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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dramaturgy | Thornton Wilder on Our Town

compiled by Sarah Slight, Dramaturg

Thornton Wilder wrote many letters to Gertrude Stein (and her, to him) and he credits her for inspiration and ideas in Our Town. Reading their letters, in combination with his journals, sheds light on his writing, process, and the ideas behind the play. They even convey a bit of the rocky relationship he had with Our Town's first producer, Jed Harris, and a few of his misgivings or doubts before the play's success. Here are a few excerpts that I think you'll enjoy.

Writing Our Town
 “I can no longer conceal from you that I’m writing the most beautiful little play you can imagine. Every morning bring[s] an hour’s increment to it and that’s all, but I’ve finished two acts already. It’s a little play with all the big subjects in it; and it’s a big play with all the little things of life lovingly impressed into it. And when I finish it next Friday, there’s another coming around the corner. Lope de Vega wrote three plays a week in his thirties and four plays a week in his forties and so I let these come as they like. This play is an immersion, immersion into a New Hampshire town. It’s called “Our Town” and its 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 already” (Letters, 175).
 “Last night no sleep, but an influx of ideas that make my little play the most beautiful one you can imagine” (Letters, 179).
Becky Ann Baker and John Rubinstein
 “My play No #1 is as far as the stage has gone toward “mere” description. A New Hampshire town: its daily life; its living; its dead; its weather; its geology; its sociology; its mores as seen by an archeologist a thousand years from now, its birth and death statistics; and how Mrs. Gibbs ironed Dr. Gibbs’ shirts—all in one great curve: quod erat demonstrandum” (Letters, 182). *QED is used to convey that a fact or situation demonstrates the truth of one's theory or claim.
 “Nature (clouds, mountains, trees, sunsets, stars) is said to be beautiful. Bergson suggests that we did not find these beautiful until Art opened our eyes to that beauty…I had not sufficiently taken into account the fact that the emotion of beauty in nature derives also from recall (the reminder) of the sights that surrounded us when we were happy. A portion of every childhood is happy; in the majority of cases a large portion of every childhood is happy. Leaving aside for a moment the objections raised by Mrs. Apfelstrudel that there are many unhappy childhoods…I now declare that the beauty of nature is a qualification we confer on those things (effects of light and moisture surrounding land, sea, and air) which recall to us the surroundings of our happier hours. Natural beauty is a memory of the scenery that we scarcely noticed in our early life during moments when we were deeply stirred. The child being taken on a walk, a drive, by the big mysterious loved one, is storing up the norms of what he will later recognize as the concomitant—the d├ęcor—of happiness” (Journals 244).
 “The intervening material need not be as freighted with emphasis as thought, and should not be, but the theatric invention must tirelessly transform every fragment of dialogue into a stylization surprising, comic, violent, or picturesque. Here lies the increased difficulty over the writing of Our Town, where the essence of the play lay in the contrast between the passages of generalization and those of relaxed and homely tone. Had I not all my writing life been convinced of the fact that the subconscious writes our work for us, digests during the night or in its night the demands we make upon it, ceaselessly groping about for the subject’s outlets, tapping at all possibilities, finding relationship between all the parts to the whole and to one another—had I not long been convinced of this I would have been the other night. Turning over the play in feverish insomnia, I suddenly saw that there, waiting for me in the structure of the Act, was a felicity, integral, completely implicit and yet hitherto unforeseen…” (Journals 23). *The play mentioned at the end of this quote is Skin of Our Teeth--isn't his writing in his subconscious fascinating?
 “My play, golly!” (Letters, 188).

Our Town in Production
Jessica Hecht, Will Rogers and Dylan Baker
 “As you predicted Jed [Harris—the producer] got the notion that he had written the play and was still writing it, As long as his suggestions for alterations are on the structure they are often very good; but once they apply to the words they are always bad and sometimes atrocious. There have been some white-hot flaring fights. At present we are in a lull of reconcilement. The play opens a week from Sat[urday] (Jan 22) in Princeton, New Jersey, for one night; then goes to Boston for two weeks; then enters New York. Even with Jed’s sentences in it—which I hope gradually abrade away—it is a very good play. The cast is fine. But that’s not all: Morning’s—Jed’s first phone calls don’t start before noon, nor cease until 3: A.M…” (Letters, 206).
 “The theatre’s a furnace. Its been one long fight to preserve me [i.e. my] text from the interpolations of Jed Harris, and I’ve only won 50% of the time. We opened in Princeton. Then we opened in Boston. Now we open Friday night in New York. The play no longer moves or even interests me; now all I want out of it is money. Money so that I can feel justified in going off to Arizona and write some more,--reconstruct the mode of life I had at Zurich. The may be a failure. The newspapers in Boston were not much more than luke-warm. But in every audience there are a few people who are extremely enthusiastic” (Letters, 207-208).
 “Perhaps this bare stage will never be completely right within our theatre; nevertheless, although a compromise, I hope to wrest some signal advantages from it for this play. Foremost is the already proven suggestibility of the imagined scene. In Our Town that was accompanied by a studied resort to changes of lighting” (Journals 43).

Playing the Stage Manager
Thornton Wilder playing Stage Manager in WTF's 1959 Our Town
 “Girls, what do you think? I’m playing the leading role in my play—six nights a week and two matinees. Wouldn’t that freeze you? Every night my insides turn white—all that memorization to sustain—its like walking a tight-rope of danger. I’m only doing it for 2 weeks while Frank Craven gets a rest” (Letters, 223).
 “So I’ve been acting all Summer. I will have played it in four different theatres with four entirely different casts. Its been very successful. In places, we’ve broken house records; chairs in the aisles; ovations; weepings. Being present at these repetitions I get to know the play pretty well and I find a lot to wince at in addition to some fine wincing at the actors’ renderings, but I hope I’ve learned a lot that can go into future plays” (Letters, 242).

Peterborough, NH
 “There’s only one thing that’s a little disappointing about this. And that is missing July at Peterboro’. I shall be there all June, but the advantage of that place lie in duration. June and July in that deep pine-wood is what I need most of all. I have an Arabian Night play-subject that’s a fine house-afire, and I could only grasp it and devour it in the Green Isolation up there” (Letters, 146). 

Excerpts from The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder edited by Edward M. Burns and Ulla E. Dydo with William Rice and The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961 selected and edited by Donald Gallup.

2010 photos by Sam Hough. 1959 photo by William Tague.

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