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by Bamber Gascoigne

Thornton (Niven) Wilder (1897-1975)


American writer and playwright, best known for the Pulitzer Prize awarded play Our Town (1938). Wilder's breakthrough novel was The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), an examination of justice and altruism. The story focused on the fates of five travelers in the 18-century Peru, who happen to be crossing the finest bridge in the land when it breaks and throws them into the gulf below. A scholarly monk, Brother Juniper, interprets the story of each victim in an attempt to explain the working of divine providence. Surely, he argues, if there were any plan in the universe at all, if there were any pattern in human life, it could be discovered mysteriously latent in the lives of those particular people. But his book being done the text is pronounced heretical and and both Juniper and his work are burned by the Inquisition.

"But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning." (from The Bridge of San Luis Rey)

Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, one of five children of Amos Parker Wilder, a newspaper editor, diplomat, and a strict Calvinist, and Isabella (Niven) Wilder, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Embracing the Puritan heritage of his family, Wilder said later that "I don't think there's any doubt that the New England tradition is the highest point to which civilization culture ever attained.... My father, for all his faults, was the personification of the tradition." Though only Thornton gained fame, all five Wilder children became published writers.

In 1906 the family moved to Hong Kong, where his father had been appointed American Consul General. At that time the salary given a diplomat was very small and after six months Wilder's mother returned with her four children to the United States. The family rejoined again in 1911 in Shanghai, where Amos Parker Wilder had been transferred.

Wilder stayed in China for a year. In 1915 he enrolled in Oberlin College, where he studied the Greek and Roman classics in translation. To his literary efforts from this period Wilder once referred as "aesthetic missionary work". (Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition by Lincoln Konkle, 2006, p. 58) The family moved in 1917 to to New Haven, Connecticut, and Wilder entered Yale University. His first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, appeared in 1920 in the Yale Literary Magazine, but it was not produced until 1926 by the American Laboratory Theater in New York. The title of the  play refers to apotle Paul's prophecy of the resurrection of the dead: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible . . . "

During WW I Wilder served for eight months in the Coast Artillery Corps as a corporal. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1920, and went to Rome, where he studied archaeology at the American Academy. Upon arriving Paris in June 1921, he stayed at Hôtel du Maroc, but tired of the bedbugs he moved to a pension (now the Franco-Vietnam Institute) on the rue Saint-Jacques. He remained there the rest of the summer. When Wilder returned to Paris in 1926, he wrote at this pension much of The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It was published shortly after his return to New York at the end of January 1927.

While teaching French at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, Wilder continued to write. By 1926 he had received an M.A. degree in French literature from Princeton University. In the same year appeared his first novel, The Cabala, a fantasy about a young American visiting Rome, where he meets a group of Italian aristocrats, who turn out to be incarnations of the ancient Roman gods.

Although Wilder had set the events of The Bridge of San Luis Rey in Peru, it was not until 1941, when he visited the country. With the success of this 34,000 word novella, Wilder could afford to resign his position at Lawrenceville. From 1930 to 1937 Wilder was a part-time lecturer in comparative literature at the University of Chicago, in 1935 he was a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, and in 1950-51 a professor of poetry at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Woman of Andros (1930), set in ancient Greece and partly based on a comedy of Terence, reflected Wilder's deep immersion in the world of the classics. Wilder once stated, that "I am not an innovator but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtusive brick-a-brack." In the character of Chrysis the author created his archetype of the virtue of hope. The book was attacked by Michael Gold, the author of the novel Jews Without Money (1930) and the editor of the New Masses, who has been described as "the country's leading and most provocative proponent of proletarian art". Gold dismissed Wilder's work as irrelevant to the sufferings of the poor during the Depression and described his novels as "historic junkshop," peopled with "wan ghosts" undergoing "little lavender tragedies".

"Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes!) could really suffer. Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely read could be said to know that they were unhappy." (from The Bridge of San Luis Rey)

Heaven's My Destination (1935) was Wilder's first novel set in America and drew a satirical portrait of an evangelical fundamentalist traveling salesman. Wilder's play Our Town was inspired by Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans (1925) and gained a huge success. It earned Wilder another Pulitzer. The story was set in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and traced the childhood, courtship, marriage, and death of Emily Webb and George Gibbs. Each act is introduced by the Stage Manager in a direct address to the audience; the first act takes place on 7 May, 1901. Although the subject matter, the lives of ordinary people in an average town, was for Wilder unusually provincial, the themes of the acts – Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death – were universal.

