Thornton Wilder

A Life

by Penelope Niven

Thornton Wilder

Hardcover, 832 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $39.99 | purchase

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Book Summary

Drawn from thousands of pages of letters, journals, manuscripts and other documents, this biography of playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder explores his public persona, his private relationships and his complicated family.

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Excerpt: Thornton Wilder

25

The Village and the Stars

These are but the belated gropings to reconstruct what may have taken place when the play first presented itself — the life of a village against the life of the stars.

— Thornton Wilder,

"A Preface for Our Town," New York Times, February 13, 1938

The United States and Europe (1930s)

With his one-act plays in The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act, and his novel Heaven's My Destination, Wilder had moved deep into an American odyssey — an exploration of American landscapes, characters, and spirit. However, no matter the literal settings of his plays and novels, he habitually worked with a universal palette. In the one-act plays he launched in 1931, Wilder had in effect practiced for the unique staging and substance of Our Town. Some of these plays can be viewed as prototypes, even dress rehearsals for Our Town — employing stage managers, taking liberties with time and space, stripping scenery and plots to a minimum. On the bare stage welcoming curious theatergoers to Our Town in 1937 and 1938 and afterward, Wilder experimented with deceptively simple subjects and themes. The family had become a powerful symbol in his plays and novels — not only the individual family unit but the vast human family interconnected in their local yet universal "villages." He peopled the stage with American families whose seemingly ordinary lives at once reflected and transcended the place and the era in which they lived. Simultaneously he contemplated the perennial dramas of ordinary life as they played out again and again on a cosmic stage, one person at a time, one place at a time, throughout the ages.

He would recapitulate this theme in 1957 in a preface to his major plays:

Every action which has ever taken place — every thought, every emotion — has taken place only once, at one moment in time and place. "I love you," "I rejoice," "I suffer," have been said and felt many billions of times, and never twice the same. Every person who has ever lived has lived an unbroken succession of unique occasions. Yet the more one is aware of this individuality in experience (innumerable! innumerable!) the more one becomes attentive to what these disparate moments have in common, to repetitive patterns.

His fascination with the patterns in "many billions" of individual lives had, as noted, been born that autumn day in 1920 when, as a student in Rome, he saw a freshly excavated first-century tomb. By candlelight he and his fellow students had examined the "faded paintings" of the Aurelius family and other remnants of their lives that, after nearly two thousand years, were frozen in time under a busy street in the center of modern Rome, with streetcars clattering overhead. Wilder realized in that moment that two thousand centuries later, his own era could be the subject of such curiosity and speculation — the quest to recapture and understand the very "loves and pieties and habits" that he himself had lived and witnessed in his lifetime.

"For a while in Rome I lived among archeologists, and ever since I find myself occasionally looking at the things about me as an archeologist will look at them a thousand years hence," he wrote in a preface to Our Town in 1938. "An archeologist's eyes combine the view of the telescope with the view of the microscope. He reconstructs the very distant with the help of the very small." In his play Wilder was groping, he said, to reconstruct "the life of a village against the life of the stars." This was his creative compass: the juxtaposition of the village and the stars — one town and the cosmos, one person and the galaxy.

In his fiction and his plays Wilder continually excavated and resurrected universal, time-defying human dramas, and probed the enduring questions: How do we live — survive, surmount, even transcend the struggles implicit in the human condition? And why? As he worked on Our Town he reiterated that the fundamental concepts in the play had been forged in large part during those student days in Rome as he hovered on the edges of archaeological excavations in the ancient city, studying the water systems, the pathways, the architecture, and even the stage designs of the ancient Romans — and the repeating patterns of human existence despite differences in cultures, civilizations, and eras. In the twenties, after his discoveries in Rome, Wilder wrote in a manuscript fragment:

We bend with pitying condescension over past civilizations, over Thebes, Ur and Babylon, and there floats up to us a murmur made up of cries of war, cruelty, pleasure and religious terror. Even as our civilization will some day exhale to its observers the same cries of soldiers, slaves, revellers and suppliants.

These exhalations, at once ephemeral and eternal, empowered his work. This fragment also foreshadows the words the Stage Manager speaks in the first act of Our Town:

Y'know — Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about 'em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts ... and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney — same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real lives of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then.

With these reflections the Stage Manager confirms the crux of Wilder's play — and at the same time affirms the historic importance of the theater as a mirror of life in any given time.

In the 1930s Wilder created twentieth-century incarnations of the Aurelius family in the American family — the Bayards in The Long Christmas Dinner; and then the Harrisons in Pullman Car Hiawatha; and then the Kirbys in The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. Late in the decade Wilder pulled his audience into the theater again to witness, with the help of the Stage Manager, the growing up, marrying, living, and dying of members of the Webb and the Gibbs families in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, their mythical American yet thoroughly universal hometown. In a handwritten note, most likely dating from the sixties, Wilder further explained himself as a dramatist as he defined Emily's discovery in the last act of Our Town:

She learns that each life — though it appears to be a repetition among millions — can be felt to be inestimably precious. Though the realization of it is present to us seldom, briefly, and incommunicably. At the moment there are no walls, no chairs, no tables: all is inward. Our true life is in the imagination and in the memory.

From Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven. Copyright 2012 by Penelope Niven. Excerpted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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