Festival of Short Plays: 2013 Study Guide

Wilder in Chair

Study Guide by Meghan Vosberg, Dramaturg

Festival of Short Plays 2013: Exploring the works of Thornton Wilder

February 21st, 2013


Dramaturg’s Note

Hello and welcome to Theatre Simpson’s 10th Annual Production of its Festival of short plays. Thornton Wilder’s plays in this year’s festival of short plays show characters purely existing. These plays show people’s raw emotions and feelings as the plays touch on themes of selfishness, love, life, pride, and death. The plays each stress the good and the bad things that come with being human. One of my jobs as dramaturg is to give information to the audience, so they can spend less time thinking and more time feeling.

My job as dramaturg means that am prepared to procure permission to use copywrited material if needed for the program or any other needs for this festival. The dramaturg finds pictures, stories, songs, and videos to help the designers and directors with their research. By finding discoveries about the text and the world surrounding the time it was written, more can be read into the text.  The dramaturg also explores and presents the world of the playwright and finds the production history of the play or plays being produced. And lastly, a dramaturg will love the work.

As the dramaturg for Theatre Simpson’s production of Festival:2013 conceived by the members of the senior theatre seminar class, I want to help reveal the world of Thornton Wilder to the production team and the actors.

“A play visibly represents pure existing.”-Thornton Wilder

The purpose of this study guide is for me to gather more information about Thornton Wilder to share with the Theatre Simpson Company. The study guide can give more detail than the presentations I have given, so the cast and crew can understand more about Thornton Wilder, his background, his work, and why his plays are important to the world.

-Meghan Vosberg, Dramaturg



Thornton Niven Wilder

Wilder Hat

Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17th, 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin. When Thornton was born, he was so weak that he had to be carried around on a pillow for months. Wilder was born a twin, but his sibling didn’t survive. That event shaped his writing. Thornton always had a fascination with twins and wondered about their bond in their relationship. Because they were born at the same time, does that mean they were very close? An example of his curiosity of twins can be found in his novel The Bridge Over San Luis Rey where one of two very close twin brothers dies and the one left in the world doesn’t know how to live without his brother.


His parents Amos Parker and Isabella Wilder were very educated people. Amos Parker Wilder (father) was an owner of a newspaper and one of its editors. He was also a strong public speaker, and was the United States Consul General to Hong Kong and Shanghai. Isabella Wilder (Mother) was a lover of literature and a very educated and cultured woman. She made sure to educate her children and teach them about literature, drama, and different languages. With the loving push from their parents to further their education, the Wilder children became very accomplished people. The eldest son, Amos Niven Wilder became a distinguished professor of New Testament scholarship. He also was a tennis champion. Charlotte (Thornton’s eldest sister) was a highly acclaimed professor of English and had won awards for her poetry. Isabel (Thornton’s favorite sister) became an author of three novels that became very popular and the curator of Yale University’s theatre archive. Janet Wilder Dakin (Thornton’s youngest sibling) became a professor of biology, author, and an acclaimed environmentalist. It’s clear that all of the members of the Wilder family went on to accomplish great things.

Wilder Family

From L to R Amos Niven, Amos P, Isabel, Charlotte, Isabella, Thornton. Picture found from thorntonwilder.com


Thornton remained very close with his family. His novel The Bridge Over San Luis Rey won Thornton a Pulitzer Prize. When Thornton’s father could no longer work because of age and illness, Thornton took care of his family by buying them a house to live in with the money he earned from his novel. The family nicknamed the house “The House the Bridge Built.” In 1941, Charlotte Wilder suffered from a nervous breakdown that forced her to live in institutions for the rest of her life and was treated with shock therapy. Thornton was her most frequent visitor.

wilder headshot

Thornton Wilder Chronology


1897: Born in Madison, Wisconsin (April 17)

1906 : Moves to Hong Kong (May) and to Berkeley, California (October)

1906-10: Attends Emerson Public School in Berkeley

1910-11: Attends China Inland Mission School, Chefoo (Yantai), China

1912-13: Attends Thacher School, Ojai, California
The Russian Princess, Wilder’s first play known to be produced, is performed by Thacher students

1915: Graduates from Berkeley High School; active in school dramatics

1915-17: Attends Oberlin College; publishes regularly

1920: Receives B.A., Yale College (with brief service in 1918 with U.S. Army in 1918); many publications

1920-21: Attends American Academy in Rome as special student

1920s: Teaches at Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, New Jersey (’21-’25, and ’27-’28)

1924: First residency at the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire

1926: Receives M.A. degree in French, Princeton University
The Trumpet Shall Sound produced in New York Off-Broadway Laboratory Theatre
The Cabala (first novel)

1927: Second Novel: The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Pulitzer Prize)

1928: The Angel That Troubled The Waters (first published collection of drama–playlets)

