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...
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