The Skin of Our Teeth, a history of human race, was inspired by James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. It depicted five thousand years in the lives of George and Maggie Antrobus, a suburban New Jersey couple, who, with their children Gladys and Henry and their maid Sabina, struggle through flood, famine, ice, and war only to begin the series all over again. The play won Wilder his third Pulitzer Prize. It was directed by Elia Kazan, with Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, and Florence Eldridge in the central roles. Montgomery Clift made an impact as Henry, a neurotic yet innocent son. When the production opened on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on November 18, 1942, it received great critial acclaim. The Times's Lewis Nichols called it "the best pure theater of the forties". Referring to Wilder's  Midwestern background, Stella Adler once said of the stage version that "nothing could be less puritanical than his Skin of Our Teeth burlesque." ('Thornton Wilder (1897-1975),' in Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights by Stella Adler, 2012, p. 87) Leonard Bernstein worked with the songwriting/playwright team Betty Comden and Adolph Green on a musical version of the play most of the summer and late autumn of 1964. A tentative opening date had been set for September 1965, but never explaining why Bernstein eventually abandoned the project.

Wilder, whose glasses concealed his cold, light blue eyes, was famous for his sociability and energy. His counteless friends included Gertrude Stein, whom he met in 1934 in Chicago, Hemingway, Willa Cather, and Montgomery Clift, who frequently spent Sundays in Hamden at house of Wilder and his sister Isabel; he was interested in James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. In an interview Wilder has said, that one of his central preoccupations throughout his work has been "the surprise of the guld between each tiny occasion of the daily life and the vast streches of time and place in which every individual plays his role." (from Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimton, 2000) Almost all of Wilder's novels were historical, but from Heaven's My Destination Wilder began to approach the modern day America. He believed that "there is no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages", but only "the ocean like monotony of the generations of men under the alterations of fair and foul weather".

Along with John Dos Passos, Wilder served as U.S. Representative at PEN writers conference in London. In the same year Wilder was sent by the U.S. State Department on South American goodwill tour. His fellow passenger on the Grace Line's Santa Lucia, Sherwood Anderson, became seriously ill during the voyage and died at Christobal, at the end of the Panama Chanal. Early in WW II Wilder enlisted in the army. He eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and earned the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. His responsibilities included the interrogation of prisoners and the preparation of reports for the Mediterranean Air Headquarters. In the 1940s Wilder also worked on the scenario for Alfred Hitchcock's film Shadow of a Doubt (1943), set in the small town of Santa Rosa, and began a play, The Emporium, based on Franz Kafka's works – it was specially meant for Montgomery Clift, who promised that he would play it anywhere, any place. After his discharge from the army, Wilder completed The Ides of March  (1948), an experimental historical novel about Julius Caesar, with which he had been long struggling.

Basically Wilder's plays reflect his optimistic belief in humanity, although his later works are darker in tone. The author himself never had the experience of living "a normal family life," the locale of his dramas. His oldest sister Charlotte, a poet in her own right, was hospitalized for mental illness several times and in 1947 she underwent a frontal lobotomy. Charlotte suffered from paranoia and obsessive complexes, and she was convinced that communists were after her. (see Mosaic of Fire: The Work of Lola Ridge, Evelyn Scott, Charlotte Wilder, and Kay Boyle by Caroline Maun, 2012) However, this did not prevent her from forming a friendship with the revolutionary anarchist Emma Goldman. Wilder's mother died in 1946. To his friends Wilder murmured that his own life had been a failure.

It has been suggested that Wilder was denied the Nobel Prize because he was – wrongly – accused of plagiarizing The Skin of Our Teeth from Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Wilder wrote in the 1950s The Wreck of the 5:25 (1957), Bernice (1957), and Alcestiad, based on Euripide's Alcestis, and performed at the Edinburgh Festival under the title of Life in the Sun. When Montgomery Clift criticized its dialogue as forced and pedantic, Wilder became according to the actor so enraged, that "he almost jumped into the Atlantic Ocean." The Merchant of Younkers (1938), a farce which had failed critically and commercially, was revised under the new title of The Matchmaker (1954). Wilder had based his earlier work on a British play called A Day Well Spent by John Oxenford. Later The Matchmaker served as the source for the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly!, which opened in 1964 in New York, starring Carol Channing and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman.

