Interview: Penelope Niven, Author of Thornton Wilder: A Life

October 31, 2012
ap310516019_custom-d4ae215a291e344b62d7320f8eb9ebb682244d2f-s4.jpgThornton Wilder works in a Berlin hotel in 1931. His titles include the plays Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), as well as the novels Heaven's My Destination (1935) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927).

Listen to the interview on

"Wilder Created 'Our Town' With A Bit Of Everywhere"

Heard on Weekend Edition Saturday

October 27, 2012 - SCOTT SIMON, HOST

"Our Town" is widely considered the classic American play - plainspoken lyricism on an empty stage and a story as simple as life and death.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As the Stage Manager) This play is called "Our Town." It's written by Thornton Wilder. Name of the town: Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, just over the line from Massachusetts.

SIMON: Yet, as Edward Albee points out, when great American playwrights are celebrated, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams are the names you usually hear, not Thornton Wilder, who wrote "Our Town." He was also an acclaimed novelist and essayist. But no drama is more enduring than "Our Town," which won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize. It has been produced for film, radio or television many, many times, with Paul Newman, Hal Holbrooke, Helen Hunt and Frank Sinatra among those who have played The Stage Manager, the play's narrator. And how many actresses played Emily Webb and decided that they wanted a life in the theater? "Our Town" is probably being performed by a community, church, high school or professional theater group somewhere this fall. Penelope Niven, an acclaimed biographer, has written a new book: "Thornton Wilder: A Life," with a foreword by Edward Albee. And that book tells the story of how this signature American play came to be written and to succeed. Penelope Niven joins us from the studios of WFDD in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Thanks so much for being with us.

PENELOPE NIVEN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Can we forget what a radical thing it was to have a stage with no curtain, no scenery to speak of except, you know, a couple of tables and chairs and a couple of ladders?

NIVEN: I think I speak for many theatergoers when I say that it takes a few minutes to absorb the impact of the bare stage. But soon you give yourself up to it and you do what Thornton hoped you would do, and that was to experience it through the filter of your own life and your own imagination. He told us, soon after he had written "Our Town," that our true lives are lived in the imagination and the memory. And that was one of the principle reasons that he avoided props, and sets and scenery. He didn't want to define that for his audience. He wanted each member of each audience to bring his or her unique experience, unique imagination and memory to the experience of that play.

SIMON: Where and when did Thornton Wilder write "Our Town," near as you can determine?

NIVEN: He wrote the play all over the map. He wrote "Our Town" at the McDowell colony, up in Peterborough, New Hampshire. And he wrote "Our Town" in a little hotel on the outskirts of Zurich, Switzerland, and he wrote "Our Town" on Long Island. He wrote it on ships, and he wrote it on trains and he wrote it wherever he happened to be. And all the while, Scott, while he was traveling around to write, he was listening, he was observing, he was a witness. He loved to pick up some conversation in a bar, or on the train or in a restaurant and somehow later to incorporate that into the play. He's very much attuned to the American vernacular while he's working on "Our Town," even if he's working on it in Switzerland. He still has, in his ear, the cadences and the vocabulary of the American experience.

SIMON: Does that moving around help to invest the play with a sense of Grover's Corner as an every place, if you please?

NIVEN: I think so. I think that's a great observation. He invents Grover's Corner. This is a little mythical village. And in this mythical village, he incorporates characteristics from every mythical village. I grew up in a little town in North Carolina, population 800. When I read "Our Town" as a teenager, I was positive the play had been written about Waxhaw, North Carolina. And it's so interesting to look at translations - there have been 70 or more translations of "Our Town." And I love picking up those editions and looking at the covers. And if it's been translated in Poland or Germany, Korea, the cover picture is not Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. It's a village or a town in that particular country. It's just vivid, graphic documentation of the universal connection that this play has made.

SIMON: I want us to hear one of the most quoted and moving speeches of all literature. It's recited by high school students, and in auditions and by actors and actresses.

MAGGIE LACEY: (as Emily Webb) Goodbye to clocks ticking...

SIMON: That, of course, is a speech. Emily Webb dies, comes back to earth for a day. The actress here is Maggie Lacey.

LACEY: (as Emily Webb), ironed dresses, and hot baths, and sleeping, and waking up. Oh Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

SIMON: Where do you think this speech comes from?

NIVEN: I think it comes from deep within Thornton Wilder's heart and spirit. It brings to mind conversations I've had recently with so many people who are in the play, people who saw the play, people that directed the play. But two actors, in particular, who are in their wonderfully mature years have said to me they never fully comprehended Emily's words until now in their 70s and in their 80s. The play has brought them to tears in ways it didn't when they were 20, or 40 or 60 years younger. Reminds us - it's something I've certainly taken to heart since I've had the privilege of working on this biography - that is, as Emily says, every everyday matters; every moment. And Thornton was so concerned about just the value of every moment, of the most ordinary part of the most ordinary day, to look at the now and look at each other - really look at each other - how wonderful that Thornton and Emily remind us about those opportunities.

SIMON: Penelope Niven. Her new book is "Thornton Wilder: A Life," with a foreword by Edward Albee. She joined us from the studios of WFDD in Winston-Salem. Thank you so much.

NIVEN: Thank you.

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