Monday, April 5, 2010

Jill Krementz Celebrates Thornton Wilder

I regard the theater 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. This supremacy of the theater derives from the fact that it is always 'now' on the stage.
Celebrating Thornton Wilder

Thornton Wilder
(1897-1975) is the only writer to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and drama. In 1927 he won his first for his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Two of his plays, Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1938), would earn him two more.

Most of his novels were best sellers and his numerous plays were successful, especially The Matchmaker, which was later adapted as the musical, Hello Dolly. His screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is still considered a classic psycho-thriller.

A critically acclaimed revival of “Our Town,” directed by David Cromer,” is enjoying a lengthy run at The Barrow Street Theater in the West Village. As of this week it will have played 460 performances, outrunning the original 1938 Broadway production.

New audiences are still crying their eyes out at Grover's Corners.

This evening, Monday, April 5th, fans of Thornton Wilder are invited to an evening celebrating Mr. Wilder's work. Writers on Writers will feature a panel discussion by J.D. McClatchey, Geoffrey O'Brien, and Tappan Wilder, his nephew. The event, presented in conjunction with the Library of America, will be held at 7 pm at Barnes & Noble's Upper East Side Store,
150 East 86th Street.
Published by the Library of America, and edited by
J.D. McClatchey, this one-volume edition of Thornton Wilder's work is the most comprehensive collection ever published. $40.
As a companion to it's volume of Wilder's collected plays, The Library of America's edition of his early novels and stories brings together five novels that highlight his wit, erudition, innovative formal structures, and philosophical wisdom. Edited by J.D. McClatchey. $35.
On a summer day in 1973 I went to Hamden, Connecticut to photograph Thornton Wilder.
I am not interested in the ephemeral — such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the live of the millions.
Thornton Wilder lived with his sister, Isabel, on a woody hillside at 50 Deepwood Drive in Hamden, a suburb of New Haven. Of all the Wilder family members, Isabel was closest to Thornton, remaining his personal agent, spokesperson, hostess and representative in this country and abroad.
When I photographed Thornton Wilder in 1973, he had just completed his latest novel, Theophilus North. Isabel Wilder was the author of three novels and was the curator of Yale University's theater archive.
Thornton Wilder's study.

An author, unfortunately, can never experience the sensation of reading his own work as though it were a book he had never read. Yet with each new work that expectation is prompting me. That is why the first months of work on a new project are so delightful;: you see the book already bound, or the play already produced, and you have the illusion that you will read it or see it as though it were a work by another that will give you pleasure.
Many writers have told me that they have built up mnemonic devices to start them off on each day's writing task. Hemingway once told me he sharpened twenty pencils. Willa Cather that she read a passage from the Bible (not from piety she was quick to add, but to get in touch with fine prose; she also regretted that she had formed this habit, for the prose rhythms of 1611 were not what she was in search of). My springboard has always been long walks. I drink a great deal, but I do not associate it with writing.
Mr. Wilder's bulletin board which contained notes to himself to remind him of aspects of his work in progress. There appear to be a few checks (upper left) as well as several bills (upper right).
Mr. Wilder leaning against his old Ford, the last car he would own. He was very proud of himself, telling me that he had recently renewed his driver's license, "for which a senior citizen must pass a test every six months in Connecticut."
Reaching out to close a very heavy door.
Pre-seat belt times.
Lunch with Isabel at The New Haven Lawn Club.
Theophilis North, published by Harper and Row,
centers around the experiences of a young tutor
in the homes of the wealthy in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1920s. Mr. Wilder said the book was based upon some of his own experiences when as a young man he did some "schoolmastering." Wilder taught French at Lawrenceville, a prep school in New
Jersey.
This was the photograph Mr. Wilder chose, from the many I took that day, for the back jacket of his new book.
Two years after I photographed Mr. Wilder, he died in his sleep in Hamden, Connecticut. If the photograph looks similar to the one at the top of this photojournal — Mr. Wilder with his outstretched arms — that's because the Times cropped them (his arms) out of the picture, along with my copyright.
Front page of The New York Times, December 8th, 1975.

But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough: all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

The Bridge of San Louis Rey
His death was mourned and his life was celebrated in a memorial service held on Sunday, January 18th, 1976, in the Battell Chapel at Yale University.
Ruth Gordon was one of Thornton Wilder's oldest friends and in her commemorative tribute that day she recalled their last dinner at The Harvard Club in New York. On parting she had said "Goodbye, Thorny darling!" and he had replied "Goodbye, best of Ruthies."

Ms. Gordon continued ...

"And so ended forty-six years of friendship, of love, of devotion, of comforting, Well, do you think that's ended? I don't. If we stay any part of the human race that he loved so, he'll be with us, he'll be for us, he'll be reminding us. Think it over."
The Ushers. This hymn still reverberates from Grover's Corners.
The theater has lagged behind the other arts in finding the 'new ways' to express how men and women think and feel in our time. I am not one of the new dramatists we are looking for. I wish I were. I hope I have played a part in preparing the way for them. I am not an innovator but a re-discoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtrusive bric-a-brac. And as I view the work of my contemporaries I seem to feel that I am exceptional in one thing--I give (don't I?) the impression of having enormously enjoyed it.
— An excerpt from an essay written by Thornton Wilder and read by his
nephew, Tappan Wilder, at his uncle's memorial service.
Text and photographs © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.