1930s: Part-time teacher, University of Chicago
(comparative literature and composition); lectures across the country;
first visit to Hollywood (1934); extensive foreign travel

1930: The Woman of Andros (novel)

1931: The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays (six full one-act plays)

1932: Lucrece (translation of André Obey’s Le Viol de Lucrèce) opens on Broadway staring Katharine Cornell

1935: Heaven’s My Destination (novel)

1937: Adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for Broadway, starring Ruth Gordon (Broadway record for this play until 1999)

1938: Our Town opens on Broadway (Pulitzer Prize); performs role of The Stage Manager for two weeks

1942: The Skin of Our Teeth opens on Broadway (Pulitzer Prize)
Writes xcreenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Shadow of a Doubt

1942-45: Military service with Army Air Force Intelligence in North Africa and Italy

1948: The Ides of March (novel)
Performs in his plays in summer stock
The Victors off-Broadway (translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts Sans Sépulture)

1949 : Major role in Goethe Convocation in Aspen; lectures widely abroad.

1951-52: Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard

1952: Gold Medal for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters

1953: On cover of Time Magazine (January 12)

1955: The Matchmaker opens on Broadway with Ruth Gordon (revision of the 1938 play, The Merchant of Yonkers)
The Alcestiad produced at Edinburgh Festival (as A Life in the Sun) with Irene Worth

1957: Awarded German Booksellers Peace Prize, first American to receive this award

1961: Opera version of The Long Christmas Dinner (music by Paul Hindemith, libretto by Wilder) premieres in Mannheim, Germany, December 20, 1961

1962: Plays for Bleeker Street (Someone from Assisi, Infancy, and Childhood) performed at Circle in the Square Theater in New York City
Operatic version of The Alcestiad (music by Louise Talma, libretto by Wilder) premieres in Frankfurt, Germany, February 28, 1962

1963: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

1964: Hello, Dolly! Opens on Broadway starring Carol Channing

1965: Awarded National Book Committee’s Medal for Literature

1967: The Eighth Day (novel); receives National Book Award for Fiction

1973: Theophilus North (novel)

1975: Dies in sleep in Hamden, Connecticut (December 7)



Thoughts Over Thornton’s Plays

In the 1930s and 1940s, Thornton Wilder was considered to be one of the “Big Four” playwrights of the times. But, unlike O’Neil, Miller, and Williams, Wilder’s plays were not considered to be realistic. Never before had any play broken the fourth wall and have a character address the audience like The Stage Manager in Our Town. And having a scene in the play where the dead are sitting up and talking was considered unbelievable and strange. Because Thornton only wrote three full-length plays, his work is harder to analyze, but some people have tried to generalize his plays into being satirist, sentimentalist, or religious plays. Wilder was influenced by European and Experimental playwrights.


wilder chair

Thornton Wilder acting as The Stage Manager in his play Our Town

Thornton Wilder and his Letter Writing

Something that made Thornton Niven Wilder very unique was that he wrote letters. In today’s society, letter writing seems to be a lost art form. People get caught up in the world of text messaging and emails that it almost doesn’t make sense to use the time or money that it takes to write a letter, but Thornton thrived with his letters.

“The rewards of reading letters come to us in extent, not in bright single moments.”-Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder has written over 10,000 letters in his lifetime with writing as many as 25 letters a day. Letter writing was a way for Thornton to keep in touch with his family when his father worked in China and the rest of his family was separated and when Thornton studied and traveled Europe. Thornton would keep in touch with colleagues from college, people he met when he traveled, and other writers and playwrights. When Thornton was older he would often get letters from students studying him and his work for school. They would ask him questions about Our Town and other aspects of his work and Thornton would respond and then write follow-up letters to see how the student’s work came out.

Thornton was quite quirky with the way he wrote his letters. He didn’t always keep them formal. A way to tell this is with how he signed his name. Instead of a classic “Sincerely…” Thornton favored some of these sign offs.




-Nifty Niven the Petrified Sleuth

                                                                                                                                                                                                              -Thornton Wilder


Words from Thornton…

“For what human ill does dawn not seem to be alternative?”

“A play visibly represents pure existing.”

“Where there is an unknowable, there is a promise.”

“The theatre is supremely fitted to say: Behold! These things are. Yet most dramatists employ it to say: This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action.”

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

“The rewards of reading letters come to us in extent, not in bright single moments.”

Works Cited

Corrigan, Robert W. “Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life.” Education Theatre Journal. (1961): n. page. Print.

Robertson, Hamish. “The Official Website of the Thornton Wilder Family.” . The Wilder Family 2013. Web. 20 Feb 2013. <http://www.thorntonwilder.com/>.

Wilder, Robin G., and Jackson R. Bryer. The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. Print.