Posts Tagged ‘Thornton Wilder’

Is Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” America’s Shakespeare?

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

Bet I got your attention with that headline. But the argument is not mine, but rather made by Howard Sherman over at The Guardian here.

Here’s what he says:

“It may sound fulsome but I’m prepared to take a leap and suggest that Our Town is very likely on its way to being America’s first Shakespearean play. I’m not speaking of its language or scale, but rather the likelihood that it’s going to remain in the international repertoire for more than a hundred years – and beyond.”

He continues: “Our Town has lasted as one of the most produced US plays in the global modern repertoire. This is not for its statement on the American character or as a flag-waving paean to a simpler time, but because its true concerns transcend the specifics of turn-of-the-20th-century Grover’s Corners, where the play is set. That’s quite surprising for a play with a rather slim plot and no conventional conflict, which alternates between long narrated passages and select scenes of two families in small-town New Hampshire.”

I’ve always argued that the 1938 play has been consistently underrated. Too many low-budget high school productions, too many amateur performers. Thornton Wilder was a sophisticated man, at home in Shanghai and Rome. Gertrude Stein‘s The Making of Americans (1925) and Dante‘s Pugatorio inspired his writing of the play.

More radical than people remember.

An excerpt:

“That’s because the play is about mortality, about the brevity of human life and Wilder’s charge to the audience to appreciate what they have while they have it. It’s not about stoves and walls. For a play that many remember for its sweet romantic scene with two teenagers in Act II, or for the homespun charms that clung to it for so many years, this is a play that starts talking about death in its first few paragraphs, giving way in its third act to a scene of the aftermath of a tragedy from an atypical perspective.

“I spent 18 months conducting more than 100 interviews with theatre artists for a book about the play and it felt like I’d been running an Our Town focus group. Given the conventional wisdom that the play is old hat, I was surprised to find how many of the people I interviewed, in the US and the UK, either had already fallen for its message – or, in roughly equal number, had never previously seen or read the play, yet had formed definite and typically dismissive opinions about it. However, after working on a production, everyone seemed ready to proselytise others into the fold of Our Town.

“For a play as seemingly simple and plotless, there are depths to plumb in how to approach the play. Wilder may have written explicitly about what he wanted audiences to learn but he didn’t provide a precise map of how to get there. The largest role in the play is a narrator called only the Stage Manager, who has no personal story or even identifying details of character. We see mostly minor events in the lives of a few primary people. And yet, if one looks closely, topics like the extermination of indigenous peoples and immigration from eastern Europe are fleetingly recognised in a very homogeneous town, and the march of technology is transforming people’s lives.”

Read the whole thing here. Make your rejoinders in the comments section below.

“The Skin of Our Teeth”: did Thornton Wilder bite off more than he could chew?

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018


The American Interest isn’t generally our thing – we’re hardly policy wonks at the Book Haven – but I was intrigued when Rachel Hostyk, the associate editor for the journal, wrote a thoughtful review of the Constellation Theatre Company‘s recent production of Thornton’ Wilder‘s The Skin of Our Teeth. Fortunately, her discussion of Wilder’s challenging, infrequently performed play popped up in my news feed. I’ve seen the long, allegorical play before, and found it problematic. Doesn’t everyone? The characters are, well, too allegorical to really come to life – a great contrast to his 1938 play Our Town, which finds humanity and meaning in the most trivial gestures of our lives. Wilder finished his ambitious play only a month after Pearl Harbor, and it was first produced in 1942. America was still recovering from the Depression, and had entered the second major war of the century. The play takes the Antrobus family from Adam and Eve, and prehistory, right up to the ever-moving present moment.

A few excerpts from Hostyk’s provocative review:

The first act of the play is its most effective, a gem almost worth the price of admission by itself. We are in mid-Ice Age, the glaciers sweeping across North America and freezing everything in their paths. In the midst of the chaos, Mr. Antrobus keeps trekking to the office every day to invent the wheel and compile the alphabet. (He’s particularly proud of “separating n from m.”) Mrs. Antrobus is a homemaker in charge of two unruly children, a pet mammoth and dinosaur, and a dark secret. Wilder made a clever choice in pairing the archetypal mid-century family, artificial in its own right, with the absurdity of a bureaucracy that invents letters. He emphasizes the rickety foundations of human civilization with sympathy, not condescension. And when deployed against a descending wall of ice, the chin-up attitude of wartime is especially poignant.


