Most theatre-goers know Thornton Wilder as the author of Our Town, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play chronicling the poetry of life and death in a small New England town. But Wilder was far more than “just” a playwright. As one of the greatest Renaissance Men of the turn of the 19th century, he seemed to excel at everything he touched, from high-brow and popular entertainment, to academia and even military intelligence.
Here are just a few of the surprising and wide-ranging places you might find his golden touch:
- International Flair. Though born in America’s heartland, Wilder quickly became a man of the world, spending some of his youth in China, before beginning his academic career at Oberlin. He quickly moved on to academic giants Yale and Princeton for his graduate work. But he didn’t stop there. He also furthered his language studies in France and even uncovered an Etruscan road at a dig site in Italy.
- First Popular Success. Those who don’t know Wilder from his storied theatrical career, likely know his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Bridge at San Luis Rey. Its enormous critical and financial success led Wilder and his sister to refer to his beautiful home in Hamden, Connecticut as “the house that Bridge built.”
- Language & Libretti. Wilder’s poetic fluency in four languages made him the perfect translator of non-English plays, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Andre Obey. He even wrote the libretto to a couple of operas!
- Put On Your Sunday Clothes. Speaking of libretti, without Wilder, the musical Hello, Dolly! wouldn’t exist. The father of regional theatre in America, Tyrone Guthrie, encouraged Wilder to rework an early failed play into the Broadway smash, The Matchmaker. In their turn, the famous duo of Comden & Green adapted it into the musical we all know and love.
- A Spy for All Seasons. Like many men of his generation, Wilder fought in both World Wars. Unlike most men, he attained the rank of Corporal in the First World War, before his facility with languages helped him earn the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Air Force Intelligence. Certainly not a line you see on the resume of your average playwright!
- Thanks for Coming to My TED Talk. During his professorship at the University of Chicago, Chicagoans knew him not so much for his plays as his lectures. Like TED Talks today, lecture circuits were a favorite pastime in the big city and Wilder himself reigned as the hottest ticket in town.
- A Play of Epic Proportions. Meta-theatrical before it was cool, The Skin of Our Teeth is easily one of Wilder’s most inventive plays. The fourth-wall-breaking, “alternative” history of the world exploring the epicycles of humanity earned Wilder his third Pulitzer Prize and made him the only person to attain the Prize in both Literature and Drama.
Whether you know him from your high school production of Our Town, the recent film adaptation of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, or even the recent PlayMakers Mobile tour of three of his one-acts plays, there’s a little Wilder for everyone.