15 Remarkable Facts About Thornton Wilder's Our Town

Frank Craven (left), Martha Scott, and John Craven in the original Broadway production of Our Town.
Frank Craven (left), Martha Scott, and John Craven in the original Broadway production of Our Town.
Vandamm Studio, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For 80 years, Thornton Wilder's Our Town has awed audiences. The American playwright's delicate tale of small town American families at the turn of the 20th century is alive with humanity and poetry. Yet, there was a time when its content felt downright revolutionary.

1. OUR TOWN IS WILDER'S MOST POPULAR OF HIS MANY NOVELS AND PLAYS.

Today, Wilder is considered a titan of 20th-century American literature—and he's the only person to have won the Pulitzer Prize for both literature and drama. His 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey was a commercial success and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1928. Ten years later, Our Town won Wilder his second Pulitzer, and first in the drama category. His third Pulitzer came in 1943, when his play The Skin of Our Teeth won the drama prize.

Wilder also wrote screenplays for silent films. And because Alfred Hitchcock was such an admirer of Our Town, the iconic director hired Wilder to work on the script for his 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt.

2. OUR TOWN IS A SIMPLE STORY ABOUT EVERYDAY AMERICANS.

Set in the humble hamlet of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, the play follows the relationship of young lovers Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who meet, marry, and separate over the course of 1901 to 1913. In his 1992 book Conversations with Thornton Wilder, English professor Jackson R. Bryer wrote, "Wilder presents ordinary people who make the human race seem worth preserving and represent the universality of human existence."

3. THIS FICTIONAL TOWN IS BASED ON A REAL PLACE.

Wilder spent his summers in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and he aimed to capture its simple charms in his characterization of the fictional Grover's Corners. Years later, Peterborough would return the compliment. As part of a dual celebration of the town's 275th and the play's 75th anniversaries, Peterborough dedicated the intersection of Grove and Main streets to Our Town, erecting street signs that read "Grover's Corners."

4. WILDER WROTE OUR TOWN IN PETERBOROUGH AND ZURICH.

Wilder wrote part of Our Town as a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, an artists' retreat established in Peterborough in 1907. He also worked on the play at an isolated hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, where he was the sole guest. "I hate being alone," Wilder once lamented in a letter, "And I hate writing. But I can only write when I’m alone. So these working spells combine both my antipathies."

5. WILDER WAS ALREADY AN ACCLAIMED WRITER WHEN OUR TOWN DEBUTED.

After winning the Pulitzer for his book The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder turned his focus to Broadway, where he debuted his original play The Trumpet Will Sound. Then, ahead of Our Town, he created English-language stage adaptations for French playwright Andre Obey's The Rape of Lucretia (a.k.a. Lucrece) and Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both played on the Great White Way, in 1932 and 1937 respectively.

6. OUR TOWN BOASTED GROUNDBREAKING STAGING.

The play's directions call for it to be performed on an unadorned stage: "No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light." Simple set pieces like ladders and chairs come into play, but the actors use no props, and pantomime as needed to convey the story. The play's narrator is named after an important theatrical crew position: Stage Manager. This crucial character has the power to communicate directly to the audience, but also can interact with the characters. Each metatheatrical element is meant to draw attention to the constructs within the medium of theater.

7. WILDER HAD USED SOME OF THESE TECHNIQUES BEFORE.

His one-act plays The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931) and Pullman Car Hiawatha (1932) both had Stage Manager characters. Both also called for minimalistic set designs. Happy Journey used four chairs and a low platform to stand in for a family car; Pullman Car Hiawatha employed chalk lines and chairs to create train cars. But only Pullman Car Hiawatha has the Stage Manager address the audience directly as he does in Our Town.

8. OUR TOWN WAS A RESPONSE TO WHAT WILDER FELT CONTEMPORARY THEATER LACKED.

Before writing Our Town, Wilder expressed his disappointment with the quality of American theater. He feared the opulent costumes and spectacular sets of Broadway did a disservice to the written word. "I felt that something had gone wrong," he wrote. "Finally my dissatisfaction passed into resentment. I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive; it didn't not wish to draw upon its deeper potentialities."

