Wild about Wilder
A notation about a fourth act to come indicates Thornton Wilder wasn’t finished with “Villa Rhabani,” a play about a rich American widow on the island of Capri and the people chasing after her money. He wrote the play sometime between 1921 and 1928 when he was teaching at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. The first two acts are typewritten and a handwritten third act ends with the plot shrouded, appropriately, in a mystery, said Tappan Wilder, his nephew and literary executor of his estate.
“I would call it comedy of manners with a bite,” Tappan Wilder said of his uncle’s play found in archives at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “It’s a mystery as to how close he came to finishing it. The third act is not polished. The third act is in his handwriting.”
While Thornton Wilder’s most famous play “Our Town” (1938) is staged “at least once a day somewhere in the world,” Tappan Wilder said there are no plans to publish “Villa Rhabani.” Permission has been granted for a production in Italy this summer, but fans of its celebrated author have a rare chance to hear excerpts read by Trinity Repertory Company actors at an evening reception at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum on Thursday, June 11 during the Second International Thornton Wilder Conference. Salve Regina University is hosting the three-day conference. (The first conference was held in 2008 at the College of New Jersey.)
The international gathering of leading academics and theater professionals will feature more than 20 presentations, round table conversations, panel discussions and readings in the city Thornton Wilder first came to as a 1st Coast Artillery Corps of the National Army corporal stationed at Fort Adams during the final months of World War I. He returned to Newport in the summer of 1922 and lived at the YMCA and tutored children of Newport families to earn living expenses while working on his first novel, “The Cabala.”
That experience would become the basis for “Theophilus North,” his last and most autobiographical novel published in 1973. The film version called “Mr. North” was filmed in Newport in 1987, directed by Danny Huston with Anthony Edwards in the title role.
Thornton Wilder returned to Newport often during his lifetime to work on plays or novels or his nonfiction, staying in the then-called Castle Hill Inn and The Viking, his nephew said. Thornton Wilder also worked on his Pulitzer Prize winning 1927 novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” — the story of how the victims of a collapsed Inca rope bridge in Peru were connected — in Newport.
His next-to-last novel, “The Eighth Day,” received the National Book Award in 1968. “Our Town” and “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1943) also won Pulitzer Prizes, and his play “The Matchmaker” (1954) ran on Broadway for 486 performances between 1955 and 1957 before being adapted into the musical “Hello, Dolly!”
Tappan Wilder will give a talk Friday, July 12, at an evening reception at Salve Regina University’s McKillop Library about the full-time job he’s had since 1995 when his aunt Isabel Wilder died at age 95, resulting in the transfer of responsibility for the majority of the intellectual property rights in his uncle’s works to him. Tappan Wilder, 75, who lives in Sausalito, California, is the son of Thornton Wilder’s older brother Amos Wilder.
Conference highlights on Friday, June 12, include a lunchtime panel discussion about marketing Thornton Wilder in the 21st century with his publishers, agents and managers and a roundtable discussion on directing his works with Long Wharf Theatre Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and Princeton University’s Head of Theater Timothy Vasen. Saturday, June 13, will include presentations on a series of recent nontraditional productions, including a semester-long project with high school students on “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” and the staff of a psychiatric hospital creating a production of “Our Town.” There will also be a conversation with playwrights Matthew Burnett, Will Eno and Paula Vogel. A banquet dinner will feature the presentation of The Thornton Wilder Prize to Vogel and a reading by “Orange is the New Black” actress Maria Dizzia.