Thornton Wilder: “Our Town” and Beyond

Some jottings on the topic of Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) from my notebook on his natal day. In concession to varying attention spans, this survey of his plays will not be strictly chronological. His earlier, lesser known works (the ones I have read, at least) will come last. Still and all, the scribblings presuppose a familiarity with Wilder’s best known works.

Our Town (1938)

Nearly three decades ago, I lived for two months in the studio in which Wilder wrote Our Town, at the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, NH (rumored to be the town on which Wilder based Grover’s Corners. (It was the same one that Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite poet Edwin Arlington Robinson had also sojourned in. I pictured the ghosts of both of them looking over my shoulder whilst I wrote there. Whether they were smiling or frowning, I don’t know.)

Much like Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life one isn’t sure quite what the hell Our Town is, but you’d still want to put it on the short list of important American plays. Yet like Saroyan’s, one isn’t even sure it’s a play. There are several reasons why I like it. One (and least rationally): as a New Englander, I have a deep attachment for the setting, the “town” of “our town”. It feels like my people up there. It’s indefensible as a reason for liking something, but its one of my reasons here. Much more importantly: more so than even the work of O’Neill this play feels like a partial fulfillment of my hope for an American playwright who could stand in a class with American’s great poets, and fiction and non-fiction writers. This is partly true, ironically, I think because Our Town isn’t even really a play (so it’s a cheat and not the actual fulfillment). When I think of those “great writers”, I’m usually thinking of Melville and Whitman—who scaled breathtaking heights and plumbed breathtaking depths…and whose great works were so unconventional they almost seem to cry out for a new vocabulary to describe them. The experimentation in Moby Dick and The Confidence Man seem to make the usual approach for talking about a novel seem inadequate, and ditto the usual discourse of poetry for Leaves of Grass. Here, we have something that is not quite a “play”. What I revere is the way Wilder takes a deep, resonant milieu (one that has that emotional attachment I described—this is the folkish), extends it to the metaphysical, bringing it to the level of philosophy and poetry, and plays with it formally in that precocious, Melvillian way, as when he has a professor step out and give the geological history of Grovers Corner’s, reminiscent of the chapter on cetology in Moby Dick.

Ultimately, this is a play about death, as ultimately all plays should be. It has its limitations, though. The play is a bit of a Hallmark card, intentionally, I think, and Wilder gets to have his cake and eat it too. It is undoubtedly one of the most produced plays in America. I think I may have seen more productions of this play than any other, with the exception of certain works of Shakespeare’s. It is thus an extremely “commercial” property. It possesses a deceptive surface conventionality that allows this. It feels — and is — too light until maybe the play’s last minutes. Wilder needed to go deeper and farther to get people thinking for any longer than 30 seconds after they leave the theater. Also, he’s not the poet one would need to be to really get at metaphysical truths. He, like so many, is a sort of poet of stage directions. It possesses the stage’s equivalent of poetry in a good production, but no one speaks it. It is a singularly weird mix…Wilder seems to have only middle-brow (“businessman theater”) chops as a writer of dialogue, but he takes on ambitious themes and breaks all sorts of new ground even while he panders. It is a sort of mix of Norman Rockwell and Jasper Johns.

Ironically, I think this would be a much better play if Wilder had used greater specificity with the characters (rather than generic types). The universality would have made itself apparent, and would be more effective, as each audience member drew the conclusions for himself.

The Merchant of Yonkers, a.ka. The Matchmaker (1938, 1955)

This is the property Hello Dolly! was based on, which itself was adapted from two earlier plays dating back as far as 1835. Though Wilder has theoretically “Americanized” the play, he seems to have changed little from the source material. It doesn’t play a bit like “Yonkers” or “New York”. The tone is as though we are in Eastern Europe. It reminds me of all the similar efforts of the 19th century American stage (slight adaptations of European material) …which means a throwback, and no progress. In short, the play is no more or less than what it professes to be: farce, a very enjoyable and forgettable entertainment. Instead of giving us 30 seconds of contemplation as Our Town had, it offers none.

The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)

The vitality and importance of the formal innovations of Our Town are just as apparent The Skin of our Teeth. Yet I can’t help thinking Wilder either has real intellectual shortcomings or simply condescends to the audience. In this expressionistic allegory, Wilder merges the concept of the all-American family…with certain myths (Adam & Eve, Noah, Cain)…and the actual history of man (prehistoric cavemen etc). It is a natural progression from Our Town. Though it is messy, it is interesting. As with Our Town, he claims to want to challenge the audience, to get them thinking…but as with Our Town he seems afraid to REALLY challenge them…and he doesn’t seem capable of much more than bromides. As in Our Town the message is essentially “cherish life and the people you love while you’re alive”, The Skin of Our Teeth basically says “mankind keeps making the same mistakes again and again and again ”. Having just emerged from the Great Depression, and produced in the middle of an unprecedentedly large and terrifying technological war, this play had the virtue of being extremely topical upon its debut and it should always be studied in that context. The feeling of constant menace represented by the Ice Age is brilliant and calls to mind the Absurdists who would soon follow him.

I don’t know that this play would ever truly challenge someone to examine their behavior, but maybe no play could ever do that. Wilder seems to be a Determinist. Further, again, his intellectual frame of reference is borderline contemptible…almost embarrassing at times. He draws only from the myths that any six year old knows, then hits us over the head with them. He either thinks we’re stupid…or he is. His knowledge of human culture feels about as deep as the Epcot Center. This frustrating dichotomy…superficial brilliance and daring, mixed with mediocrity and conservatism are VERY American. (In general you could accuse even the best Hollywood movie directors of the same).

