Birth of Thornton Wilder
Playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin.
Wilder was one of six children born to a newspaper editor turned US diplomat. When his father was made US Consul General, the family moved to China, living in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Wilder wrote some of his first plays while attending the Thacher School in Ojai, California. After graduating from high school, Wilder served three months with the Army’s Coast Artillery Corps during World War I. He then attended Oberlin College before earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale. Wilder then earned a Masters degree in French literature at Princeton in 1926. During his college years Wilder also spent some time in Italy studying archaeology and participating in an eight-month residency at the American Academy in Rome. Upon returning to the US he also taught French at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.
Wilder published his first novel, The Cabala in 1926. The following year, his book The Bridge of San Luis Rey brought him his first commercial success as well as his first Pulitzer Prize. The book was also later listed as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. Wilder went on to write six other novels, but the theater was his first love. In 1938, his play Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Five years later, in 1943, his play The Skin of Our Teeth earned him another.
Wilder served in the US Army Air Force during World War II in Africa and Italy, earning several awards for his service. After the war he worked as a visiting professor at Harvard University. Wilder always considered himself a teacher first and writer second, but continued to dedicate much of his time to writing because of his love for it.
In addition to writing his own plays, Wilder translated many foreign plays, as he spoke four languages. He also wrote the screenplay of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Shadow of a Doubt.
Prior to World War II, Wilder had adapted The Merchant of Yonkers from an Australian play and it performed poorly. In 1954, he was encouraged to rework the play and it turned out to be a resounding success with a run of 486 performances. The play went on to become the basis of the hit 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!
Thornton once stated that, “…the theater carries the art of narration to a higher power than the novel or the epic poem.” This belief no doubt led him to experiment with engaging the audience in the drama by having the actors speak directly to the spectators, and by minimizing props and scenery in many of his plays.
Thornton’s novel The Eighth Day earned the National Book Award in 1968. He published his last novel, Theophilus North in 1973 (it was made into the movie Mr. North in 1988). He died two years later on December 7, 1975.