Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is widely considered to be a classic American play: It puts plain-spoken lyricism on an empty stage with a story as simple as life and death.
Wilder was also an acclaimed novelist and essayist, but none of his dramas were as enduring as Our Town, which won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize. The play explores life — from childhood to marriage to death — in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, N.H. It’s been produced for film, radio and television, starring, at times, Paul Newman, Hal Holbrook, Helen Hunt and Frank Sinatra. In fact, the play is probably being performed by a community, church, high school or professional theater group somewhere this fall.
Now, acclaimed biographer Penelope Niven has written a book, Thornton Wilder: A Life, that tells the story of how the signature play came to be written. She joins NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss Wilder’s life and the universal appeal of Our Town.
On Wilder’s lost twin brother
“Thornton was the second live child born into the Wilder family. He had an older brother, Amos, and Thornton’s twin brother died at birth. Like many twinless twins, this was a death event which haunted him for most of his life. He felt a certain incompletion because that brother had not survived. He felt … some guilt because he was the survivor and perhaps he had deprived that brother of blood or tissue or breath or life. The last novel [he wrote], Theophilus North, is Thornton’s imagined re-creation of the life of that twin who didn’t survive. He put his wonderful imagination to work on inventing some experiences, some episodes, designing a life that that twin brother might have lived had he survived the birth.”
On Wilder’s radical decision to forgo curtains and scenery for Our Town in favor of a bare stage
“I think I speak for many theatergoers when I say that it takes a few minutes to absorb the impact of the bare stage. But soon you give yourself up to it, and you do what Thornton hoped you would do and that was to envision the play, to experience it, through the filter of your own life and your own imagination. He told us, soon after he had written Our Town, that our true lives are lived in the imagination and the memory, and that was one of the principal reasons that he avoided props and sets and scenery. He didn’t want to define that for his audience. He wanted each member of each audience to bring his or her unique experience, unique imagination and memory to the experience of that play.”
On where Wilder wrote Our Town
“He wrote the play all over that map. He wrote Our Town at the MacDowell Colony [artist retreat] up in Peterborough, N.H.; and he wrote Our Town in a little hotel on the outskirts of Zurich, Switzerland; and he wrote Our Town on Long Island; he wrote it on ships and he wrote it on trains and he wrote it wherever he happened to be. And all the while, Scott, while he was traveling around to write, gypsy that he was, he was listening, he was observing, he was a witness. He loved to pick up some conversation in a bar or on the train or in a restaurant and somehow later to incorporate that into the play. He’s very much attuned to the American vernacular while he’s working on Our Town. Even if he’s working on it in Switzerland, he still has in his ear the cadences and the vocabulary of the American experience.”
On the universal appeal of Grover’s Corners
“This is a little mythical village. And in this mythical village, he incorporates characteristics from every mythical village. I grew up in a little town in North Carolina, population 800. When I read Our Town as a teenager, I was positive the play had been written about Waxhaw, N.C. And it’s so interesting to look at translations. There’ve been 70 or more translations of Our Town and I love picking up those editions and looking at the covers and, if it’s been translated in Poland or Germany or Korea, the cover picture is not Grover’s Corners, N.H.; it’s a village or a town in that particular country. It’s just vivid, graphic documentation of the universal connection that this play has made.”
On the much-quoted speech from Our Town in which the character Emily Webb returns to earth for a day after dying in childbirth: “Goodbye to clocks ticking — and my butternut tree! And Mama’s sunflowers — and food and coffee — and new-ironed dresses and hot baths — and sleeping and waking up! Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”
“I think it comes from deep within Thornton Wilder’s heart and spirit. It brings to mind conversations I’ve had recently with so many people about the play; people who were in the play, people who saw the play, people who directed the play. But two actors in particular … in their wonderfully mature years, have said to me that they never fully comprehended Emily’s words until now, in their 70s and in their 80s. The play has brought them to tears in ways that didn’t when they were 20 or 40 or 60 years younger. … It’s something I’ve certainly taken to heart since I’ve had the privilege of working on this biography. That is, as Emily says, every, every day matters, every moment. And Thornton was so concerned about expressing in his work and in his own life just the value of every moment of the most ordinary part of the most ordinary day. The idea that Tuesday can be a particularly ordinary day … that on that day or any other day of life at any moment, we simply need to experience, to treasure those things; to look at the now and look at each other — reallylook at each other. How wonderful that Thornton and Emily remind us of those opportunities.”