It’s hard to imagine any of the great American plays from the 20th century that have had more of an impact upon the art form and performance medium of theater itself than Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” – let alone upon the countless audience members who have seen the play since it was first performed in 1938.
How many times have we heard or read about this or that now-classic play having been ignored or underappreciated upon its debut? Not surprisingly, that was never the case with “Our Town,” which earned almost instantaneous, nearly universal acclaim, and was regarded as a classic, right off the bat.
A national treasure, playwright and novelist Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, and you can bet that the 125th anniversary of his birth is receiving the kind of hoopla deserving of a writer whose work has touched so many.
With its upcoming staging of “Our Town,” South Coast Repertory is the only Southern California theater to produce one of Wilder’s seminal works in recognition of this landmark year. It joins a lengthy roster of events occurring nationwide throughout the coming year to honor the occasion – some 150 worldwide productions of his plays – including the world premiere of his unfinished play “The Emporium” at Houston’s Alley Theatre – and new published editions of many of his plays.
Calling Wilder “a remarkable artist and human being,” SCR managing director Paula Tomei said “we’re truly excited to join our colleague theaters from around the nation in celebrating this milestone anniversary.”
Directed by Beth Lopes, it stars none other than Hal Landon, Jr., an SCR co-founder and an institutional theater treasure in Orange County, in the key role of the Stage Manager. It’s Landon’s first time back onstage at SCR since December 2019, the 40th consecutive year he played Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.”
In 1995, Thornton Wilder’s now 82-year-old nephew Tappan Wilder became executor and manager of his uncle’s entire literary output. Since then, he has been the go-to source for all things connected to the writer of “Our Town.”
Tappan prefaced his phone interview with Voice of OC by saying, “People think I know everything, but I don’t know everything” about his world-famous uncle. But it’s clear from speaking to him that he knows practically everything, and perhaps more about Thornton Wilder than anyone else alive.
It’s also clear that he’s not self-described as “a young 82,” but also both loquacious and disarmingly gregarious when the subject is his uncle. The combination of amiability, aw-shucks modesty and incredible knowledge of his subject made for a lengthy, almost endlessly fascinating conversation.
One of Tappan’s first comments to VOC was that for more than a quarter century, he has shouldered the responsibility (among other duties) for seeing to it that all of Thornton Wilder’s written works – be they full-length or one-act plays, novels or collections of his letters – remain in print, and that the various forewords and afterwords of each new edition be updated as needed.
Tappan reports that his uncle continued writing right up until the end of his life in 1975. Between that fact, the breadth and depth of Wilder’s output, and this entire year being celebrated as a milestone Wilder anniversary, his surviving, now-prominent nephew is constantly dashing from project to project, deadline to deadline, and one anniversary event after another.
Just for Fun: Wilder and ‘Our Town’ Factoids
- Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) is the only American writer to earn Pulitzers for both drama and fiction. His first was for the 1927 fictional novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” Next came “Our Town” (1938) and, finally, the play “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 1942.
- Wilder, who spoke four languages, taught at the University of Chicago and at Harvard University.
- “Our Town” has been called “the greatest American play ever written” by playwright Edward Albee, also a three-time Pulitzer winner.
- During the original production of “Our Town,” Wilder stepped into the role of the Stage Manager for two weeks, a feat he repeated with a handful of other stagings of the classic.
- Wilder is known to film fans for having written the first draft of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller “Shadow of a Doubt.” The director deemed Wilder more capable of capturing the feel of small-town life than any other writer.
- The back of the original acting version of “Our Town” contained what Tappan Wilder calls “elaborate instructions of how to light the play that no high school could possibly do,” all of which “had to be taken out” of reprints.
- Wilder wrote the libretti for operas based on two of his plays: Louise Talma’s “The Alcestiad,” based on his full-length 1955 play “The Alcestiad: Or, a Life in the Sun,” and “The Long Christmas Dinner,” Paul Hindemith’s take on Wilder’s 1931 one-act play.
- During World War II, Wilder served in the Army Air Force Intelligence Department, earning the Bronze Star, the Legion d’honneur and the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Who Was the ‘Real’ Thornton Wilder?
On the home page of ThorntonWilder.com, the official website for all things Wilder, you’ll find a definitive description of Wilder by Tappan: “Wilder was a man of many parts: Most people know him as a playwright and a novelist, but he was also an actor, translator, educator, lecturer, musician, lyricist, screenwriter, and the list goes on. Constantly experimenting with the form (of theater), he wrestled with the questions of the cosmos, of what it means to be human. With the celebration of the 125th anniversary of his birth, we’re putting him back together. It’s a moment to celebrate the depth and breadth of his work, as well as his legacy – his influence on the writers of today.”
Tappan reports that Thornton wasn’t the only writer in the Wilder family – only the most famous. “Every family’s complicated,” Tappan said, “and you can’t tell his story without telling the story of his family.” Thornton, he said, “was part of a group, that’s how you triangulate about him.”
