A Note from a Nephew


I had my first highly personal encounter with Our Town in the winter of 1955 when I played the part of Professor Willard in a high school production situated on planet earth in Dedham, Massachusetts, latitude 42 degrees 14.5 minutes North; longitude 71 degrees 10.0 minutes West. I was a ninth grader, frozen with fright that I would mispronounce the word “Pleistocene.” Of course, I did, in a never-forgotten unhappy moment in my life.

The 1955 production did not mark the end of my connection with Our Town. In the intervening half-century, now always (and happily) situated on the other side of the non-curtain, I have attended many memorable amateur and professional productions of the play. But that’s not all; eleven years ago, in 1995, I became the manager of my uncle’s intellectual property. Where Our Town is concerned this has meant almost daily encounters with the many “actors” involved with this play. Here I speak of dramatic and literary agents, translators, attorneys, publicists, producers, directors, actors, students of Thornton Wilder’s life and work of all ages, conservators and collectors of its many and varied pieces — and now a librettist and a composer.

Since my run-in with Professor Willard, I have never failed to feel my heart stop as the play draws to a close and the Stage Manager, now in total command of the stage — it seems like the whole world to me — wishes the audience good night.]

The test of a good play, Wilder said in 1940, is one “at which the audience don’t cough.” But what about sniffles, a quiet cry, even weeping? (Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn wept publicly after Our Town’s Broadway world premiere on February 4, 1938.) I have seldom attended a performance of Our Town where some sounds of this nature were not present in the house. And it is no surprise to me that some lovers of the play cannot return a second time. Why? Because they cannot endure the emotional reverberations set off in head and heart by Emily and the Stage Manager’s dialogue about the meaning and missed opportunities of life.

As the playwright reminded fans over and over, Our Town is not about small town life but Life itself – “it’s about everywhere.” And “everywhere” would certainly seem to describe the rich diversity of the play’s sources, as well as the variety of locations where the playwright did his work.

Our Town, directed by David Cromer at Huntington Theatre Company, 2012

Our Town, directed by David Cromer at Huntington Theatre Company, 2012

Wilder was an artist with a command of several foreign languages and an intimate knowledge of the literary treasures of several cultures. As he wrote Our Town he drew on the Bible, the classics, Dante, Shakespeare, post-World War I avant-garde drama and literature, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his experiences working on farms as a boy and young man in California, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Connecticut, Gertrude Stein’s sense of the American experience, and certain Chinese and Japanese theatrical traditions.

And in searching for roots, we cannot overlook the foreshadowing of Our Town to be found in Wilder’s own earlier plays and novels, notably his third novel The Woman of Andros (1930), one-act plays Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (both 1931), and a three-minute play, The Angel That Troubled the Waters (1928). Let us give these works the collective name they deserve: a theatrical tool chest for Our Town.

The playwright tells us that his play “is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village,” although he knew that life well. He observes further that he “set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place.” As he wrote his play about “everywhere,” he worked in Peterborough, New Hampshire; New Haven, Connecticut; Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island; St. Moritz, Sils-Maria, Ascona and Ruschlikon in Switzerland; on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, and on ships at sea.

With all these places in mind, it seems appropriate that Thornton Wilder said of himself in the late ’20s and early ’30s: “I think of my work as being French in form and manners (Saint-Simon and La Bruyère); German in feeling (Bach and Beethoven); and American in eagerness.”

And so it is that when I step into a theater with Our Town on the marquée, I sense a world-in-the-making. And I always recall with a smile and a tug at the heart, even before the show begins, the memory of an uncle who was a playwright laughingly instructing a crowd of family and friends rushing from the table to get to the theater in time: “Take your handkerchiefs, take your handkerchiefs . . .”

Tappan Wilder April 2006 (rev. 2008)

Criticism, FeaturedTappan Wilder