• Thornton Wilder has become a man of two books. Our Town continues to be revived and The Bridge of San Luis Rey read, but I’ve yet to see a professional production of The Skin of Our Teeth or The Matchmaker (which is now known mainly as the source of Hello, Dolly!) or heard anyone mention any of his other novels in conversation (though I read Heaven’s My Destination many years ago). Hence it is with no small interest that I’ve spent the past week reading Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (Library of America, 871 pp., $40). I haven’t always been impressed with the Library of America’s editorial decisions, but Wilder was an obvious call, and J.D. McClatchy, who recently turned Our Town into an opera libretto for Ned Rorem, was exactly the right man to edit this extremely well-chosen collection of Wilder’s theater-related output. McClatchy’s annotations are copious and exemplary—I’d like to see him write a Wilder biography—and it was shrewd of him to include the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, for which Wilder, it appears, was mainly responsible.
Should Wilder’s other plays be staged more frequently? The question, I fear, is irrelevant, for The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker both require too many actors to be easily produced outside of a festival setting, which is one of the reasons why Our Town is the only one of his full-length plays that continues to be revived regularly. The other reason is that it’s by far the best thing he ever wrote, though reading The Skin of Our Teeth for the first time in a quarter-century has made me curious to see how it would look on stage (it comes across on the page as more than a little bit twee). For all its obvious weaknesses, Our Town is still a great play and a quintessentially American work of art. It reads surprisingly well, too, though the best way to experience it at home is to watch Sam Wood’s mostly straightforward 1940 film version, which preserves the performances of Frank Craven and Martha Scott, who played the stage manager and Emily in the original 1938 Broadway production, and was scored with exquisite and indelible appropriateness by none other than Aaron Copland.
This collection includes the lengthy and fascinating series of letters between Wilder and Sol Lesser, the producer of the film version of Our Town, along with the bulk of Wilder’s writings on theater, all of which are very much worth reading. I was especially struck by this passage from his preface to Our Town: “The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves. All the lies it tells—the lie that that young lady is Caesar’s wife; the lie that people can go through life talking in blank verse; the lie that that man just killed that man—all those lies enhance the one truth that is there—the truth that dictated the story, the myth. The theater asks for as many conventions as possible. A convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, an accepted untruth. When the theater pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal, it loses something of the realer thing which is its true business.” I couldn’t have put it better—nor could anyone else.
As for Wilder’s novels . . . well, I’ll get back to you on that. Presumably the Library of America plans to reissue them at some point, which would give me a good excuse to reread The Bridge of San Luis Rey (which I recall with fondness) and Heaven’s My Destination (about which I had my doubts when I read it in college). But Our Town will always be with us, as well it should be. If I were to choose a half-dozen works of art that collectively sum up the American experience, it would be one of them.