By David G Anderson
In his preface to Three Plays,Thornton Wilder advanced the idea that drama has the ability to awaken the audience to what it means to be alive. He also argued that the stage of his day often sacrificed that same ability. He insisted plays were generally “soothing,” catering to the middle class, and “passively diversionary.” In attempting to stem that tide, Wilder became a revolutionary; his experiments and inventiveness in theatre extended to a scene-less stage, pantomime, imaginary props, erratic jumps in time sequences, and the utilization of a stage manager as a character, borrowing not only from the ancient Greek and Victorian “Chorus,” but expanding upon it. Travis Bogard, in Modern Drama: Essays in Criticism, noted that Wilder was “a man who, along with [fellow U.S. playwright] Eugene O’Neill, freed the American theatre from its traditional forms through his experiments in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth.”
Not as prolific as many of his contemporaries, Wilder, however, was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes in two different categories: fiction and drama. His first prize came in 1928 for his novel, The Bridge of San Louis Rey. The others were awarded in 1938 and 1945 for plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. For his next-to-last novel, The Eighth Day, he was given the National Book Award in 1968. Wilder’s sophisticated understanding of literature, history, and humankind made him popular with the average reader. Described as “a classicist and humanist with a profound interest in the past,” Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Sally Jones further maintained, “Wilder has always appealed to the sentimental, yet his works avoided sentimentality.”
His scene-less stage experiments were first applied in Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, and finally perfected in Our Town. The setting in Pullman Car Hiawatha consists of chairs placed within chalk-marked areas representing berths, but the stage is otherwise bare. The Happy Journey once again employs four chairs which suffice for the automobile; all the props are imaginary, thus prompting the need for abundant pantomime. “In The Happy Journey, he experimented, with success, in creating illusion on a scene-less stage. This family sketch reveals his ingenuity in stimulating the imagination to supply both scenery and properties on a bare stage” (The Small Town in American Drama, I.H. Herron, SMU press, 1969). Wilder felt that scenery and realistic properties would have tied Our Town too firmly to a particular place and time, making it the nostalgic, sentimental play it is sometimes mistaken for. “Then too there is the classic simplicity of the setting. Left to the imagination, it avoids realism of time and place which would devoid the play its larger application. Returning to the theatrical tradition ranging from Athens to Elizabethan England, it returns also to a plane of imagination rather than realistic reproduction and soars above mundane distractions of actuality” (In Our Living and Our Dying, AH. Ballet, English Journal vol. 45 p. 244).
As in Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, an omniscient Stage Manager casually provides the audience with wry humor, narration, and commentary in Our Town. He even plays brief roles during the production. His commentary along with the actors’ pantomimes creates the imaginary props and scenery on the bare stage. A basic principle of Wilder is the idea that the action of a play is always in the perpetual present. Novels have the advantage of an author who can tell his readers essential facts, past and present. “The Greek Chorus performed this function in the theater, and he believed that the modern playwright needed an equivalent. . . . A play thus provided with a Stage Narrator attains a kind of timelessness, for he can be part of the play’s momentary action and yet be a commentator . . . he can look forward into the future . . . for he is enclosed in finite time . . . he can move back and forth in time” (Kuner).
Wilder’s favorite theatrical device most likely was—time. He first experimented with this in his one-act play, The Long Christmas Dinner. This play employs several unifying elements: its setting—the dining room of an American household, with a long table placed for Christmas dinner, and its characters—family members. The play, however, spans a ninety-year period. Characters exit through portals and doors representing death and birth, thus the ebb and flow of life. The dialogue is simple and believable; a natural rhythm is sustained throughout generations of each Christmas family dinner. Our Town’s Stage Manager permits Emily, who has died in childbirth, to relive a time in her past. She chooses her twelfth birthday. He reminds Emily that not only will she relive that time, but she will see herself doing it. Thus we have Emily experiencing three dimensions of time: acting in the past, watching herself do so in the present and knowing the future. In The Long Christmas Dinner, events occur chronologically, compressing time. The Stage Manager in Our Town exhibits the ability to control time, while implying that the past continues to exist. The Skin of Our Teeth represents another enormous leap in Wilder’s fascination with time; major events in the human race occur simultaneously. The Autobus family, at once Adam, Eve, and family, experience the great flood and the ice age and survive wars.
In 1938, Wilder abandons these revolutionary concepts in The Merchant of Yonkers. Written immediately after Our Town, it was not at all successful. Making minor revisions to the text and adding a closing monologue in 1955, he simply changed the focus from one character to another and titled it, The Matchmaker. The play became an enormous success. Its musical adaptation by Michael Stewart became Hello, Dolly! “The appearance of something so close to a well-made play at this point in Wilder’s career might seem peculiar, for all his efforts thus far had clearly countered the box-set, representational, realistic traditional conventions. However, as he states in his preface to Three Plays, ‘One way to shake off the nonsense of the nineteenth-century staging is to make fun of it’” (Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1998). Exhibiting his remarkable versatility, Wilder skillfully crafts this light-hearted entertainment bordering on farce.
Our Town’s Emily cries out, “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? every, every minute?” Thanks to the revolutionary Wilder, some of us have caught a glimpse.
On December 22, 1975, Newsweek magazine offered this obituary for Wilder, who, had died December 7. “Exit the Stage Manager” written by Bill Roeder in the style of Our Town.“He was getting up in years at the age of 78. Still, it was a jolt for us folks in Grover’s Corners—and I’ll bet for a whole lot of other people, too—when Thornton Wilder slipped away with a heart attack during his afternoon nap the other day. God rest him. H’m—11 o’clock in Grover’s Corners. You can get a good rest, too. Good night.” At first glance Wilder would have clucked his tongue at the sentimentality of it, then after a second thought, we might have seen a slight upward curling of his lips at its pure theatricality.