did the intellectual Wilder produce a play as straightforward and "folksy" as Our Town? How did the admirer of the avant-garde and experimental works of Joyce produce this nostalgic look at "the good old days"? Perhaps the play isn't as simple as it might appear at first glance. Before we begin looking at the play, let's take a look at the author.
Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, where his father owned and edited a local newspaper. The Wilders were a family dedicated to both religion and intellectual pursuits. Amos Wilder, Thornton's strict father, took firm command of the children's upbringing and education. His decisions were not to be questioned, but they were decisions that provided his children, and Thornton in particular, with an education of both breadth and depth.
In 1906, Amos Wilder was appointed the U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, and Thornton's travels began. For the next nine years the young Wilder's schooling alternated between German and mission schools in China and ordinary public schools in California. He graduated from high school having seen more of the world than most people ever see.
When it was time for college, Wilder wanted to go to Yale, his father's alma mater. Amos, however, was afraid that Yale was too worldly, and instead sent his son to Oberlin, trusting to its reputation as a strongly religious school. Oberlin was also a stimulating college, and Wilder developed a lasting enthusiasm for theater, music, and classical literature. Nonetheless, after two years Thornton transferred to Yale- his family was now living in New Haven, where Yale is located. After a brief stint in the Coast Artillery during World War I, he was graduated in 1920.
Next came several months in Rome, where Wilder took courses in archaeology at the American Academy. This period seems to have had an importance to Wilder out of all proportion to its length. During the course of his studies in Rome, he developed a notion of time that became an important theme in many of his works. After helping excavate an Etruscan street, exposing bits of the daily lives of people who had lived nearly 3000 years previously, he was struck by the notion that limits of time and geography were false. Past, present, and future should not be considered separately. An American shovel digs into a Roman street and exposes an ancient civilization. "It is only in appearance that time is a river," Wilder wrote later. "It is a vast landscape, and it is the eye of the beholder that moves." As you will see, this view of time, with past, present, and future all existing at once, is important in Our Town.
Amos Wilder intervened again and called his son back to America. He had found Thornton a job teaching French at the Lawrenceville School, famous preparatory school near Princeton, New Jersey. Wilder wrote in his spare time, publishing his first novel, The Cabala, and seeing a production of his first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, in 1926. He then wrote the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It was a popular and a critical success, a best-seller that won a 1928 Pulitzer Prize. The novel deals with a disparate group of five travelers who are linked when they all die in the collapse of a bridge in 18th-century Peru.
Now financially secure, Wilder quit his job to become a full-time writer, but occasionally did some teaching. He spent two years touring Europe, paying special attention to the European theater.
When Wilder returned to the United States in 1930, the unusual mixture of enthusiasm and weariness, of optimism and disillusion that had characterized the outlook of many persons in the 1920s, was over. The stock market had crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression had begun. Writing about social issues was the order of the day among many influential authors, and Wilder's next book, The Woman of Andros, was not a success. It was set in pre-Christian Greece and based on a comedy by the second-century-B.C. Roman playwright Terence. Readers felt it was simply an evasion of reality.
During the next decade, Wilder taught comparative literature at the University of Chicago and became increasingly involved with the theater, particularly in its more experimental aspects. He published a volume of short plays and a novel, American in theme and setting. In several of the plays Wilder experimented with the absence of scenery and the time shifts that he later used in Our Town.
The 1930s was a decade of hard times for almost everyone. Millions were out of work, and millions more lived in poverty. Men rode freight trains looking for jobs or handouts, hungry people formed long lines outside soup kitchens, bankrupt farmers gathered what belongings they had and fled the Dust Bowl, and families lived on potato soup and considered themselves lucky. At the same time, the arts flourished. The theme of social injustice roused the passions of writers, in novels and in plays. As the decade drew to an end, and the German dictator Adolf Hitler's power grew stronger in Europe, possible involvement in war was added to the frustrations of Americans. To most people, things did not look good.
Then came 1938 and Our Town, Wilder's first hit play and the source of his second Pulitzer Prize. Its enormous success was something of a surprise to both Wilder and his collaborators. His friends all thought it was good but didn't expect much of a run for it. During its Boston tryouts, audiences obviously thought it was much too sad, and the producers brought it to New York early for fear it would be washed out in a sea of tears if they left it on the road. Then, instead of the modest critical success everyone expected, the play was a smash hit. Critics raved and audiences loved it. A movie version followed shortly, and Our Town became one of the standbys of amateur dramatic groups.
The play wasn't, of course, equally popular with everyone. Although Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, the New York Drama Critics gave their award to John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a play somewhat more concerned with social themes. And part of the popularity of Our Town may be due to misunderstandings of Wilder's intentions. When Our Town was being turned into a movie, Wilder was constantly being frustrated by changes the producer was making. The producer wanted to add costumes and scenery to make things more realistic, and Wilder objected that this would make the play trite. Little homey touches were added, and Wilder complained that the audience would feel justified in feeling they were watching pictures of "Quaint Hayseed Family Life."
However, there has always been appreciation of Wilder's serious philosophical concerns in Our Town and admiration for his use of theatrical techniques. The play has been particularly admired in Europe. The Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, author of The Visit (1958), a bitter allegory about the nature of evil, rather surprisingly cites Our Town as one of his major influences.
Wilder's influence can also be seen in the Theater of the Absurd movement of the 1960s. In those plays there is little action, hardly any scenery, and the dialog is based on philosophical ideas. Edward Albee, the best-known of the U.S. absurdist playwrights, incorporates all of these theatrical techniques into his work. Albee, who wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962), says that Thornton Wilder advised him to give up struggling over writing poetry and become a playwright. Albee took years to follow Wilder's suggestion, but went on to have a successful career using many of Wilder's theatrical techniques.
Wilder's next play after Our Town, called The Merchant of Yonkers, was also produced in 1938, but ran for only 39 performances. Wilder later revised it and, as The Matchmaker, it was a Broadway success in 1954. The Matchmaker was the inspiration for the musical comedy Hello, Dolly!, one of the longest running shows in Broadway history and also a successful motion picture.
In 1943, Wilder, now a major in the Army Air Forces, won his third Pulitzer Prize, for The Skin of Our Teeth. This unusual play, which tells how the Antrobus family of Excelsior, New Jersey, manages to survive the Ice Age, was both successful and controversial. Several critics accused Wilder of plagiarism, claiming he borrowed large parts of the play from Finnegan's Wake, a novel by James Joyce.
Wilder's other works include The Ides of March (1948), a historical novel about the last days of Julius Caesar, and The Eighth Day (1967), a novel, set in the United States and Latin America, dealing with the effects of an act of violence on a growing number of persons. The Eighth Day won a prestigious National Book Award in 1968.
In recognition of his important contributions to American writing, Wilder in 1965 was awarded the first National Medal of Literature. He died on December 7, 1975, at Hamden, Connecticut.
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