By Tappan Wilder
Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and his stage drama Our Town (1938) have enjoyed enormous success since the moment they first appeared. Both won Pulitzer Prizes, and neither has ever been out of print. Because they have been widely read or performed abroad, this novel and play are not only American classics but classics of world literature as well. They are so well known, in fact, that we easily take them for granted. Whether you are rediscovering Wilder’s work or entering his world for the first time, you are joining thousands of his readers in exploring the fundamental meaning of human existence.
At first glance, these two stories may appear to be worlds apart. Our Town is set between 1901 and 1913 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a community that has produced nobody very “important.” Wilder wrote that his subject was “the trivial details of human life in reference to a vast perspective of time, of social history and of religious ideas.” He was, he told us in an early preface to the play, presenting “the life of a village against the life of the stars.”
As Emily and others reflect on the meaning of their lives in their town, we may see our own experiences more clearly, wherever we live.
There is nothing ordinary about the backdrop of Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, or the characters in his story. The novel is set in Lima, Peru, in the golden age of the eighteenth-century Spanish colonial empire. Among the exotic cast of characters are the greatest actress of the age, a drunken Marquesa who can’t stop writing letters, an obsessed Harlequin named Uncle Pio, identical twins with a private language, and a legendary ship captain. Nor does the novel lack drama, starting with the very first sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
As different as these two works are in form and setting, they pose the same enduring questions that Wilder explored throughout his writing career—often employing death as the window to life. He could well have written of The Bridge of San Luis Rey as he wrote of Our Town: “It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.”
On a summer day in 1714, a bridge collapses in Peru, plunging five unsuspecting travelers to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a witness to the tragedy, dedicates himself to discovering why those five perished. Juniper’s work is judged heretical by the Inquisition and he and his findings are burned at the stake, but a secret copy survives. The narrator of The Bridge delves deeper into the lives of the victims: “Some say...that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”
Thornton Wilder’s second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) had diverse inspirations. The book’s philosophical underpinnings are rooted in Wilder’s conversations with his father, a devoted churchman, and in a passage in the gospel of Luke that reads, “...those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?” Wilder often said that it is not the responsibility of a writer to answer a question but rather “to pose the question correctly and clearly.” Wilder later said, “The Bridge asked the question whether the intention that lies behind love was sufficient to justify the desperation of living.”
The action of the story has its origins in Wilder’s extensive reading of French literature, including the letters of Marquise de Sévigné and a short comic play by Prosper Mérimée, Le Carosse du Saint-Sacrement, about a notorious affair between the Viceroy of Peru and a famous actress called La Perichole.
Wilder began the novel in July 1926 during a residency at the MacDowell Colony, a writer’s retreat in New Hampshire, and just a year later the book was heralded by critics as a “masterpiece” and a “triumph.” The public agreed. The book sold out almost immediately. By the time it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1928, it had already been through seventeen printings and had sold nearly 300,000 copies.
The success of The Bridge allowed Wilder to resign his position at the Lawrenceville School to write and lecture full time. He used his royalties to build a home in Hamden, Connecticut, known as “The House The Bridge Built,” where he lived with his parents and sister Isabel.
Today, The Bridge remains a perennial favorite. Wilder’s novel continues to hold meaning for people the world over. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, British Prime Minister Tony Blair read from The Bridge’s closing lines at a memorial service for British victims of the World Trade Center attack: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Brother Juniper, a “little red-haired Franciscan from Northern Italy,” has come to Peru to convert Indians when he witnesses the collapse of the bridge. He believes that by examining the “secret lives of those five persons” he can prove that their deaths were not by chance, but part of God’s plan.
Doña María, Marquesa de Montemayor, is the laughingstock of Lima. Silly and often drunk, she pines for the love of her daughter, Doña Clara, who has married and moved to Spain. Her desperation finds expression in beautiful letters that show a deep sensitivity, a vivid intelligence, and a heart breaking for the smallest kindness.
Pepita is an orphan brought up by “that strange genius of Lima,” Abbess Madre María del Pilar, before being sent to live in the Marquesa’s palace. While Pepita pities the Marquesa, she clings to “her sense of duty and her loyalty to her ‘mother in the lord,’ Mother María del Pilar.”