"I think myself as a fabulist, not a critic. I realize that every writer is necessary a critic – that is, each sentence is a skeleton accompanied by enormous activity of rejection; and each selection is governed by general principles concerning truth, force, beauty, and so on. But, as I have just suggested, I believe that the practice of writing consists in more and more relegating all that schematic operation to the subconscious. The critic that is in every fabulist is like the iceberg - nine-tenths of him is underwater." (from Playwrights at Work)

In 1962 Wilder received the first National Medal for Literature at a special White House ceremony. His last two novels were The Eighth Day (1967), which moved back and forth through the 20th century and told a story about a talented inventor accused of murder, and Theophilus North (1973), about a sensitive young man and his nine possible careers. Wilder died on December 7, 1975, Hamden, Connecticut, where he had lived off and on for many years with his devoted sister, secretary, business manager, and literary adviser, Isabel Wilder. Wilder never married; he had one or two affairs with younger men.

For further reading: Thornton Wilder by R. Burbank (1961); Thornton Wilder by B. Grebanier (1964); The Art of Thornton Wilder by M. Goldstein (1965); Thornton Wilder by M.C. Kuner (1972); Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait by R.H. Goldstone (1975); Thornton Wilder by L. Simon (1979); Thornton Wilder and His Public by A.N. Wilder (1980); The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder by G.A. Harrison (1983); Thornton Wilder by D. Castronovo (1986); Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, ed. by Martin Blank (1995); Thornton Wilder: New Essays, ed. by Martin Blank (1999); Playwrights at Work, ed. by George Plimton (2000); Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition by Lincoln Konkle (2006); 'Thornton Wilder (1897-1975),' in Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights by Stella Adler (2012); Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven (2012); Modern American Drama. Playwriting in the 1940s: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations by Felicia Hardison Londré (2017)

Selected works:

  • Francis Lake, 1915 (play)
  • Flamingo Red, 1916 (play)
  • Brother Fire, 1916 (play)
  • A Christmas Interlude, 1916 (play)
  • The Walled City, 1918 (play)
  • In Praise of Guynemer, 1918 (play)
  • The Trumpet Shall Sound,1926 (prod.; play)
  • The Cabala, 1926
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - San Luis Reyn silta (suom. Valfrid Hedman, 1928)
    - films: 1929, dir. Charles Brabin, featuring Lili Damita, Ernest Torrence, Raquel Torres, Don Alvarado; 1944, dir. by Rowland V. Lee, featuring Lynn Bari, Akim Tamiroff, Francis Lederer, Alla Nazimova; 1958 (TV drama), prod. CBS Television, dir. by Robert Mulligan, adapted by Ludi Claire; 2004, dir. Mary McGuckian, featuring Gabriel Byrne, Kathy Bates, Adriana Dominguez, Lopez de Ayala, F.Murray Abraham, Robert De Niro
  • An Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, 1928 (plays)
  • The Woman of Andros, 1930
    - Androksen nainen (suom. Vappu Roos, 1938)
  • The Happy Journey , 1931
  • The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act, 1931 (prod; play)
    - Pitkä jouluateria (suom. Outi Saarinen, 1963)
    - films: 1956, prod. Sveriges Radio, dir. Hans Dahlin; A Longa Ceia de Natal, 1959 (TV film), prod. Radiotelevisão Portuguesa (Portugal), dir. Artur Ramos; 1967 (TV play), prod. Österreichischer Rundfunk (Austria), dir. Jörg A. Eggers, with Dorothy Millar, Maurice Warner, Karen Carmichael
  • The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, 1931 (play)
    - Onnellinen matka (suom. Aino-Inkeri Notkola)
  • Such Things Only Happen in Books, 1931 (play)
  • Love and How to Cure It, 1931 (play)
  • Lucrece, 1932 (translation of André Obey's play)
  • Queens of France, 1932 (play)
  • We Live Again, 1934 (screenplay, with others)
  • Heaven's My Destination, 1934
  • A Dolls House, 1937 (translation of Ibsen's play)
  • Our Town, 1938 (play; Pulitzer Prize)
    - Meidän kaupunkimme (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1978)
    - films: 1940, dir. Sam Wood, screenplay by T.W., Frank Craven and Harry Chandlee, featuring William Holden, Martha Scott, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi; 1955 (TV drama), dir. Delbert Mann, featuring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Sylvia Field, Ernest Truex, Frank Sinatra, Paul Hartman, Peg Hillias; 1959 (TV drama), prod. Circle in the Square Theatre, dir. John Lincoln & José Quintero, teleplay by Jacqueline Babbin & Audrey Maas; Unsere kleine Stadt, 1961 (TV play), dir. Ludwig Cremer, featuring Robert Graf, Cordula Trantow, Fritz Wepper, Hermann Lenschau, Detlof Krüger, Gisela Hoeter; 1977 (TV play), prod. Hartwest Productions, dir. George Schaefer, featuring Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, Sada Thompson, Barbara Bel Geddes, Glynnis O'Connor, Robby Benson; 1989 (TV play), prod. Brandman Productions, dir. Kirk Browning, featuring Spalding Gray, James Rebhorn, Atticus Brady, John Griesemer, Frances Conroy, Roberta Maxwell, Penelope Ann Miller; The Big Time, 2002 (TV film), prod. John Wells Productions, dir. Paris Barclay, featuring Dylan Baker, Molly Ringwald, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Hendricks, Shane Johnson 2003 (TV play), prod. Line by Line Productions, dir. James Naughton, featuring Jayne Atkinson, Frank Converse, Jane Curtin, Ben Fox;
  • The Merchant of Yonkers,  1938 (adaptation of a play by Johann Nestroy, rev. version The Matchmaker)
  • The Intent of the Artist, 1941 (with others)
  • The Skin of Our Teeth, 1942 (play; Pulitzer Prize)
    - Hiuskarvan varassa (suom. Eugen Terttula, 1963)
    - films: 1959 (TV drama), dir. Henry Kaplan, adaptation by Ellen M. Violett; Wir sind noch einmal davongekommen, 1961 (TV film), prod. Schauspielhaus Düsseldorf (West Germany), dir. Karl-Heinz Stroux; 1983 (TV play), prod. Limelight International, dir. Jack O'Brien, featuring Blair Brown, Harold Gould, Rue McClanahan, Sada Thompson
  • Shadow of Doubt, 1943 (screenplay, with others)
    - film dir. by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge, Hume Cronyn; 1991 (TV play), dir. Karen Arthur, featuring Mark Harmon, Margaret Welsh, Norm Skaggs, William Lanteau, Tippi Hedren
  • James Joyce1882-1941, 1944
  • Our Century, 1947 (play)
  • Ides of March, 1948
  • The Victors, 1948 (translation of Jean-Paul Sartre's play Morts sans sépulture)
  • The Matchmaker, 1954
    - films: Die Heiratsvermittlerin, 1955 (TV film), prod. Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (West Germany), dir. John Olden; 1958, dir. Joseph Anthony, featuring Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins, Shirley MacLaine; Hello, Dolly!, 1969, from Wilders play, dir. Gene Kelly, adaptation by Ernest Lehman, featuring Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Michael Crawford, Marianne McAndrew
  • The Alcestiad: Or, A Life In The Sun, 1955 (play, also: A Life in the Sun)
  • Bernice, and The Wreck on 5:25, prod. 1957 (play)
  • Three Plays, 1957
  • Pullman Car Hiawatha, 1962 (play, in The Long Christmas Dinner' and Other Plays)
  • Plays for Bleecker Street, 1962
  • The Eighth Day, 1967
    - Kahdeksas päivä (suom. Irmeli Sallamo, 1967)
  • The Drunken Sisters, 1970 (play)
  • Theophilus North, 1973
    - film: Mr North, 1988, dir. Danny Huston, screenplay by Janet Roach, starring Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall, Harry Dean Stanton, Anjelica Huston
  • American Characteristics, 1979
  • The Journals 1939-61: With Two Scenes of an Uncompleted Play, "The Emporium", 1985 (edited by Donald Gallup)
  • Conversations with Thornton Wilder, 1992 (ed. by Jackson R. Bryer)
  • The Letters of Gertrude Stein & Thornton Wilder, 1997 (ed. by Edward Burns and Ulla E. Dydo with William Rice)
  • The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder, 2008 (ed. Jackson R. Bryer, Robin Gibbs Wilder)
  • The Eighth Day; Theophilus North; Autobiographical Writings, 2011 (edited by J.D. McClatchy)

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