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) 

THis was supposedly Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite of his own films, and it was penned by Thornton Wilder. Once again, Wilder looks at the American nuclear family, but this time Hitchcock draws the latent darkness out of him. It’s no longer a spoonful, but an overflowing tureen. Joseph Cotten as the sometimes creepy, sometimes charming serial killer Uncle Charlie, and the omnipresent Theresa Wright as his sweet but brave niece, also named “Charlie”. The film is profound, to the extent that Hitchcock allows himself to be profound given the restrictions of the genre. Uncle Charlie is a Bluebeard, and an eloquent one, anticipating Chaplin’s Verdoux and Hitchcock’s own Rope, and similar in some ways to Orson Welles’ The Stranger. But by creating this “special connection” and this “secret” between our heroine with whom we identify (who chafes at the normality around her and longs for something different) and the darkest of villains, all under cover of this normal all-American family in this normal American town, it seems to implicate US. What is the darkness in OUR souls? It was a brave movie to make during the war years. It was suspected at the time of course (though the full extent not then known) that this same ugly darkness had been encouraged in the self-professedly happy, clean, normal, healthy GERMAN public. To imply that the same might be true of Americans seems a bold statement to make in wartime. Seems to me on that basis you could argue for inclusion of this film in the noir category. Seems prescient too in light of Vietnam, but America also had slavery, Native American genocide, and imperialism on its conscience by that time.

The collaboration is wonderful. Wilder’s voice comes through very strongly. One hears and sees echoes of Our Town and Skin of Our Teeth. There is the town itself with its granite buildings and church steeples, front porches, and the paunchy traffic cop and scarecrow librarian. Young Charlie rails against being in the “typical American family”. Cop MacDonald Carey poses as someone taking a survey about an “average American family”. The kids have that dreamy, soulful, dramatic, imaginative and precocious quality. The little bookworm reads Ivanhoe and spouts scientific jargon while her dad reads crime magazines. And the darkness in Uncle Charlie’s soul is not unlike the one that hangs over the Skin of Our Teeth, only deeper.

EARLY ONE ACTS

Wilder rose some in my estimation after reading some his early one acts from the thirties. Many of them seem dry runs for Our Town, or rather, as a painter does, studies from the same “period”. The stage manager as character device runs through a couple of them, and we see that the voice we know so well from Our Town is not just the voice of that play…but Wilder’s voice. He gets a lot of mileage out of the poignancy to be achieved in juxtaposing the seemingly trivial little moments of our lives with the ominous common denominator of our mortality. It may be the only trick in his playbook, but it is a good one.

In The Long Christmas Dinner (1931), he merges several Christmas dinners spanning ninety years, so that just when we are getting to know and love some character they pass from the scene, and younger ones replace them…a lovely metaphor for life. John Gassner in his introduction calls it the most beautiful one act in the English language, which I think is a bit much…but perhaps it was true many deacdes ago when the one-act was quite a new form. Years ago, when I was trying to solve my play White Trash and going in every possible direction (see Kitchen of Fear), one of the ideas I hit on was a dinner in which, guests keep arriving, progressively from the past, so that a few centuries of generations would be represented. Kind of Wilder’s idea in reverse.

In Pullman Car Hiawatha (1931),easily one of my favorite titles for an American play, a stage manager introduces us to all the various passengers on a sleeper car. After all sorts of petty dramas amongst the characters, we learn that the train seems to be on some sort of metaphysical journey up to heaven, at least for one woman.

In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931), the stage manager also plays a role. We follow a family of four on their automobile journey from Newark to Trenton as they go to visit the oldest daughter, who is married and lives there. All the usual car stuff happens…bickering, singing songs to pass the time, inane chit-chat. They finally arrive and the usual bustle of settling in for a visit transpires. Then—in just a couple of lines—we learn the reason for the visit. The daughter recently lost her daughter in childbirth. There is a brief moment about this, and then they return to usual family nonsense.

A couple of other one acts from the period demonstrate Wilder’s chops as a writer. In these he proves he can take on other voices, which in my estimation separates the men from the boys in dialogue writing. Queens of France is essentially a black-out sketch. A gentleman tells a woman he is from a Historical Society and they have determined that she is the actual heir to the crown of France. When he finally convinces her she leaves, and another arrives. It becomes clear that he is actually a scam artist. He has made this other woman also believe she is a Queen of France and is bilking her for expenses. She leaves, and other arrives, etc. Love and How to Cure It feels like it would have made a great vaudeville playlet. It is set in a British music hall in 1895. A young actress complains that she is being stalked by a young man who threatens violence if she won’t marry him. Her aunt declares that only sure fire cure for love is to requite it. They invite the young man in and kill him with kindness, finally convincing him to go away. The girl seems irritated but also remarks that she loves another boy who won’t return HER affections.

Wilder’s literary career was neatly bookended by novels. The financial success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1930), which was later turned into a movie, allowed him independence, which permitted him to explore the theatre. I am also a fan of his last novel, the autobiographical Theophilus North (1973), set in my home turf of Newport, Rhode Island. It, too was turned into a motion picture, several years after Wilder passed.