Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802
Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1928 for his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and then won Pulitzer Prizes for drama in 1938 and 1943 for Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth (pr., pb. 1942), thus making him the only writer ever to win Pulitzers both for fiction and for drama. Wilder is most remembered and admired for Our Town, perhaps the most popular and frequently produced of all American plays, given the great number of high school and community theater productions it has generated. The popularity and simplicity of Our Town frequently obscure its fundamentally radical style and theme.
In a period when realism was the common style of the American theater, Wilder’s dramatic style was militantly antirealistic. In The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931), Wilder uses a bare stage and four kitchen chairs to represent a family making a journey of seventy miles by automobile. In Our Town, the act 1 stage directions insist on “No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light.” In the earliest productions of Our Town, many audience members were uncomfortable with the stage manager, who comments on the action, and actors who pantomime to create the illusion of set and props. In his preface to Three Plays (1957), Wilder asserts that by the 1930’s in American theater, stage realism had undermined the audience’s capacity for a full emotional and intellectual response to plays. According to Wilder, when the stage set is filled with scenery, furniture, and props designed to trick the audience into believing that the present moment is “real,” the audience’s imagination is also chained to the particularity of that play’s time and place.
Wilder wanted to communicate general ideas that transcended the particularity of individual experience, so he created characters who were types rather than psychologically complex individuals, and he placed these characters in bare stage environments, avoiding particulars of time and place. Thus, George and Emily have little depth as characters, but as types they can represent all young people who court one another, marry, and encounter catastrophic loss. The town Emily and George live in is also not simply Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, but a little New England town that is part of “the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God,” as Rebecca Gibbs puts it in act 2. When George and Emily talk to each other from their upper-story bedroom windows, they do so from the tops of stepladders rather than from realistically represented rooms. Thus, the audience focuses on George and Emily’s conversation rather than on particulars of place and time.
Thematically, Wilder asserts that a sensitivity to human sadness and failure does not have to lead to despair. Awareness of human pain can coexist with a belief in an essentially benevolent universe. In Wilder’s plays, human lives are disappointingly brief and their actions seem small when measured against the cosmic scale, yet Wilder insists that humans and their lives are not insignificant. Humans may suffer profoundly or survive by the skin of their teeth, but life remains worth living. The glory of existence resides in the mundane and particular moment—in the birth of a child, the singing of a hymn, or even in the clanking of Howie Newsome’s milk bottles as he delivers milk on his morning route. In act 3 of Our Town, Emily discovers that human beings are generally blind to the joys of life and do not “ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute.” Wilder’s plays exhort their audiences to rediscover their zest for life.
Our Town is most significant in the history of American drama for its innovations in dramatic style. Wilder brought to prominence in America the possibilities of nonrealistic staging. These possibilities were also developed in the revolutionary modern dramas of the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello and of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Wilder is also important because he confronts the pain and disappointment of human life yet maintains an optimistic vision. Measuring human lives against a cosmic scale, without the comfort of God, led many writers in the twentieth century to various forms of despair. For Wilder, however, the prevalence of human pain, frustration, and failure meant that people could rediscover the simple joys of existence. Human beings can face life’s pain and live with hope because, as the stage manager says, there is “something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
Ironically, Wilder is perhaps more respected in Europe, especially in Germany, than he is in the United States. European dramatists as important as Brecht, Max Frisch, and Eugène Ionesco have acknowledged their debt to Wilder’s stylistic innovations and profound themes.