THORNTON WILDER, American dramatist (d. 1975); Nowadays, you’re supposed to be decidedly middle-brow if you get wet-eyed at the concluding scenes of Our Town. Well, hell, who wants to be high-brow anyway?! So admit it, the end of that play really gets you every time doesn’t it? (Well, almost every time. When June Allyson attempted to play the lead many years ago, the perverse among us cheered when Emily died in childbirth.)
When you think of that famous closing scene, with its umbrellas and the folding chairs on which the dead of “Grovers Corners” sit, think of Samuel M Steward (see July 23) who, when Wilder was having difficulties finishing his play, accompanied the playwright on a long, long walk in the rain. The next day, Wilder completed his play. Steward later quipped, “Wilder was a superb craftsman, but now that his homosexuality has been officially recognized, his reputation is almost certain to slip. As we all know, queers don’t know how to write plays.”
Wilder’s Our Town, set in fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire was inspired by his friend Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans, and many elements of Stein’s deconstructive style can be found throughout the work. Our Town employs a choric narrator called the “Stage Manager” and a minimalist set to underscore the universality of human experience. (Wilder himself played the Stage Manager on Broadway for two weeks and later in summer stock productions.)
Following the daily lives of the Gibbs and Webb families as well as the other inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, Wilder illustrates the importance of the universality of the simple, yet meaningful lives of all people in the world in order to demonstrate the value of appreciating life. The play won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize. That same year Max Reinhardt directed a Broadway production of The Merchant of Yonkers, which Wilder had adapted from Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy’s Einen Jux will er sich machen (1842). It was a failure, closing after just 39 performances.
Another of his failures, his Broadway effort in 1938, The Merchant of Yonkers, was, well there’s no other way to put it, a bomb. But wait, there’s more. Wilder re-worked it in 1954 with a new title – The Matchmaker. That time it worked and a decade later was adapted as a little musical called Hello, Dolly!