Now more than ever, the messages in the plays and novels of Thornton Wilder are as pertinent to today as they were when originally written in the early to mid 20th century. Consider his words spoken by the character Sabina in his play “The Skin of Our Teeth”: “One more tight squeeze like that and where will we be?”
Appropriately, the Thornton Wilder Society is holding its first international conference, co-sponsored with the College of New Jersey. Forty-one scholars from all over the United States as well as some from abroad (England, France, Italy, Croatia, China and Japan) will present papers at the conference, Thursday through Saturday, October 2 through 4.
There will be a number of special events centering on the Wilder canon, many open to the public. (Visit www.tcnj.edu/~wilder/conference for a full schedule.) On Friday, October 3, the afternoon schedule includes a discussion about Wilder’s plays by a panel of four important American playwrights: Edward Albee (probably best known for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, whose recent play “Me, Myself and I” premiered last season at McCarter;) Lee Blessing (“Walk in the Woods,” head of the graduate playwriting program at Mason Gross/Rutgers;) Tina Howe (“Painting Churches,” “Coastal Disturbances,” my personal favorite that few-have-heard-of “One Shoe Off;) and Donald Margulies (Pulitzer winner for “Dinner With Friends.”) Edward Albee is also doing a reading with veteran stage/film/televison actress Marion Seldes on October 3, in the Music Building Concert Hall.
The October 3 schedule also includes a morning presentation about Wilder’s work on the Hitchcock film “Shadow of a Doubt.” If that’s not enough on that subject, catch “Writing and Re-writing ‘Shadow of a Doubt’” on Saturday, October 4, at 5 p.m.
Wilder lived from 1897 to 1975 and is distinguished for having won the Pulitzer Prize in both fiction and drama. He taught French at the Lawrenceville School from 1921 to 1928, with a break to earn a master’s degree in French literature from Princeton University. He earned his bachelor’s from Yale. Just a year after he received a master’s his second novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” won the Pulitzer in 1927. His Pulitzer plays are “Our Town,” which premiered at McCarter Theater in 1938, and “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942).
Executive director and a founding member of the society, College of New Jersey professor Lincoln Konkel is an enthusiastic fan of Wilder and has been since his teen years. “It all began in 1976 when my high school staged Wilder’s ‘The Skin of Our Teeth,’” he writes via an E-mail interview. “I played a refugee from the Ice Age in Act I, operated the slide projector for the News Events of the World in Act II, and played Fred Bailey in Act III.” His interest was cemented solidly when he saw a television production of “Our Town” starring Hal Holbrook. Konkel went on to write his college dissertation on Wilder’s plays, novels, “and anything else I could make fit my thesis.” He later expanded this into a book, “Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition.”
On Friday evening, October 3, Carl Forsman, artistic director of both New York’s Keen Company and Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival will appear on a directors’ panel with Irene Lewis, artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, where a production of Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” is playing through October 12, and McCarter’s Emily Mann. The Keen is a young company, beginning its ninth season this month; however, in 2005 it was awarded a Special Drama Desk Award “for moving and enlightening audiences with plays that build upon our theatrical heritage.” Their mission statement notes that they produce sincere plays, “generous in spirit and [that] provoke identification.” In 2004, they produced two Wilder one acts, “Pullman Car Hiawatha” and “The Happy Journey to Camden and Trenton.” During the company’s 2006-’07 season, they produced an adaptation of Wilder’s novel “Theophilus North,” directed by Forsman.
“I believe in an age of fear, Wilder speaks with quiet assurance about what greatness even the smallest of us are capable of,” Forsman writes via an E-mail interview. “His vision is uniquely American — with rugged individualism and pioneering spirit.” Emily Mann sums up: “Wilder’s deceptively simple plays are rich with ideas about the American and human experience. He was an acute observer of the human condition.”
As part of the conference, the Shakespeare 70 theater troupe will present a production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” on Friday, October 3. Says Janet Quartarone, who is both producing the play and appearing in the production as Mrs. Antrobus: “Each year we select the plays for fall and winter with curriculum at the New Jersey College in mind.” As she has prepared her role, she tells me that she is impressed with Wilder’s understanding of human nature, his ability to understand our best and our worst. “One moment his characters are angels, the next devils.” Referring to current crisis including global warming and economic emergency, “I’m amazed at how current the play is.” When I suggest that Wilder might be dismayed to find us still staving off “the ice age” or its reverse, Quartarone says, “I think he would say ‘I told you so.’”
If seeing the play whets your appetite, you might want to catch the Saturday, October 4, presentation titled “Wilder, Kazan and Hurricane Tallulah: The Original Production of ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’” I never saw the infamous Tallulah Bankhead perform and I wish I had.
Lines from that play certainly speak to how we face our problems. Mrs. Antrobus says to a telegraph boy, “What about this cold weather?” His response is: “Of course, I don’t know anything, but they say there’s a wall of ice moving down from the north, that’s what they say. We can’t get Boston by telegraph, and they’re burning pianos in Hartford. It moves everything in front of it, churches and post office and city halls.” When queried “What are people doing about it?” he replies: “Well, uh, talking mostly.” Just one of a number of things that never change. Well, let’s hope not.
Another telling remark in the play is made by Mr. Antrobus: “How can you make a world for people to live in, unless you’ve first put order in yourself? Mark my words: I shall continue fighting you until my last breath as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything for yourself.”
Recently a woman asked me, “Why do I always cry at productions of ‘Our Town?’” I passed her question along to Konkel. Part of his answer: “Because it is a profound, universal, deeply moving work of art.” He explains that the character of Emily in the play discovers only after she dies that she was so focused on the day-to-day activities and concerns that she didn’t pay attention to what really was important, relationships with other people. Konkel says, “Wilder was writing this in the ’30s. Today the ‘rat race’ has revved up to the point that even children’s lives are so hectic that nobody has the time to savor the good things life holds, which is not just an appreciation of nature, but also an appreciation of each other. Love is really what matters, as Wilder writes in the last sentence of ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’: ‘There is a land of the dead and a land of the living, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’”
Thornton Wilder Conference, Thursday through Saturday, October 2 to 4, College of New Jersey. Ewing. First international conference on Thornton Wilder. Many events are open to the public. Participants include Emily Mann, artistic director of McCarter Theater and playwright Edward Albee. Through October 4. For full schedule visit www.tcnj.edu/~wilder/conference/schedule.html. 609-771-1855.
The Skin of Our Teeth, Thursday through Saturday, October 2 to 4, 8 p.m., Shakespeare ’70, Kendall Auditorium, College of New Jersey, Ewing, Thornton Wilder comedy. $12. 609-882-5979 or www.shakespeare70.org.