Welcome to Our Town, the first production of Long Wharf Theatre’s fiftieth anniversary season. Long Wharf was born fifty years ago because a handful of young and idealistic theatre-lovers believed that our town deserved a world class theatre company. You will be hearing all throughout the year about our 50th, so I will not wax on in this spot about fifty years of accomplishments. Thornton Wilder’s masterwork meditation on family, community, and metaphysics was carefully chosen as the kickoff and centerpiece for the 2014-15 season. It is the perfect choice.
Wilder is the most misunderstood and underestimated of the great American playwrights. Our titans O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Albee have earned a level of respect from critics and the academy that has somewhat eluded Wilder. Perhaps it is the size of the output: he has only three full length plays. But two of them have become blockbusters. Our Town is one of most produced works of the last seventy-five years, done by community theatre, high schools, as well as resident theatres around the country. The Matchmaker, although not nearly as ubiquitous, became the smash hit musical comedy Hello, Dolly! and made Thornton Wilder millions of dollars.
It is also worth noting that Wilder is the only American writer to have achieved equal success as both playwright and novelist. His second work of fiction, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” won him his first of three Pulitzers at the age of thirty and Our Town his second Pulitzer a little over a decade later. Only two other writers, Samuel Beckett and Anton Chekhov, have also written equally well in both forms.
Despite the over arching American patina of his plays, Wilder’s life tells a very different story. A truly international man of letters, he counted among his close friends Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Sigmund Freud who was a fan and a friend. He was one of the world’s leading experts on James Joyce’s nearly indecipherable novel “Finnegan’s Wake”, which became the inspiration for The Skin of Our Teeth. By all reports he was a generous friend, terrific company, and a true bon vivant.
Thornton Wilder was far more interesting a man than many of us realize. Still, why have we chosen Our Town, as the kickoff play for Long Wharf’s 50th anniversary?
Our town, New Haven, has changed a great deal since 1938, the year of Our Town’s premiere. Our town is a more diverse, more complicated place. Far more stratified and divided than most of us would wish, it looks very different now than when Wilder was a student at Yale and lived here in the 1910s and 20s. Our community looks very different than it did even when most of us were coming of age. Onstage tonight that is what you will see: what our town and Our Town looks like today.
The play Our Town lives on so on many levels, but one certainly is an expression of Thornton Wilder’s own longing for family and community, a feeling that perhaps so many of us share. Wilder and his siblings were separated in childhood, each sent to different schools, spread throughout the globe. Thornton was sent all the way to Shanghai, China, where his father was a diplomat. While Our Town is hardly the romantic portrayal of New England small town life with cracker barrel wisdom and values that many people believe it is, it still shows a community that lives and works and plays and dies together in one place and meaningful depictions of family life.
On a deeper level, Our Town is a work of metaphysics. It is a meditation of the quotidian against the backdrop of the stars, the mundane details in the context of eternity. We take so much for granted, our wives and husbands and friends and the mornings and the traffic lights and music and reruns on TV and grocery stores shelves filled with food, and on and on. Our Town asks an important question that we all must consider: how much of our lives do we really live?
In the 50th year of this great and important theatre, let us not take Long Wharf for granted. Let’s be sure that we ensure another fifty years of vital and valuable theatre for our town.
— Gordon Edelstein