Thornton Wilder, the writer of what some call the greatest American play, was celebrated on Monday in an event featuring readings of his published works and letters, as well as anecdotes and discussions of his influence.Best known for his play “Our Town,” ubiquitous in high school literature classes, he was honored by the Thornton Wilder Society, now based at the College.
“This is an exciting opportunity for the College,” President R. Barbara Gitenstein said before the event. “I’m just thrilled.”
Wilder was born in Madison, Wis., in 1897, the year Sigmund Freud coined the term Oedipus Complex and “Cyrano de Bergerac” was published. He died in Hamden, Conn., in 1975, the year “Jaws” hit theaters and Edward Albee’s play “Seascape” won a Pulitzer Prize.
Wilder taught in nearby Lawrenceville and featured New Jersey in a number of his works.
During her introduction, Gitenstein said she was delighted to have the celebration “at (the College), so close to Lawrenceville and that other college of New Jersey,” drawing laughter from the audience.
Executive director of the society, Lincoln Konkle, brought the event to campus.
A member of the society since its inception six years ago, the associate professor of English has taught a seminar at the College on Wilder. “I loved that like the great writers – Sophocles, Shakespeare, Melville – Wilder’s works are universal. He writes about the eternal human condition, what we all experience and wonder about, regardless of time or place.”
Tappan Wilder, Thornton Wilder’s nephew, started the event by introducing Marian Seldes, “one of the great figures of the American stage.”
Seldes read letters between Wilder and Garson Kanin, her late husband, and Ruth Gordon, his first wife. The correspondence described places where Wilder had traveled and people he’d met, as well as his views on life and writing. “One more thing about writing,” one letter attributed to Wilder read, “If you can do it, you can do it and if you can’t, you can’t.”
“Lots of love, Thornt,” he signed some of his letters, making him accessible to the audience, some of whom had never read Wilder and some who had grown up with his plays and novels.
Wilder wrote thousands upon thousands of letters in his lifetime, according to Seldes, and would draw frames around his words with blue and red pencils and illustrate his letters.
Seldes and Albee, author of plays such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” read the last scene of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” another play by Wilder.
“Soon we shall die . and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten,” Seldes read, quoting Wilder’s novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”
J.D. McClatchy, author of five poem collections and a member of the society’s board of directors, relayed how Wilder answered the question that all authors dread to hear: “Where do you get your ideas?”
“I have a shelf (full of books) at home and every once in a while I go to look for a book to read and I don’t find it, so I have to write it,” McClatchy quoted Wilder as saying.
“I am not interested in the ephemeral – such subjects as the adulteries of dentists,” Wilder once said in an interview, according to McClatchy. “I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of the millions.”
Albee relayed a story about how he would seek out writers to critique his poetry. At 19, Albee moved to Greenwich Village in New York City after being thrown out of college for only going to the classes he wanted to.
He said he felt his classes should not be required. Albee said he was from a wealthy family and was “thrown out of that, too.”
When Albee sought out Wilder to read his poetry and came back to Wilder with more poems, Albee said that Wilder told him, “I want to get you drunk.”
Albee thought that Wilder meant the poems were so different and so much stronger that he could not discuss them sober.
They went out to a pond where, after Wilder discussed a poem, he would put the page into the water, “whether intentionally or not.”
Wilder began and ended as a novelist, McClatchy said. “The plays were just an interlude,” he joked, referring to the widely held belief that Wilder was a better playwright than he was a novelist.
“Most of us think in terms of ‘Our Town'” when it comes to Thornton Wilder, said Joyce Carol Oates, author of “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?”
She said she first read the play, a “play of heartbreak and surpassing beauty,” in high school.
Oates said she was struck, even at a young age, by the play’s unpretentiousness and was “bowled over by his versatility,” a sentiment nearly everyone on the panel echoed.
“It’s all there on the page,” Seldes said of Wilder’s plays, “it seems to play itself. The greatest key of all is that all the characters that your character comes upon are fascinating, not only to you as an actor but also to your character.”
“I would have been happy to even be in the audience,” Seldes said of the program. “I felt like I was. It was so comfortable and easy going, no one edited themselves,” she said. “I loved it.”
Oates said that though she found the event fascinating, she wished that Konkle and Tappan Wilder were on the panel to offer their own knowledge of Wilder.
Wilder’s high esteem for the Garden State is obvious in his writings.
As attendees could see from the packed Music Building Concert Hall, New Jersey has a deep affection for Wilder as well.