Camila Perichole is the greatest actress in Lima. Renowned for her beauty in her youth, she gains the favor of the court and the devotion of Uncle Pio. When her beauty is decimated by smallpox, she becomes reclusive. Although she refuses Uncle Pio’s help for herself, she entrusts to him her only son, Jaime, the bridge’s fifth victim.
Uncle Pio’s love of literature and culture is embodied in Camila Perichole, whom he trains as an actress. When his influence becomes overbearing, she rejects him. Years later, he still comes to her aid.
Esteban, another orphan raised by the Abbess, attempts suicide after the death of his twin brother, Manuel. He is setting out for a new life on the high seas when the bridge collapses and he falls to his death.
The fame and wealth that Thornton Wilder received from his fiction—especially The Bridge of San Luis Rey—allowed him to return his attention to his first love, theater.
During his years of writing novels, he experimented with one-acts such as The Long Christmas Dinner, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, and Pullman Car Hiawatha—all plays that embody some of the themes and techniques in Our Town. His full-length play The Trumpet Shall Sound was produced off-Broadway in 1926, and by the 1930s, he had turned his attention to play translations such as Lucrèce (1932) and adaptations such as A Doll’s House (1937).
On January 22, 1938, the first performance of Our Town took place at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. The first New York performance occurred less than two weeks later, a now-famous production at the Henry Miller Theatre directed by Jed Harris. Now, more than seventy years later, it is said that a production of Our Town is performed somewhere in the world every night.
What is so special about Our Town, a play often heralded as the great American drama, and which made Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, an internationally famous address?
“Our Town” is Anytown, U.S.A., but it is not in any way a historical reflection of small-town life. The townspeople know many pleasures: seeing the sun rise over the mountain, noticing the birds, watching for the change of seasons. Wilder himself said that the play "is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about conditions of life after death...It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.”
The audience encounters these events through the point of view of the Stage Manager—a character in the play who functions as the narrator and a sympathetic director. While he sometimes talks directly to the actors, he maintains his distance. Most of his lines are delivered as an address to the audience. He freely says they are watching a play written so “people a thousand years from now” will know that “this is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
The opening stage directions are clear and radical, especially for 1938: “No curtain. No scenery.” The costumes are simple; the lighting instructions, complex. The three acts mostly follow two characters, Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who go to school together in Act I, marry in Act II, and experience tragedy in Act III.
Our Town marked the beginning of Wilder’s success in the dramatic arts. He would go on to win his second Pulitzer Prize in drama for The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and write The Matchmaker (1955)—which would later bring him even more renown when it became the musical Hello, Dolly! (1964). But perhaps the sometimes overlooked complexity of Our Town keeps audiences mesmerized year after year. In Emily's final epiphany—wisdom she has learned through suffering—we seem to hear Thornton Wilder's voice speak to us: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."
The Stage Manager is the play’s narrator, who both directs the play and addresses the audience. Always descriptive, sometimes didactic, often funny, he begins the play on May 7, 1901, and ends it twelve years later in the summer of 1913.
Mr. Webb is the publisher and editor of the town newspaper, the Grover’s Corners Sentinel.
Mrs. Webb’s dour demeanor contrasts with her beautiful garden of sunflowers and her maternal devotion.
Emily, the brightest girl in Grover’s Corners, dreams of living an extraordinary life. In Act II, she marries George Gibbs after realizing that his opinion means more to her than anyone else’s.
Wally, the Webb’s youngest child, dies after his appendix bursts while on a Boy scout camping trip.
Dr. Gibbs is the town doctor. He will die in 1930; the new hospital will be named after him.
Mrs. Gibbs, Dr. Gibbs’s wife, dies from pneumonia during a visit to Ohio.
Even as a teenager, George Gibbs wants to be a farmer and marry Emily.
Rebecca Gibbs, George’s older sister, marries and leaves Grover’s Corners for Ohio.
When the play begins, Joe Crowell is the town’s 11-year-old newsboy. He later gets a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Simon Stimson, the organist at church who secretly drinks too much, “has seen a pack of trouble.”