Arts & Events
Thornton Wilder created a substantial body of work but there seems little doubt that his lasting fame depends on Our Town. Since its opening on Broadway 70 years ago this extraordinary play has never really been off the stage. New productions of it open somewhere in the world almost every month.
Wilder was born in Wisconsin in 1897, but he spent important childhood and adolescent years in Berkeley. When he was 9, his father was appointed U.S. Consul-General in China. The whole family traveled with him to his post, but Thornton’s mother quickly decided Hong Kong was no place for her and the children (Thornton had a brother and two sisters). She promptly took them back to the United States, and they settled in Berkeley for four years.
They lived on the south side of the University campus, at the corner of Parker Street and College Avenue. Thornton attended Emerson Grammar School at Forest and Piedmont Avenues, and McKinley School on Dwight Way, between Dana and Telegraph Avenue. When he was ten he discovered music. As his sister Isabel wrote, “...St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, about two-and-a-half blocks from our Congregational church in Berkeley, had...an excellent organist and choir-master, and Thornton had discovered that a boy was needed to pump the organ when the organist practiced...Happening to meet the rector of St. Mark’s, Mother dared to ask if it would be possible for Thornton to be a choir boy. It all came together ... [he was] excused from our Sunday School five minutes early so that he could dash over to St. Mark’s, get helped into a little white cotta...and march down the aisle singing joyously ... The organist appreciated Thornton’s thirst for music ... and let him practice a little on the organ.”
At about the same time Thornton discovered the theater and began writing plays for himself and his siblings to perform at home. In her preface to his “Alcestiad,” Isabel Wilder said: “Several times a year the [UC] Classics Department mounted productions of plays by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides [at the Greek Theater]. Our mother joined the volunteer workers in the costume shop and stenciled furlongs of borders in the Greek key or laurel leaf patterns on gorgeously colored togas. She made a little blue one with shells around the hem for Thornton—and a green one for brother Amos—and sent them off to apply for roles as members of the Athenian mob. Thus Thornton discovered “total” theater and the Golden Age of Antiquity.
In 1911, when Thornton was 13, the family reunited briefly in Shanghai, only to scatter again. Mrs. Wilder returned to Berkeley in 1913, rented a house on Prospect Street (near today’s Memorial Stadium) and gathered her children around her. Thornton enrolled at Berkeley High School for his junior and senior years. According to Gilbert Harrison’s description, at fifteen he was thin, “about five feet eight inches tall, with a straight nose, firm chin, thick eyebrows...a high forehead, and wavy black hair.” He was also socially inept, badly dressed, and thought by his classmates to be an odd duck.
Thornton escaped from the slings and arrows of his daily life by reading voraciously in the high school library and, after he discovered it, the University library. He also indulged in day dreams. Once, while walking to school he was “sky-gazing” and walked into a telephone pole. He grew out of this, but in his early days at college, memories of being a misfit came upon him “every now and then” and he “remembered what it was like at Berkeley High.”
Despite his problems he accomplished a lot in those two years. Most importantly, he wrote plays. One, The Advertisement League, was performed at a school assembly. He also started writing a series of very short, three-minute plays. When he published a selection of them in The Angel That Troubled the Water (1928), he included two written at Berkeley High, Proserpina and the Devil and Brother Fire.
His absorption in the East Bay’s theatrical offerings became intense. He attended classical plays at the Greek Theater and serious drama at local community theaters. And once a week he went to Oakland to see touring companies from New York perform the comedies and melodramas of the day. Among the actors he saw were Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Margaret Anglin and Sidney Howard. He may have been an ungainly teenager, but he saw all this through the eyes of genius.
Wilder graduated from Berkeley High in 1915, attended Oberlin and Yale, served in the Coast Guard, and found a teaching post in Rome. Thornton Wilder was a gay man and very protective of his privacy; it seems to have been in Italy that he came out and began to live on his own terms.
But there is no doubt that after years of preoccupation with theater, Rome is where he began writing fiction. When his first novel, The Cabala, appeared in 1926 Edmund Wilson thought it “...quite extraordinary that a novelist so young should display from the first page of his very first book, so accomplished a mastery of form and a point of view so much his own.” Wilder followed it with The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Woman of Andros, and Heaven’s My Destination.
Our Town was suggested to Wilder by “Lucinda Matlock,” a poem in Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology. Lying in her grave, Lucinda remembers how she “went to the dances at Chandlerville,” and
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
...I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years...
These lines inspired him with the desire to “record a village’s life on stage, with realism and with generality...the life of a village against the life of the stars.” He succeeded completely. Our Town is a powerful work which makes an indelible impression on any receptive viewer.
In developing Our Town Wilder employed ideas he had discussed with his friend Gertrude Stein, another former East Bay resident. They had met in Paris, and Wilder was impressed by her vast novel, The Making of Americans (subtitled “Being a History of a Family’s Progress”). He wrote to her that his play’s “third act is based on your ideas, as on great pillars” and “whether you know it or not, until further notice, you’re in a deep-knit collaboration.”
In The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder, Edward Burns and Ulla Dydo have pointed out “structural parallels” between Stein’s book and Wilder’s play: Act 1 deals with “daily life;” Act 2, with “love and marriage;” and Act 3, with “death.” In their view, Stein’s book goes “rolling along inexorably in huge incremental epic waves,” while Wilder’s play is “small” and “homey” in its New England setting “with its astonishingly accurate portrayal of daily life.”
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas took a rooting interest in the plays success. As opening night approached, they developed a case of first night jitters, and Gertrude sent him an urgent letter. “My dear Thornton,” she wrote, “Where oh where is that cable telling all about how the play went, what happened, we say it to each other every morning, why no word from Thornton and there is not even an echo that answers nein...tell us what happened to you and be quick about it and lots of love now and always.”
They needn’t have worried. The play opened in February 1938, and began a triumphant run of 336 performances.
Our Town struck audiences as revolutionary in technique because it abandoned conventional staging. There were no paintings hanging on the walls of the set. In fact, there were no walls. The props consisted of folding chairs arranged by the stage manager, an actor who also narrated the story. It marked a bold return to the bare stage of classical drama which Wilder had seen as a boy in Berkeley.
Wilder’s imagination gives life to Our Town, and his Grovers Corners draws on all the small towns he had lived in. His transformation of his material is so complete that specific places cannot be recognized. There are, of course, tantalizing moments that invite speculation. For example, the choir rehearsal and the character of Simon Stimson, the organist, may draw remotely on Wilder’s youth in Berkeley. A sensitive musician trapped in a world of tone deaf singers, Stimson’s choir makes his teeth hurt. In despair he beseeches the singers to remember that “music came into the world to give pleasure.” It was at St. Mark’s, Isabel Wilder told us, that love of church music became a permanent part of Thornton’s life.
Of The Matchmaker, one of his last important plays, he wrote, “This play parodies the stock-company plays that I used to see at Ye Liberty Theater, Oakland, California, when I was a boy.” It is a mellow romp in which, as the Daily Planet’s Ken Bullock wrote recently, out of a series of farcical and comic coincidences, “a charming happy ending befalls everyone.”
Thornton Wilder spent six years of his childhood and youth in Berkeley, and those years played their part in his work. He became a major figure in our literature and, after a long and productive life, died in his sleep at home in Connecticut on Dec. 7, 1975.
Phil McArdle is at work on a book about Sidney Howard.