Scene4 Magazine: Kathi Wolfe - Life Among The Heffalumps

March 2013

Seventy-Fifth Anniversary for a Town That Never Dies

Dear Mr. Thornton Wilder:

Mea culpa!  Until this year, I thought you were a renowned, but conventional playwright and novelist. As a child, sitting with my Mom in a New York theater, I was bedazzled by Carol Channing's mesmerizing performance as Dolly Levi in the hit musical "Hello Dolly." ("Dolly" was based on your play "The Matchmaker"– an adaptation of your earlier work "The Merchant of Venice.") Later, in high school, we were required to read your most famous play "Our Town" and to see a production of it at a community theater.  Though I knew your beloved, Pulitzer Prize winning saga of "Grover's Corners," the fictional small New Hampshire town that never dies, is performed almost daily worldwide, I had pegged your work as good, but cozy. To my callow thinking, if iconic playwrights were food, Tennessee Williams was hot, spicy gumbo; Eugene O'Neill was a somber, intricate souffle; and you were a relaxed fit, comfy meatloaf.

I know I'm being snarky, Mr. Wilder, but please don't write me off.  I'm happy to tell you that my view of your work and of your place in the pantheon of our great playwrights has recently changed.  What caused this transformation?  The cultural moment that you're having now.  Seventy-five years ago, "Our Town" opened on Broadway.  To mark this milestone, last month, Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. presented a production of "Our Town" and American University's Harold and Sylvia Theatre presented your other Pulitzer-Prize winning play "The Skin of Our Teeth"; a new bio of you "Thornton Wilder: A Life" by Penelope Niven is just out; and "Hello Dolly" will run at Ford's Theatre from March 15 to May 18.

This flurry of attention to your work stirred my curiosity. I became engrossed by Niven's engaging biography of you, reread "Our Town" for the first time in decades, and caught Ford's anniversary production of your classic play.  Some of my friends thought I'd gone off the rails.  "I wouldn't want to see that," my pal Penny said, "'Our Town' is so depressing!"

"I've heard too many scenes from 'Our Town' in acting classes to get excited about seeing it," another friend told me.

Despite the leeriness of my buddies, after reading Niven's bio and seeing Ford's production, not only "Our Town" but your artistic vision struck me way differently than they had before.  I'd had no idea that contrary to my misperception, you not only weren't an avuncular part of the American artistic mainstream but an avant-garde modernist.  I didn't know that your creative influences included Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, James Joyce and Luigi Pirandello or that, while you likely had few romantic relationships, you were friends with everyone from Stein to boxing champion Gene Tunney to Ruth Gordon.  Most importantly, I discovered that using deceptively simple language, in "Our Town," you not only illuminate daily life in a small American town in the early 20th century, but bring us face to face with our mortality and the timelessness and transience of life in the 21th century.

After an excellent production (such as the one I saw at Ford's) of your popular, but sometimes (in this ironic age) under-rated play, we come away from the theater, intensely wondering like Emily "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"

"When Wilder wrote the play, he saw himself as being in the forefront of the modernist tradition," Stephen Rayne who directed "Our Town" at Ford's, told me when I interviewed him about you for "The Washington Blade, "He had become dissatisfied with theater on Broadway at the time {when the play first opened there}."

The minimalist staging that you wanted for "Our Town," though not uncommon now, was radical when your play opened in 1938.  Perhaps, surprisingly, critics and audiences liked your work.  Yet, over the years, you've often been seen, at least in the United States, as not being as innovative – as great – as other renown American playwrights. "Whenever...the discussion turns to the essential American playwrights – the ones whose accomplishments define our culture–I'm always startled and confused that Thornton Wilder's name comes to the fore so infrequently," Edward Albee writes in the forward to Niven's bio of you, "If I were asked to name what I consider to be the finest serious American play, I would immediately say Our Town–not for its giant Americanness but because it is a superbly written, gloriously observed, tough, and breathtaking statement of what it is to be alive, the wonder and hopeless loss of the space between birth and the grave."

Happy anniversary, Mr. Wilder.  "Our Town" made me feel gloriously, heartbreakingly alive.

All the best,


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©2013 Kathi Wolfe
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine - Kathi Wolfe |
Kathi Wolfe is a writer, poet and a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
Her reviews and commentary have also appeared in an array of publications.

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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March 2013

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