The library auditorium was “Wild” with enthusiasm Thursday morning as Christopher Bigsby, Scott Donaldson and A. Tappan Wilder delivered speeches about the works and life of Thornton Wilder. The New Jersey Council for the Humanities funded the program.
Bigsby, from the University of East Anglia, gave a speech titled, “On Trying to Like ‘Our Town.'” He combined wit and humor with solid facts and bountiful knowledge. The audience clearly appreciated his energetic approach to literature and drama.
Bigsby spoke in a way that channeled the energy and passion of Wilder himself. He explained “Our Town” through the lens of someone who was deeply intimate with the play and its characters. Inherently important in this explanation of the play was the subject of death, an ongoing theme in the play.
“When it comes time to go, well, we never really do go,” Bigsby said.
He mentioned how in New Hampshire (the setting of the play), the dead chat among themselves during funeral services, observing the living and welcoming new members of the community. One of these graveside conversations, which reads, “My, wasn’t life awful – and wonderful,” was explained by Bigsby.
“Life is wonderful,” Bigsby said, “And there’s nothing better than death to tell you that.”
Unfortunately for the audience, the other speakers had denser material to work with, although they did bring expertise.
Donaldson, from the College of William and Mary, began with a disclaimer.
“I’m just going to read a standard academic paper and you can all just fall asleep,” he said.
The title of his paper was, “The Wide World of Wilder’s Fiction.”
A. Tappan Wilder, of Maryland, is Thornton Wilder’s nephew. He focused most of his speech on facts about Wilder and the biographical nature of his works. He also discussed the writer’s lengthy lecturing circuit.
Thornton Wilder signed a sort of “death contract” when he committed to give 144 lectures in a seven-year span, according to Tappan Wilder. There are no records of what he spoke about each time, but “there were a lot of surprises,” Tappan Wilder said. This only reaffirms that Wilder, one of the most prominent playwrights of his era, was full of complexities that the academic community is still working hard to unearth.