Wilder conference comes to Peterborough

  • The Second International Thornton Wilder Conference in Newport, Rhode Island, June 2015. (Left to right, Tappan Wilder, Katharine Guiles, Paula Vogel, J. Wynn Rousuck, Jackson R. Bryer.) Photo By Edyta K. Oczkowitz

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, July 10, 2018 10:56AM

The Third International Thornton Wilder Conference is taking place this week at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in Peterborough. The conference kicks off Thursday and runs through Saturday.

While passes for the three-day conference are sold out the conference is holding events that are free and open to the public.

Jackson Bryer, President of the Thornton Wilder Society, which is co-sponsoring the event with the Monadnock Center, says the conferences are aimed at furthering interest in Wilder’s work.

The First International Thornton Wilder Conference was held in Oct. 2008 at The College of New Jersey, Ewing Township, New Jersey, the Second was held in June 2015 in Newport, Rhode Island. Wilder spent time in both New Jersey and Rhode Island and drew inspiration from both for his writing, not unlike Wilder’s connection to Peterborough, often affectionately referred to by locals as “Our Town.”

“The Peterborough connection is pretty obvious,” Bryer said.

Wilder is best known for his play “Our Town,” which many believe was based on Peterborough.

He born in 1897 and died in 1975. During his career he won three Pulitzer Prizes for his writing: in 1928 for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in 1938 for his play Our Town, and in 1943 for The Skin of Our Teeth.

During nine residences at the MacDowell Colony, between 1924 and 1953, he wrote significant parts of all three of his Pulitzer Prize winning works.

“He spoke four languages, he lectured in three languages,” said Wilder’s nephew, Tappan Wilder. “My uncle was very versatile, great versatility, and he was hopping from lily pad to lily pad being successful in every one.”

Wilder also wrote librettos for two operas. His play The Matchmaker was turned into the musical Hello Dolly and he wrote a screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock – Shadow of a Doubt.

Wilder found success early in his career with his second novel, allowing him to leave his teaching job at a private school, and continue to write, travel and lecture at universities.

“He always wanted to write plays,” Tappan said. “His novels and his plays, he was very careful to pick the place, which would be the stage. Even though it was a novel it was the playwright that was at work there. … Each book, each play, has its own center of gravity so to say.”

Wilder not only hit on universal themes in his novels and plays, he threw theatre on its head. “He broke all the rules of the theatre by having characters talk to the audience, by not having any scenery on stage in ‘Our Town,’” Bryer said.

Wilder’s eye for the universal came from his love of people, his nephew said. “What are the common themes that we celebrate in our lives. That carry us forward through good, through bad,” Tappan said. “People sometimes saw him as sentimental. There is nothing sentimental about ‘Our Town.’ It’s tough as nails. It’s very authentic, very authentic. … You can’t say a play in which so many people die is sentimental. You can’t say that. … The sense of the wonder and awe of people moving on. The spirits, as we are, we pick ourselves up and move on, and he found that quite wondrous.”

The success of “Our Town” and its perception as a sentimental play cast a shadow over Wilder’s legacy, his nephew said, a shadow that is only now lifting.

The schedule of events include readings of Wilder’s series of three-minute plays and his one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner.

There are events part of the conference that are sold out and closed to the public, such as an opening night banquet at Keene State College on Wednesday and a private tour of the MacDowell Colony. However, the majority of the conference events are free and open to the public.

Individuals are allowed to attend up to three free events during the conference.

Reservations can be made at www.eventbrite.com/o/the-thornton-wilder-society-16933564978.

Meghan Pierce is Digital Editor at the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. She can be reached at mpierce@ledgertranscript.com. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram @monadnockbeat.