Thornton Wilder: A Centenary Exhibition

Tuesday, July 1, 1997 to Friday, September 19, 1997

There is hardly an American schoolchild who has not heard of Thornton Wilder, or at least of Our Town or his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey . Wilder’s centenary this year has been celebrated at his birthplace (Madison, Wisconsin), in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where he worked at the MacDowell Colony, and in Hamden, Connecticut, where Wilder resided through much of his adult life.

The Beinecke Library joins in honoring the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner with a major exhibition on his life and works. Thornton Wilder: A Centennial Celebration will be on view at the library until September 20. Drawing on Yale’s vast Wilder archive, the display features books, autograph manuscripts, correspondence, and such memorabilia as photographs, playbills, and posters. The exhibition was prepared by Patricia C. Willis, curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature, with the assistance of graduate students Dwight Zscheile and Maria Malkiewicz.

On September 18, during the final week of the exhibition, the Beinecke Library will sponsor a conference on Thornton Wilder. Playwrights Edward Albee, John Guare, and A. R. Gurney will be present for a roundtable discussion of Thornton Wilder in the American theater. There will be readings from Wilder’s works and presentations by scholars from the United States and Russia.

Wilder’s best-known works– The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Our Town (1938), The Skin of Our Teeth (1943), and The Eighth Day (1967)–are represented in the exhibition by his literary sources, his notes and manuscripts, editions, playbills, and letters in which the author comments on his own work. In a letter to his brother Amos, for instance, Wilder writes that the novel The Eighth Day is like “Little Women as tho’ it were written by Dostoyevsky.” Photographs include stills showing Wilder himself playing the Stage Manager in Our Town and Mr. Antrobus in The Skin of our Teeth

Wilder received considerable amounts of fan mail, a selection of which is on display, often with replies written out by his sister Isabel. Comments about Our Town include a handwritten letter from Albert Einstein, who (perhaps presaging Wilder’s enormous popularity among Germans) compares the play to the Odyssey and to Hamlet and sees fit to add “mathematical physicist” after his signature by way of identifying himself.

The exhibition also presents a full range of materials relating to Wilder’s lesser-known works–his novels Cabala (1926), The Women of Andros (1930), Heaven’s My Destination (1935), The Ides of March (1948), The Alcestiad (1977), and the semi-autobiographical Theophilus North (1973); his short plays; his essays; and his play The Merchant of Yonkers (1938). The Merchant was reworked as The Matchmaker in 1954, which became the basis of the musical Hello, Dolly! The exhibition naturally features a signed photograph of Carol Channing in the role of Dolly.

Thornton Wilder came from a family of writers, and visitors to the Beinecke may also view a small exhibition documenting the careers of the “other” Wilders. Thornton Wilder’s father Amos Parker Wilder, an editor and journalist, wrote on political topics and on his experiences as American consul general in Hong Kong during the first decades of the 20th century. His mother Isabella Niven Wilder published poems. Three of Thornton Wilder’s siblings each published several books: his brother Amos Niven wrote poetry and studies in the field of theology, sister Charlotte was the author of two volumes of poetry, sister Isabel published three novels, while sister Janet worked as a biologist and environmentalist.