Tappan Wilder has seen countless productions of Our Town at every level – from earnest high school renderings to slick professional productions. He’s seen it done with puppets, turned into opera, staged in a cemetery, performed with elderly people in the lead roles. Each time he sees it, or more importantly, allows something different to be tried with the classic, he learns something new.
“This play is an extraordinary and enduring work of art and it deserves to be explored and to allow certain things to be tried,” Tappan Wilder said. “It’s like a house. If you don’t move it around a bit, it becomes a museum. I don’t want that. I want my uncle’s works to be done.”
Wilder, Thornton’s nephew and the family’s literary executor, is an accomplished writer and academic himself. He will be speaking about the play and Thornton’s legacy following the 8 pm performance on Thursday, October 16. “Thornton Wilder never left strict instructions on what to do in the future. My job is to protect and grow the business responsibly,” said Wilder, who was also a former member of Long Wharf’s Board of Trustees.
Wilder is, quite expectedly, the staunchest defender of his uncle’s legacy. He knew him well, describing Thornton as an enthusiastic man, a fine actor (although he was uncomfortable being on camera), a good musician, a prolific and detailed letter writer, and one of the foremost Joyce scholars in the world. Thornton spoke quickly, with a staccato rhythm. He drank at the Anchor bar downtown New Haven and knew every Italian waiter in East Haven. “He was absolutely wonderful,” Tappan recalled.
He also categorically rejects the idea of Our Town as dated or simplistic. “This play is about memory and imagination. It is not a play about a small New England town … Our Town is not a New Hampshire chocolate milkshake. It’s about how we remember the past,” he said.
He is currently working on a cultural history of the play, trying to ascertain its role in society. The first Broadway production in 1938 watered down Thornton’s initial intent. Rather than the measured meditation on life, death, and the eternal Thornton intended, director Jed Harris and actor Frank Craven, who played the stage manager, introduced too much folksy Americana into the work, shifting the focus of the work. “It is a much more sober, understated play than what appeared on Broadway,” Tappan Wilder said.
Our Town became something quite different through the 1960s. It was commonly performed to servicemen during World War II and became known as an idealized view of America throughout the Cold War. “Our Town was in uniform during the Cold War. I think that is a goddamn important war to have won. I’m proud of that. Very proud of that,” Tappan said. It is only in the past decade that the play, helped by a recent production directed by David Cromer, that the play has returned to its serious roots.
Tappan specifically recalled one moment from a production at the now defunct Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford. Character actor Fred Gwynne played the Stage Manager. During the third act, when Emily, trying to deal with the shock of her own passing, turns to Gwynne for comfort. Gwynne simply turned away, leaving the girl to handle the transition herself. “She was all alone in the world, a terrible, deep, existential loneliness,” Wilder recalled.
“Art speaks to questions that are eternal. My uncle faced some hard things (in his work). He spent his whole life trying to figure out what gets us out of bed to go on another day,” Tappan said.
— Steve Scarpa