Malinda Kathleen Reese cuddles with her “pet,”  Ben Lauer (photo by Daniel Schwartz)

I can’t help but see the shadow of the 1940s, of a society tired of watching war and poverty ravage people who were no worse or better than their luckier neighbors. It’s a deus ex machina ending without deus. True, blind luck is often what saves people from disaster. Yet there are aspects to the Noah story that inspire even if you don’t believe in God—the fortitude of Noah’s family, their organizational capacity, their craftsmanship, the love and cooperation that see them through the near-total destruction of their world. Deprive the narrative of God, and you deprive humanity of its grandeur in rising to meet God’s expectations. Generally, what we find inspiring amid the carnage and despair of war are those people, religious and not, who prove so much better than their circumstances.


The Antrobuses make a choice in the face of certain death, as people freeze on the roads out of town. The glaciers are within sight of their house. Certainly, giving away food that could feed your children for another week or two is heart-wrenching—Mrs. Antrobus is against it at first. Yet selfishness is often borne of hope, and there is none here. Nor are there the logistics of a future to consider. In our times, immigration policy is made by those who face election next year, or who have to reknit a society made up of both newcomers and natives. We should still be kind and merciful, of course, and the Antrobuses’ generosity is inspiring. But the mercy of a new life is much more difficult to offer than the kindness of a last meal. An allegory that doesn’t wrestle with this fact is less useful for all of us. In certain ways, reality is sadder than Wilder lets on—and yet still, people do the decent thing.


The maid Sabina (Tonya Beckman) shares the news.

The lesson of this allegory is emphasized with a sledgehammer: Humans have survived and will keep surviving. With the help of books, they will restart society from the worst of ruins (Mr. Antrobus makes sure to save his volumes of Shakespeare). Yet after the initial and rather basic achievements of the wheel and the alphabet, we see nothing more of human inventiveness in action. The great philosophers are analogized to the hours in the day, as if they were simply features of existence like the passage of time. (Homer, the Muses, and Moses wander in with the refugees of the first act, but as humanity is still stuck at “n,” they seem more like natural resources than human achievements.) Yet it’s impossible to understand the great epochs of horror and survival independently of the knowledge gained (or not), or the cultures that endured and perpetrated them.

I can’t help but admire a play of such cleverness and ambition, especially in this splendid production. And perhaps it’s carping to suggest that Wilder bit off more than he could chew; no two-and-a-half-hour play is going to be the final word on human history. You might argue that the Antrobuses are average by definition. But if they are given to feats of cruelty like total warfare, why not other, nobler extremes of human behavior?

Read the whole thing here.

Postscript on 2/27: A comment from journalist Jeff Selbst that is a mini-review in itself: This is one of my favorite plays, a classic of absurdism. Sabina is an unforgettable creation: housemaid, temptress, fatalist, and yet an eternal American sort of optimist. The third act gets a bit heavy with the overt Cain-and-Abel references, but it has Wilder’s sometimes flinty New England scholarly poetics in its blood.”

How Thornton Wilder’s “tough love” made a playwright of Edward Albee

Monday, October 3rd, 2016


Farewell to one of America’s greatest playwrights.

Playwright Edward Albee died on September 16. He was 88. I wrote nothing about it, because it’s been too long since I read Albee, the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, or saw any of his plays performed. I could think of nothing new to bring to the subject.

Fortunately, playwright and filmmaker Ian MacAllister-McDonald could. In the most recent issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, he describes meeting Albee on a plane from New York to Los Angeles in fall 2006 when he was 21 years old. He was new to the theater world, and stopped Albee as he walked down the aisle to stretch his legs. “We talked about Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Zoo Story (the only two plays of his that I’d read at the time) and he stood there, patiently answering my questions,” he said.


Good advice.

“A few days later, we ended up getting lunch together and continued our conversation. At some point I asked him what other playwrights I should be reading, and Albee furrowed his brow and said, pragmatically, ‘Read all of Chekhov. Start there.’”

You can read the whole thing online at the LARB, but here’s my favorite bit, from a speech Albee gave five years ago at the MacDowell writer’s colony in New Hampshire:

He was funny and gracious, and told a story about meeting Thornton Wilder, when Albee was young poet, visiting a friend at the MacDowell. Albee, a fan, ran up to Wilder and shoved a bunch of poems into his hands and ran away. Later that night, Wilder found him and invited him to come sit by a pond so that they could discuss the work. The older writer took out a bottle of wine, poured them both a glass, and talked through each of the poems. And each time he finished talking about a poem, he would gently take the sheet of paper it was printed on and toss it out onto the water. When the discussion was over, the pond had all of Edward’s poems out floating on it, and Wilder turned to Edward and said, “Have you considered playwriting?”

Read “Edward Albee: Fragments” here.