Thornton Wilder was born into a religious family in Madison, Wisconsin, on April 17th, 1897. The Wilders spent Thornton's early adolescence in Shanghai and Hong Kong, where Amos Wilder served as consul general, before relocating to California. Thornton did his undergraduate studies at Oberlin and Yale, and spent a few years studying archeology in Rome after graduation, before returning to the United States to take a teaching job at the Lawrenceville School, near Princeton.
His first novel, The Cabala, was published in 1926, but it was the publication of The Bridge of San Luis Rey in the next year that catapulted Wilder into the literary spotlight. The Bridge examines the lives of five unrelated individuals who plummeted to their deaths when a bridge collapsed in Peru in 1714. The novel asks the old question of why bad things happen to good people by searching for parallels in the lives of those who died in a freak accident - an accident that must have been the will of God. The Bridge won a Pulitzer prize in 1928, and half a century later it was named one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century by the American Modern Library.
With the success of The Bridge, Wilder quit his teaching job and turned to writing full time. He published a book of short plays (The Angel That Troubled the Waters) and lectured at the University of Chicago for some years, turning his attention towards theater and translation in the mid-30s, with an adaptation of Ibsen's A Doll's House on Broadway in 1937.
After several years of effort and some fights with writer's block, Wilder finished Our Town in 1938. Out-of-town tryouts in Princeton and Boston were not entirely well-received, but Brooks Atkinson's review of the "hauntingly beautiful" play in the New York Times cemented Our Town's legitimacy, despite its avant-garde experimental staging. The play won Wilder another Pulitzer prize, and a long-lasting place in the repertoire of a great many unworthy amateur and student companies attracted by the large cast and low cost of this set-less and costume-less drama of life, love, and death in small town America.
In 1942, Wilder saw further theatrical success with The Skin of Our Teeth, which opened on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March, for which he won yet another Pulitzer. On the other side of the country, he wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's The Shadow of a Doubt. During World War II, Wilder served with the Air Force, then returned to continue writing and take a short professorship at Harvard. In 1953, The Matchmaker opened on Broadway with Ruth Gordon in the role that would later be played by Carol Channing in the unsinkable musical version, Hello Dolly!
Thornton Wilder's reputation as one of the greats of American theater was won largely through two Pulitzer prize-winning dramas and one farce mostly remembered in the form of its 1964 musical reworking, and it is only Our Town that really had an enduring effect on American stagecraft. But that play's influence was profound and far-reaching, and the stage would not have been the same without it.
Study Guides on Works by Thornton Wilder
Our Town is one of the most performed and best-known plays in American theater; it is a truism in the theater business that every night, somewhere in America, a theater audience is watching Our Town. The play is especially popular in amateur...