Thursday, January 30, 2014
Thornton Wilder Project
Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and educated at Yale and Princeton. As an accomplished novelist and playwright his works explore the connection between the commonplace and the cosmic dimensions of human experience. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of his seven novels, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, and is one of my favorite novels (The film adaption with Robert De Niro and Gabriel Byrne is also amazing). His next-to-last novel, The Eighth Day received the National Book Award (1968), while two of his four major plays garnered Pulitzer Prizes, Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1943). His play, The Matchmaker ran on Broadway for 486 performances (1955-1957), and was later adapted into the record-breaking musical Hello, Dolly!
Wilder also enjoyed enormous success with many other forms of the written and spoken word, among them translation, acting, opera librettos, lecturing, teaching and film (his screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 psycho-thriller, Shadow of a Doubt remains a classic and one of my favorites among Hitchcock's oeuvre). Letter writing held a central place in Wilder's life, and since his death, three volumes of his letters have been published. Wilder's many honors include the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Book Committee's Medal for Literature.
Wilder continues to be read and performed around the world. Our Town is performed at least once each day somewhere in this country , with his other major dramas and shorter plays not far behind. In 2008, Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey were selected as a joint choice for the NEA's "Big Read" Program. In recent years Wilder's works have also inspired a growing number of adaptations, among them an opera based on Our Town (music by Ned Rorem, libretto by J.D. McClatchy) and a dramatized version of his novel, Theophilus North (Matt Burnett). Reflecting the renewed interest in Wilder, the Thornton Wilder Society sponsored the first international conference on Wilder in fall 2008.
Last year I ambitiously decided to read one novel by Anthony Burgess each month. That lasted two months before stalling, not because I did not like Anthony Burgess' prose but because too many other reading projects (mainly for groups and classes) intervened. Well, this year I am going to try once more, setting my sights a little lower, in quantity not in quality, with the works of Thornton Wilder. My goal is to attempt one book by Wilder every other month for this year. That will primarily include novels: The Eighth Day, Theophilus North, and others; but will also include his letters and plays. I hope I will be more successful with Wilder than I was with Burgess.