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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Special Feature | From the Wilder Estate

Please enjoy these biographical materials on Thornton Wilder from his estate, which still manages all the rights for productions of his plays and publications of his plays and books. --Sarah Slight, Dramaturg

  • 1897 Born in Madison, Wisconsin (April 17)
  • 1906 Moves to Hong Kong (May) & to Berkeley, California (October)
  • 1906-10 Attends Emerson Public School in Berkeley
  • 1910-11 Attends China Inland Mission School, Chefoo, China (one year)
  • 1912-13 Attends Thacher School, Ojai, California, The Russian Princess, Wilder’s first play known to be produced, is performed by Thacher students
  • 1915 Graduates from Berkeley High School; active in school dramatics
  • 1915-17 Attends Oberlin College; publishes regularly
  • 1920 Receives B.A. from Yale College (with brief service in the fall of 1918 with U.S. Army); many publications
  • 1920-21 Attends American Academy in Rome as special student
  • 1920s Teaches at Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey 1924 ('21-'25, and '27-'28)
  • 1924 First visit to the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire
  • 1926 Receives M.A. degree in French, Princeton University
  • The Trumpet Shall Sound produced in New York Off-Broadway Laboratory Theatre
  • The Cabala (first novel)
  • 1927 Second Novel: The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Pulitzer Prize)
  • 1928 The Angel That Troubled The Waters (first published collection of drama—playlets)
  • 1930s Part-time teacher, University of Chicago (comparative literature and composition); lectures across the country;
  • first visit to Hollywood (1934); extensive foreign travel
  • 1930 The Woman of Andros (novel)
  • 1931 The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays (six full one-act plays)
  • 1932 Lucrece (translation of André Obey’s Le Viol de Lucrèce) opens on Broadway staring Katharine Cornell
  • 1935 Heaven’s My Destination (novel)
  • 1937 Adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for Broadway with Ruth Gordon (Broadway record for this play until 1999)
  • 1938 Our Town opens on Broadway (Pulitzer Prize); Performs role of The Stage Manager for two weeks
  • 1942 The Skin of Our Teeth opens on Broadway (Pulitzer Prize), Writes screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Shadow of a Doubt
  • 1942-45 Military service with Army Air Force Intelligence in North Africa and Italy
  • 1948 The Ides of March (novel), Performs his plays in summer stock
  • The Victors off-Broadway (translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts Sans Sépulture)
  • 1949 Major role in Goethe Convocation in Aspen; Lectures widely abroad
  • 1951-52 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard
  • 1952 Gold Medal for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters
  • 1953 on cover of Time Magazine (January 12)
  • 1955 The Matchmaker opens on Broadway with Ruth Gordon (revision of the 1938 The Merchant of Yonkers)
  • 1955 The Alcestiad produced at Edinburgh Festival (as A Life in the Sun) with Irene Worth
  • 1957 Awarded German Booksellers Peace Prize, first American to receive this award
  • 1961 Opera version of The Long Christmas Dinner (music by Paul Hindemith, libretto by Wilder) premieres in Mannheim,
  • Germany, December 20, 1961
  • 1962 Plays for Bleeker Street (Someone from Assisi, Infancy, and Childhood) performed at Circle in the Square Theater in New York City, Operatic version of The Alcestiad (music by Louise Talma, libretto by Wilder) premieres in Frankfurt, Germany, February 28, 1962
  • 1963 Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • 1964 Hello, Dolly! Opens on Broadway with Carol Channing
  • 1965 Awarded National Book Committee’s Medal for Literature
  • 1967 The Eighth Day (novel); receives National Book Award for Fiction
  • 1973 Theophilus North (novel)
  • 1975 Dies in sleep in Hamden, Connecticut (December 7)

About Thornton Niven Wilder

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, and educated at Yale and Princeton, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) was an accomplished novelist and playwright whose works explore the connection between the commonplace and the cosmic dimensions of human experience. The
Bridge of San Luis Rey, the second of his seven novels, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, and his next-to-last novel, The Eighth Day received the National Book Award (1968). Two of his four major plays garnered Pulitzer Prizes, Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1943). His play The Matchmaker ran on Broadway for 486 performances (1955-1957), Wilder’s Broadway record, and was later adapted into the record-breaking musical Hello, Dolly! Wilder also enjoyed enormous success with many other forms of the written and spoken word, among them acting, teaching and lecturing, as well as writing translations, opera librettos, and films (his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt remains a classic to this day). Letter writing held a central place in Wilder’s life, and since his death, three volumes of his letters have been published. Wilder’s many honors include the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Book Committee’s Medal for Literature. On April 17, 1997, the centenary of his birth, the US Postal Service unveiled the Thornton Wilder 32-cent stamp in
Hamden, Connecticut, his official address after 1930. He died at his Hamden home on December 7, 1975.

Wilder continues to be read and performed around the world. Our Town is performed at least once each day somewhere in this country or abroad, with his other major dramas and shorter plays not far behind. In 2008, Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey were selected as a joint choice for the NEA’s “Big Read” Program. In recent years Wilder’s works have also inspired a growing number of adaptations, among them an opera based on Our Town (music by Ned Rorem, libretto by J.D. McClatchy) and a dramatized versions of Theophilus North (Matt Burnett). Reflecting the renewed interest in Wilder, the Thornton Wilder Society sponsored the first international conference on Wilder in fall 2008.

Publications Available in Bookstores Everywhere
  • The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder, HarperCollins. Edited by Robin G. Wilder & Jackson R. Bryer, 2008. Paperback 2009.
  • The Library of America Collection, Edited by J.D. McClatchy, with a detailed chronology, notes and selected unpublished material.Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays & Writings on Theatre (2007), The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Other Novels 1926-1948 (2009)
  • HarperCollins 9-volume re-issue of Wilder’s novels and major plays.These publications feature Forewards by noted authors and Afterwords by Tappan Wilder containing a brief history of the work drawing upon extensive unpublished sources.The Bridge of San Luis Rey Forward by Russell Banks; The Cabala & The Woman of Andros Forward by Penelope Niven; The Eighth Day Forward by John Updike; Heaven’s My Destination Forward by J.D. McClatchy; The Ides of March Forward by Kurt Vonnegut; Our Town Forward by Donald Margulies; The Skin of Our Teeth Forward by Paula Vogel; Theophilus North Forward by Christopher Buckley; Three Plays: Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, Matchmaker Forward by John Guare.
  • The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder published by TCG Press. Vol. I. Foreword by John Guare, with five plays published for the first time (1997); Vol. II. Foreword by A.R. Gurney, with full-length play The Alcestiad (1998).
  • New Acting Editions, Thornton Wilder’s Playlets: Short, Short Plays for 3-5 Persons published by Playscripts, Inc. Twenty-two 3-5 minute plays written between 1917 & 1928 and released for the first time in an acting edition in 2009; The Beaux’ Stratagem published by Samuel French Adapted by Thornton Wilder and Ken Ludwig from George Farquhar’s late-Restoration comedy begun by Wilder in the ‘30s & completed by Ludwig in 2006. World premiere: The Shakespeare Theater, Washington, D.C., Nov. 2006.
  • Forthcoming, Thornton Wilder: A Biography by Penelope Niven. HarperCollins, 2011

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