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.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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