By Ace G. Pilkington
It is ironic that Thornton Wilder, who in Our Town created one of the clearest visions of small-town America, was one of the most cosmopolitan authors this country has produced. On 17 April l897, he was born in Madison, Wisconsin, where his father edited and published a newspaper. However, what might have been a typical midwestern childhood changed when Wilder’s father, a supporter of Theodore Roosevelt, was rewarded with an appointment as consul general to Shanghai and Hong Kong in Roosevelt’s second term. Thornton Wilder attended mission schools in China, high school in Berkeley, California, and studied at both Oberlin College and Yale University. In l920-2l he studied archaeology at the American Academy in Rome.
Between l92l and l928, he taught French at a boys’ school at Lawrenceville, New Jersey. At the time Wilder was working at Princeton on a master’s degree in French, which he completed in l925. Also during this period he took a year for travel in Europe and completed his first novel, The Cabala, a work influenced by Henry James and the fantasy writer James Branch Cabell. Published in l926, The Cabala demonstrates Wilder’s deep interest in classical languages and culture. The characters, who are ostensibly modern Romans, are actually stand-ins for the Olympian gods, and “the spirit of Virgil pervades the scene and finally appears to the narrator as he departs for New York” (Rex Burbank, Thornton Wilder [College and University Press, l96l], 37). In The Ides of March (l948), Wilder abandoned modern Rome altogether, writing a historical novel set in Julius Caesar’s time.
Nor were Greece, Rome, and France the limits of Wilder’s interests. His Pulitzer-prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (l927) is set in Peru in l7l4, and his play The Matchmaker (l954) is largely based on Johann Nestroy’s drama Einen Jux will er sich Machen (l842).
In an odd way it is Thornton Wilder’s very cosmopolitanism, his distance from small-town America, that made it possible for him to visualize it lovingly in Our Town. While other writers of his generation such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald felt alienated from the America where they grew up, Wilder “had never lived in one place long enough to grow attached to it, and he seems to have felt at home wherever he went” (Burbank 22). He did not experience the love-hate relationship that develops when one place and its values appear to be all the world. As a result, Wilder kept his optimism about America, and to a large extent he continued to share its religious values, though he examined them carefully in his novel Heaven’s My Destination (l935).
There was, however, one part of his middle class, middle American heritage with which Wilder became more and more dissatisfied. In his preface to Three Plays by Thornton Wilder, he wrote, “Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theatre” (vii). He went on to say, “The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility” (viii). The culprits for this devitalization of the theatre were, Wilder believed, the members of the middle class. “They were,” he argued, “pious, law-abiding, and industrious. They were assured of eternal life in the next world and, in this, they were squarely seated on Property and the privileges that accompany it” (ix). They wanted theatre to be “soothing” (viii), and they controlled it by putting it into the box of the proscenium stage, which was “loaded with specific objects, because every concrete object narrows the action to one moment in time and place” (x).
Wilder wanted a return to the theatre of Shakespeare, a theatre that he was coming to think was the best equipped of all the arts to show the way the world truly is. For Wilder this world truth emerged from theatre’s unique ability to demonstrate the particular and the universal at the same time, to show one actor but to suggest behind him the general and generalizable situation. As he said, “the theatre is admirably fitted to tell both truths” (x).
Our Town (l938) was not Wilder’s first attempt to create a play for his ideal theatre (see The Long Christmas Dinner, l93l), but it was certainly his most successful, achieving a more complete fusion of form and theme than his other Pultizer-prize-winning play, The Skin of Our Teeth (l942).
Our Town tells a simple story of a day in the life of Grover’s Corner, and of how George and Emily fall in love and marry, and of Emily’s death, and what it feels like for her to be dead and looking back on her life. The simple story is told with simple means, with chairs and ladders for scenery and sometimes nothing but the audience’s imagination to create the props and the action. But Thornton Wilder has woven into his web of pastoral nostalgia threads of history, myth, and even glimmers of the future. George and Emily’s life is their own, but it is also an amalgam of many other lives. As Wilder says, “The recurrent words in the play . . . are ‘hundreds,’ ‘thousands,’ and ‘millions’” (xi).
He has also built into the play an extra layer of unreality with the Stage Manager, who starts and stops scenes, skips between years and roles, and tells us of the deaths of people we have only recently met. The result is just what Wilder had wanted, particular actors on an individual stage become universal, a small New England town expands its significance until it is emblematic of humanity, and the theatre tells a truth it is especially well suited to tell. It was also a truth that Thornton Wilder was especially well suited to tell.
Though he knew the particulars of many places, his wide knowledge of the world and of many languages, his love of history and his religious faith kept him constantly aware of the large message behind the small facts, of the human race behind the individual. At last it is, as he said, “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life” (xi).