Nearly each day of the year, somewhere in America, an actor strides on stage and declares, “This play is called Our Town…The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire—just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes.” Since these opening lines were first delivered in 1938, Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s first major hit, has woven its way into the fabric of the quaint American culture it portrays. Our Town is now a frequent presence in our towns and cities, with productions staged in professional theaters, community centers and high schools. The theatrical innovations employed in the play—an actor functioning as a “stage manager” who narrates the action, as well as a lack of sets, props and costumes—have influenced countless plays and films. At first glance, this better-known play of Wilder’s bears little resemblance to The Matchmaker, his farce that follows several hapless New Yorkers as they search for adventure and dare to fall in love. But both plays adhere to Wilder’s firm belief in anti-realism, and both use theatrical conventions to show audiences a world that reflects, but is not quite identical to, our own. Although Wilder is a stylistic chameleon, the meticulous writer adhered to specific ideas about playwriting that were frequently at odds with those of the accepted “masters” of his era: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1897, Wilder’s childhood was split between California and China; he graduated in 1915 from Berkeley High School. His father, a newspaper editor and US diplomat, saw early promise in his bookish son, but persistently criticized him, disparaging his burgeoning writing and forcing him to spend summers doing physical labor on farms to rid him of his “peculiar gait and certain effeminate ways.” The elder Wilder did not permit Thornton to attend his own alma mater, Yale, insisting instead he attend Oberlin College for two years until Thornton proved worthy, in his father’s eyes, of the Ivy League. After graduating from Yale and a brief stint studying archaeology in Europe, Thornton returned to the United States for a job arranged by his father: teaching French at a private high school in New Jersey. He would later muse, “An American is a man who has outgrown his father,” referring to his own struggle to escape from paternal expectations. While teaching, he penned novels, winning a Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1928. Despite this formidable accomplishment, Wilder still viewed himself primarily as an educator, and in 1930 began teaching at the University of Chicago while continuing to write.
Though he had penned skits and plays since childhood and became a world-famous writer in his early 30s, Wilder had no theatrical successes until 1938, when at age 41, he catapulted into theater history with Our Town, which won him his second Pulitzer. In his stage directions, Wilder insists on “no curtain” and “no scenery,” and indicates that actors should pantomime rather than use physical props. The play is narrated by the Stage Manager, a seemingly omniscient presence who provides context for the action of the play. In the first act, the people of Grover’s Corners, a small fictional town, go about a typical day in their town in 1901. In the second act, two teenage characters, George and Emily, fall in love. Finally, in the third act, years have passed and Emily has died in childbirth. Wrenched suddenly from her loved ones, she appears as a ghost and watches her own funeral, wondering if any of the living truly appreciate life while they experience it. Our Town treats the quotidian as if it were extraordinary, shining a light on unremarkable lives in an unexceptional small town. The play, with its lack of sets, encourages the audience to see the characters not only as people of a specific time and place, but also, as universal everymen and everywomen. “The theater longs to represent the symbols of things, not the things themselves,” Wilder wrote in a preface to the play. “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.”
During Wilder’s era, American theater took a turn for the realistic. Realism, as a theatrical genre, came to prominence in Europe in the late 19th century, when dramatists like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov created works that closely mimicked real human conversations and relationships, and depicted the triumphs and tragedies of middle class people. By the 1930s, O’Neill had established himself as the “father of American drama” by eschewing melodrama and writing in a mostly realistic style. In film, too, realism reigned, and even today, casual viewers of both films and plays often judge a work based on how realistically the story is told. Wilder’s insistence on writing non-realistic plays made him an outsider among the era’s “serious” dramatists.
This disregard for realism allowed Wilder to write works in multiple genres and experiment with form, structure and staging. He continued his exploration in 1955 with The Matchmaker, a play he had first drafted in the 1930s with the title The Merchant of Yonkers. Set at the turn of the 20th century and based loosely on John Oxenford’s 1835 comedy A Day Well Spent, Wilder’s play features slapstick comedy, witty repartee, mistaken identity and drag as it traces the misadventures of Horace Vandergeldger, a wealthy business owner; his matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi; his clerk Cornelius Hackl and apprentice Barnaby Tucker. Unfulfilled by their dull, constricted lives, the characters travel from Yonkers to New York City to find adventure. Rather than creating fully fleshed-out characters, as Eugene O’Neill might have done, Wilder wrote zany, exaggerated characters that represent various extremes: Horace is deeply stingy, for example, and Cornelius has spent so much of his life cooped up in Horace’s shop thumb that, at 33, he has never dated or kissed a woman. Much of the play’s action relies heavily on unrealistic coincidences, and rarely do more than three or four lines pass without a punchline. Frequently, characters step outside the play to directly address the audience, even revealing, in the end, the moral of the story. As in Our Town, these theatrical conventions are used not out of lack of skill, but out of clear intention to create a theatrical experience that distances audiences enough from the play that theatergoers can apply their own thoughts, feelings and vision to the work. Just as in Our Town, Wilder presents situations that are specific in their time and place, yet general enough to be applied to any era or location.
In comparison to Our Town, The Matchmaker is produced rarely. But its characters tread the boards regularly in Hello, Dolly!, a musical based on the play that premiered in 1964 and has since enjoyed a vaunted reputation as one of the greatest American musicals. Its royalties allowed Wilder to retire comfortably, living with his sister in Connecticut until his death in 1975. He seemed, from the outside at least, to have outgrown his father, with his multiple Pulitzer Prizes and a legacy that continues over 40 years after his death. This versatile dramatist, who finds wisdom in humor and humor in wisdom, reminded his contemporaries—and audiences today—that theater’s greatest asset is itself: its own theatricality.