How ‘Our Town’ Came to Be
According to his nephew, Thornton Wilder “wrote many novels, but his heart was in drama. Many of the techniques he used in his plays were based on his extensive knowledge of theater.”
Wilder wrote three novels in the late ‘20s, one of which (“The Bridge at San Luis Rey”), Tappan said, “literally changed his life. It meant he could publish anything he wanted. From boyhood on, he had always wanted to write plays, so after ‘Bridge’ he immediately set to work writing for the stage.”
Published in 1931, “The Long Christmas Dinner” was the title play in a collection of six one-acts. All had minimal staging, and two (“The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden” and “Pullman Car Hiawatha”) have a Stage Manager character – both prominent in “Our Town.” Tappan even said his uncle referred to the earlier short works as “the tool chest from which he constructed” the latter.
Though at that time Wilder was known as a novelist, Tappan said small amateur theaters that proliferated across the U.S. after World War I “were sucking up all of these Thornton Wilder plays.” That demand served to make his uncle all the more committed to writing for the stage.
Wilder began writing “Our Town” at least six years before its completion. The play, Tappan said, “was partly inspired by the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire – but Thornton also wrote a lot of the play while he was in Switzerland, picking up many of dramaturgical ideas that sprang from Weimar Republic Germany.”
Referring to an interview with Thornton Wilder at the time he was writing “Our Town,” Tappan says his uncle described the nascent play as a “kind of attempt at a complete immersion into everything in a New Hampshire village that I hope will be felt by the audience to be an allegorical representation of all of life.”
It’s well known that Wilder found theater of the ’30s as falling far short of its potential. He had little patience for plays that relied upon elaborate sets and props. His solution was to adopt a metatheatrical style far ahead of its time. The Stage Manager, for example, addresses the audience directly and even refers to the fact that we’re all sitting in a theater and he’s a fictional character.
Getting Publication of Definitive ‘Our Town’ Took Some Doing
“Our Town” was first published in 1939, but Tappan reports it wasn’t until 1957 that “Thornton finally made up his mind as to what he wanted as the final take.” In the meantime, various versions of the script were floating around that included multiple acting versions, readers versions and school editions.
Tappan said that “Our Town” had multiple acting editions floating around – more than any other Wilder play. “Someone not being careful could be dealing with three different versions of the play.”
As fate would have it, the 1957 version wasn’t entirely faithful to its author’s intent. Nephew Tappan then had what he calls “the pleasure of going through every line” and cross-checking with Wilder’s notes. “I know his record and what he wanted, so we redid every acting edition out there.”
The process, he said, “was not easy work,” and he credits Rosey Strub, a graduate of Yale Drama School and the Wilder family’s director of programs, with invaluable assistance in getting Wilder’s vision of “Our Town” completed and into print. That was in 2016, nearly 80 years after the play first premiered.
Wilder’s nephew sees “a great deal of autobiography in Thornton Wilder’s works. He drew on his own life, and on his own family, much more than people realize. It was very uncomfortable for his mom to see ‘Our Town’ and ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ because so many of the lines in those plays were directly from the family.”
Tappan said that American theater scholar Marc Robinson, in his book “The American Play: 1787 to 2000,” said that one is hard-pressed to name a Wilder play not set in a necropolis, “and that’s true: Everybody’s dying. So, how do you wring something out of the authentic life that we live? Modern productions of ‘Our Town’ are very powerful.”
“The professionals,” he said, “rediscovered the play by the end of the last century, and I can’t tell you how many productions I’ve seen of it since then. It’s like a fresh play even today.”
A Famed Film Version – and an Enduring Theatrical Legacy
To say “Our Town” caught fire and captured the public’s imagination is an understatement. The play premiered at the McCarter Theater (in Princeton, New Jersey) on Jan. 22, 1938 and moved to the Wilbur Theater in Boston on Jan. 25, then to Broadway on Feb. 4. The original production starred Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, John Craven (Frank’s son) as George, and Martha Scott as Emily.
Often considered the definitive staging, that New York production captured the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for 1938.
Hollywood immediately beckoned, urging Wilder to adapt the play to the medium of motion pictures. To fashion the film version, Wilder enlisted the talents of Frank Craven, who played the Stage Manager in the original production, and screenwriter Harry Chandlee.
Directed by Sam Wood and released in 1940, the film starred Martha Scott in her screen debut, recreating her stage portrayal of Emily Webb and, in one of his earliest roles, William Holden as Emily’s sweetheart, George Gibbs.
Silver screen vets Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Guy Kibbee and Thomas Mitchell portrayed the Webbs and the Gibbs’ and, in fact, the cast had numerous carryovers from the original Broadway cast – notably Craven.
The production design, created by the celebrated William Cameron Menzies (“Gone With the Wind” et al.) and the haunting score by Aaron Copland enhanced the already solid film.
Learn More About Thornton Wilder – and Read His Works
If your interest in Thornton Wilder has been piqued, you can visit two websites: ThorntonWilder.com, and Wilder125.com, a new website devoted especially to this year’s 125th anniversary and its numerous events.
