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American Theatre in the Twentieth Century Week three: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938) First performed January 22, 1938 at the McCarter Theatre, Princeton,

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Presentation on theme: "American Theatre in the Twentieth Century Week three: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938) First performed January 22, 1938 at the McCarter Theatre, Princeton,"— Presentation transcript:

1 American Theatre in the Twentieth Century Week three: Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938) First performed January 22, 1938 at the McCarter Theatre, Princeton, and then on Broadway

2 Thornton Wilder ( )

3 Thornton Wilder 1897: Born in Madison, Wisconsin. Father the U.S. Consul General to Hong Kong and Shanghai : Attends Oberlin College, Ohio. Writes short plays. 1920: At Yale, continues writing plays which are three minutes long and feature three characters. 1921: Studies archaeology in Rome and sees Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of An Author. 1927: Second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, wins Pulitzer Prize. 1930: Lecturer at University of Chicago; publishes The Woman of Andros. 1938: Our Town premiered. Wins Pulitzer Prize.

4 Our Town: mini-lecture  Attacks on Wilder the novelist -Michael Gold’s socio-political criticism -Wilder’s ‘response’ in Our Town  What makes an American?  Wilder’s influences: European, modernist

5 Gold’s criticism “[A] pastel, pastiche, dilettante religion, without the true neurotic blood and fire, a daydream of homosexual figures in graceful gowns moving archaically among the lilies. It is Anglo-Catholicism, that last refuge of the American literary snob”. - Michael Gold, The New Republic, 1930.

6 Migrant mother, aged 18, with child. Dorothea Lange, Imperial Valley, California, February and March The kinds of social problems in the Depression era that Gold accused Wilder of ignoring

7 A drought refugee living in a camp on the bank of an irrigation ditch. Dorothea Lange, Imperial Valley, California, February and March 1937.

8 ‘Our Town is escapist, but self-consciously and defiantly so, acknowledging the divisive issues of ethnic diversity, economic hardship and social injustice, but then deliberately dismissing them – in pointed rejection of the Left’s contentions that only writing about the immediate problems of the day could be significant.’ (David Eldridge, American Culture in the 1930s, p.58.) Wilder’s response?

9 ‘Given the arduous decade of the 1930s, Our Town balances faith with existential alienation, and enjoins us to remain alive in the moment and to practice mindfulness of others.’ (Anne Fletcher, ‘Reading Across the 1930s’, in A Companion to Twentieth-Century American Drama, ed. by David Krasner, p.122.) Wilder’s response?

10 What makes an American? ‘Americans are abstract. They are disconnected. They have a relation, but it is to everywhere, to everybody, and to always. That is not new, but it is very un-European.’ - ‘Toward an American Language’, Charles Eliot Norton lectures, Harvard, 1950.

11 ‘everybody, everywhere, always’ REBECCA: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God – that’s what it said on the envelope. GEORGE: What do you know! (Act I)

12 ‘everybody, everywhere, always’ STAGE MANAGER: […] Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being. (Act III)

13 Influences

14 Pirandello and Stein Pirandello demanded that it should not be ‘the false truth of the stage but the positive, undeniable truth of life’ that is evident from the play. Wilder: ‘life imitated is life raised to a higher power’. Stein: the play should be considered as a landscape. Relationships can exist merely by presenting characters in the same time and space on stage. Wilder: ‘On the stage it is always now; the personages are standing on that razor edge between the past and the future, which is the essential character of conscious being; the words are arising to their lips in immediate spontaneity.’ (Paris Review interview.)

15 Characterisation ‘Wilder sees his characters in this play not primarily as personalities, as individuals, but as forces, and he individualizes them only enough to carry the freight, so to speak, of their roles as forces.’ (The Theatre Essays of Arthur Miller, p.79.)

16 Wilder playing the part of the Stage Manager in a 1959 production of the play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.

17 Performance history and critical response ‘[The play] escaped from the formal barrier of the modern theatre into the quintessence of acting, thought and speculation […] By stripping the play of everything that is not essential, Mr. Wilder has given it a profound, strange, unworldly significance.’ - Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times, February 5, 1938.

18  In Act III, why do you think Wilder includes a repetition of the morning scene from 1899 (waking up, having breakfast, etc.). Do you think it is effective?  How does Wilder try to give Act III a universal quality rather than have it just refer to a small town in the early twentieth century? Considering the whole play…  ‘Technically,[the play] is not arbitrary in any detail.’ (Arthur Miller.) Find some examples of Wilder’s deliberate choices of objects and places. Why does he use them?  Is it more important to have a socially-aware drama? Consider the Gold vs. Wilder debate here.  Does Wilder have a ‘tragic vision’?  Explain Edward Albee’s comment that ‘Our Town is one of the toughest, saddest plays every written. Why is it always produced as hearts and flowers?’ Is he right? Why is it produced in this way?


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