9. OUR TOWN WON INSTANT ACCLAIM.

The show made its Broadway debut to positive reviews. Some critics were puzzled, however, by its deceptive minimalism. "Sometimes, as it skips through the lives in a small New Hampshire town, it soars; but again it is earthbound by its folksy attention to humdrum detail. However it may add up, it is an intelligent and rewarding theatrical experiment," wrote John Chapman in the New York Daily News.

The New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson was more effusive in his praise. "Our Town is, in this column's opinion, one of the finest achievements of the current stage," he wrote.

Our Town's success transformed Wilder from a lauded writer to a critical darling. "He was now not merely a successful writer but a sage, a spokesman—a role that he seems to have relished, or at least tolerated," Robert Gottlieb wrote in The New Yorker in 2013.

10. A POSTWAR PRODUCTION OF OUR TOWN IN GERMANY WAS SHUT DOWN.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in its February 13, 1946 issue that the Soviet Union had put a stop to a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of Berlin. The play was canceled "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave," the magazine stated.

Wilder's sister Isabel later offered an alternate explanation. "[Our Town] was the first foreign play to be done in Berlin shortly after the occupation. The Russian authorities stopped it in three days. Rumor gave the reason that it was 'unsuitable for the Germans so soon—too democratic.'"

11. THE PLAY'S GENRE IS HARD TO PIN DOWN.

In theater, comedies often end in weddings, while dramas frequently end in death. Our Town offered a bit of both and in an introspective manner that celebrates the grace and frustrations common to the human experience. In 1956, theater historian Arthur Ballet and playwright George Stephens had an academic debate about whether the play was a tragedy. Ballet declared it a "great American drama" because the Stage Manager is born from the Greek chorus tradition. But Stephens rejected this categorization, calling it “gentle nostalgia or, to put it another way, sentimental romanticism."

12. WILDER BRIEFLY APPEARED IN OUR TOWN.

For two weeks in its original 1938 run on Broadway, Wilder himself played the role of the Stage Manager, though Frank Craven originated the role in its debut production. The actor of stage and screen appeared in a long list of movies, including the Will Rogers drama State Fair (1933), the Howard Hawks-helmed adventure Barbary Coast (1935), and the horror movie Son of Dracula (1943). However, Craven is best remembered for his portrayal as Our Town's Stage Manager, a role he reprised in the 1940 film adaptation.

13. OUR TOWN CONTINUED TO WIN AWARDS.

Broadway revivals were mounted in 1944, 1969, 1988, and 2002. The 1988 revival starring Eric Stoltz and Penelope Anne Miller as George and Emily garnered the most acclaim. It earned five Tony nominations, including those for Best Featured Actor (Stoltz), Featured Actress in a Play (Miller), Costume Design, Direction of a Play, and Revival, as well as four Drama Desk nods for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Stoltz), Featured Actress in a Play (Miller), Lighting Design, and Revival. This production won the Tony and Drama Desk awards in the Best Revival category.

14. OUR TOWN GOT A HAPPY ENDING WHEN IT WENT HOLLYWOOD.

The play's first film adaptation hit theaters in the spring of 1940. Martha Scott, who made her Broadway debut originating the role of Emily Webb, reprised the part in this movie. Major changes were made in the film version, like the inclusion of sets and props—but most noticeably, Emily lives, turning the play's third act into a dream sequence. Perhaps surprisingly, Wilder argued for the change.

He wrote to Sol Lesser, the film's producer, "Emily should live … in a movie you see the people so close 'to' that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstractions in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete … It is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live."

15. ITS SIMPLE STAGING HAS HELPED MAKE OUR TOWN A VERY POPULAR REVIVAL.

Thanks to the play's minimal stage design requirements, community theaters and high school drama clubs can take on this American classic with meager budgets. And they often have. "Our Town goes on and on and on and on. Is there a high school in America that hasn’t staged it?" Gottlieb wondered in The New Yorker. Its accessibility, along with the play's universal themes about love and mortality, have made Wilder's contemplative classic a staple for new generations of theater lovers.

Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

iStock.com/RyersonClark
iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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