The New York City-based nonprofit service organization Theatre Communications Group is, according to Tappan Wilder, now the major publisher of Wilder’s works – including what he calls “facsimile editions” of the original volumes containing Wilder’s one-act plays and his version of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House.’”
Tappan Wilder says when he took over the Thornton Wilder estate, “There was no decent biography” of him. That conspicuous vacuum was filled in 2012 by Penelope Niven in her thoroughly researched book “Thornton Wilder: A Life.” Wilder’s nephew calls the book “foundational” in its scope, and praises it for its thorough research and for the inclusion of many of Wilder’s letters.
The Beinecke Library at Yale University maintains a collection of Wilder papers. Over a recent four-year span, the New York-based Library of America published three Wilder collections: “Collected Plays and Writings on Theater” in 2007, “Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926-1948” in 2009, and “Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, Autobiographical Writings” in 2011.
In his May 1 interview with Voice of OC, Tappan Wilder said he was “just back from New York, where we had a birthday party (for his uncle) to coincide with the Broadway opening of ‘The Skin of Our Teeth’ at the Lincoln Center Theater.” Tying in with that production is a Lincoln Center display of Wilder memorabilia.
Producer Sol Lesser thought of film as a more “concrete” medium than theater, and so requested that the film use scenery and that the Act Three scene where Emily returns to earth for one day be made into a dream sequence so that she could continue to live through the film’s ending. As Lesser’s reasons were well thought-out and articulated, Wilder agreed with and sanctioned both changes.
The play has been adapted for radio and television on numerous occasions, musicalized for the stage (in 1987), adapted as a ballet (1994) and even turned into an opera.
Between the success of the film version and the untold “Our Town” productions staged since the play first appeared in print, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone – especially theater devotees – who haven’t read or seen the play or film at least once.
What You’ll See at SCR
The date of the play’s first scene is May 7, 1901. It’s no coincidence that SCR chose that same date to open its first preview performance. We’re watching as the residents of the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, go about their lives – the daily milk deliveries, breakfast cooking on the stove, women passing the time with gossip and boys playing baseball. Soon, the connection between teenagers George Gibbs and Emily Webb will evolve from friendship to puppy love to actual love and commitment. We see their wedding day – and beyond.
The ‘beyond’ is the play’s most poignant, tear-jerking scene as Wilder begins to explore the metaphysical aspects of life, death and the human condition.
SCR first created “Our Town” for its patrons in 1971. The next time around was 1998. So the venerated theater was due for a new take on the American classic.
Helming her third SCR show, director Lopes observes that “Wilder’s having been able to envision the present is incredible, beyond his scope of what ‘the present’ could mean. Here we are in the year 2022 and his play still belongs here. As for SCR, can you get more specific than having Hal Landon as the Stage Manager? Audiences already have such an emotional connection with him.”
Given almost universal audience familiarity with “Our Town,” how does any contemporary director stage it and still create something compelling? Should they lean into audience expectations, fulfilling universal familiarity with the story, characters and plot? Should they tweak the show in ways that might deliver a surprise or two? Or, should they perhaps combine both approaches?
Asked this, SCR director Lopes replied, “It’s definitely a little of both. I have had the benefit of having seen and read the play, but only once each, so I’m not bogged down by the weight of every other ‘Our Town’ that’s been produced. I approach the script from the perspective of what’s there so that any tweaks to me feel really grounded in the play and what Wilder’s intention was with it.”
Lopes said she “once read an amazing director’s note for a different play, where the director said ‘the purpose of a revival is not to recreate the original production, but to recreate the feeling it inspired in its audience.’ ” She said she and her cast have attempted to apply that way of thinking of revivals to “Our Town.”
“In examining certain moments of the play, we’ve asked ourselves, ‘What was Wilder trying to elicit?’ We pour over the different devices he sets up, such as no props and no scenery, and try to determine what was he trying to elicit from audiences – and, how do we do that in 2022 at SCR following several years of having been in a pandemic?”
When: May 7-June 4
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: $26 -$93
Information: 714-708-5500, scr.org
“Our Town,” Lopes said, “has always been an incredible play, but especially since what we’ve all been through. It was originally scheduled for the season that was canceled and would have opened in January of 2021. During the whole pandemic, I couldn’t stop thinking about the play. I felt like COVID was teaching us a lot of the same things. Part of that is that we grieve for what we’ve lost and can’t ever have back, and as with COVID, we’re not getting back what was lost but, instead, adjusting to the new normal.”
“Just as the characters in Our Town come to terms with the meaning of their lives, this Pulitzer Prize-winning American classic beautifully celebrates our own shared humanity,” SCR artistic director David Ivers said.
“Wilder’s work reveals that the need for community is universal, not bound by the constraints of time, place or period,” Ivers said, “and as we grapple with the effects of a worldwide pandemic, we feel the need for community with deeper urgency. In this way, ‘Our Town’ remains indelible – a masterpiece of writing in its reflection of who we are, who we hope to be and how intimately we are intertwined.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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