Four Things About Thornton Wilder

It’s his birthday today.

Peter Hunt (once Executive and Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival) relates a story about Thornton Wilder and Nikos Psacharopoulos (founder of Williamstown).

Peter Hunt: Directing is sometimes doing nothing, sometimes dowin more than you ever thought you could do, every case is different. But what you just said about there being a way of doing Chekhov at Williamstown — that struck me, because I am Nikos’ offspring. I mean he was my teacher at Yale, my mentor at Williamstown, it all rubbed off. Now obviously I do certain things my own way, but still I’m an extension of that. So, what is that? Part of it is caring and having a commitment to all the elements of the theatre — a lot of directors don’t know how to incorporate a set, how to run a tech rehearsal, don’t have a visual sense. At the same time caring about the rehearsal environment so that there is an emotional sense in the room that’s correct for the play you’re doing. I mean, are you having fun doing a comedy? When do you break tension with a joke, when do you allow it to become very serious? He knew how to play all that. Those are lessons I learned just watching him work. Also honesty. When you hit your head on a wall, back up and go another direction. Don’t be afraid to say you’re wrong.

My favorite example of that is the Our Town story. Thornton Wilder, as I said, was playing the Stage Manager. For some reason he and I struck up a friendship, and one day we were standing and talking … and Nikos burst out of the rehearsal room and came up to Thornton and said, “The scene isn’t working.” And Thornton said: “What? The scene isn’t working?” Nikos said, “Yeah, George and Emily, they’re on the ladder, doing the homework scene.” And Thornton said, “What’s wrong with it?” And Nikos said, “It doesn’t work.” And Thornton said, “What are you talking about, it’s a Pulitzer-Prize winning play, it works!” And Nikos said, “It’s not working. They’re up there, I’m playing all the values, they’re in love, he’s in love with her, they want to get married — but it’s not working.” Thornton’s jaw drops to the floor and he says, “My lord, what are you doing? It’s very simple! He’s stupid and she’s smart, and if he doesn’t get the algebra questions for tomorrow’s homework, he’s going to flunk. THAT’S IT!” And Nikos said, “But Thornton, it’s a love scene!” And Thornton said, “That’s for the audience to decide.” And Nikos said, “Got it!” And he rips open the door to the rehearsal room and yells, “Everything we worked on is off! You’re dumb, you’re smart! Play it!” And people were grabbing their handkerchiefs and sobbing during the scene. But the beauty of this story was just — Nikos’ willingness to completely drop it. There was no ego. I mean, this was a man who had a considerable ego, but an ego strong enough to put the work and not himself first.

“But Thornton, it’s a love scene!”
“That’s for the audience to decide.”

A humorous anecdote from Tennessee Williams about the New Haven opening of Streetcar:

“Streetcar” opened in New Haven in early November of 1947, and nobody seemed to know what the notices were or to be greatly concerned. After the New Haven opening night we were invited to the quarters of Mr. Thornton Wilder, who was in residence there. It was like having a papal audience. We all sat about this academic gentleman while he put the play down as if delivering a papal bull. He said that it was based upon a fatally mistaken premise. No female who had ever been a lady (he was referring to Stella) could possibly marry a vulgarian such as Stanley.

We sat there and listened to him politely. I thought, privately, This character has never had a good lay.

Thornton Wilder’s annotations in his copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.


And finally:

For the Library of America’s fantastic Moviegoer site (you should definitely be reading if you aren’t already), Armond White wrote a gorgeous defense of the much-maligned Hello, Dolly!, the movie. It’s a must-read, especially for those of us – like my entire group of friends – who can recite the movie start to finish: Hello, Dolly! is still looking swell on the big screen

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8 Responses to Four Things About Thornton Wilder

  1. Helena says:

    I can’t believe noone’s chimed in yet with the SPN reference, so I will – ‘I feel like a high school drama dork.’

  2. Helena says:

    Haha! Casting against type? (I’ve not even read the play, so I’m guessing.)

    • sheila says:

      Kind of casting TO type, if you think of Sam as a teenager. George is an aching yearning teenage boy in love with his next-door neighbor. There is a famous scene where he asks her to help him with his homework.

      It’s a wonderful play about the human condition – about how we cannot hold onto life as we live it, how it slips through our fingers. Emily (the girl) ends up marrying George and she dies in childbirth. The final scene has all of the people who have died in Grover’s Corners (the town) sitting there in the graveyard, watching George lie down on Emily’s grave, in mourning, and all of them are so beyond Life at that point that they say, “Tut tut, he’ll get his death of cold” and stuff like that.

      There is a ghostlike aspect to Our Town. Emily, after death, negotiates a way to live one more day in the presence of her family. She thinks it will be wonderful. It ends up being wrenching – she tries to stop her mother’s preparations for dinner and small-talk chit chat telling her, “Can’t we just lOOK at each other, Mama?” “Don’t you know how much I love you?” And her mother is kindly, but busy with snapping snow peas – “Child, of course I love you – now wash up for supper.”

      Emily then begs to be released, and return to her spot in the graveyard.

      Profound stuff – highly recommend it.

      And I love that they picked Our Town. Because of its dealing with weighty issues of life, death, family. Sam wasn’t starring in a high school production of “The Boyfriend” – that wouldn’t have as much resonance as Our Town does!!

      • Helena says:

        Indeed. Sounds pretty cool. I can see Sam in it.

        I’m also imagining the Winchesters sitting in the audience and thinking they should dig everybody up and set fire to their bones at the end. None of that ghost stuff round here please!

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, having spent years working with Garson Kanin (for whom TW was a friend and mentor), I thought I’d heard/seen every single story about him. But that last thing you included, the annotated page, make me laugh out loud to the point where I almost choked. OMG, so HIM, so completely HIM. Amazing. Don’t know how I missed it, but I did. Absolutely priceless. Thanks for that.


  4. Cousin Mike says:

    Love this cuz

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