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literature

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Wilder, Thornton 1897-1975  
 
page: 1  2  3  

"Suddenly she grabbed my knee. 'Sammy,' she said, 'do you think that Alice and I are lesbians?' I had a genuine hot curl of fire up my spine. 'I don't see that it's anybody's business one way or another,' I said. 'Do you care whether we are?' she asked. 'Not in the least,' I said. . . . 'It bothers a lot of people,' Gertrude said. . . . 'Did Thornie tell you?' 'Only when I asked him a direct question and then he didn't want to answer, he didn't want to at all. He said yes he supposed in the beginning but that it was all over now.' Gertrude laughed. 'How could he know. He doesn't know what love is. And that's just like Thornie.'"

Wilder seems to have been regarded even by his closest friends as a kind of Henry James figure, somewhat sheltered and cerebral, and frightened of sex.

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The relationship between Wilder and his one documented companion, Steward, may have begun as a furtive sexual fling in Zurich in 1937. Steward, a writer, pornographer, tattoo artist, and one-time college professor, was, in pointed contrast to Wilder, open and adventurous. He wrote popular erotic gay works in the 1970s under the pseudonym Phil Andros.

Wilder seems to have backed away from Steward after several awkward encounters. Intimate affection eventually became fond intellectual acquaintance. Typical of some gay men of the era, Wilder preferred to play the role of the perennial Respectable Bachelor. Although he never publicly discussed his homosexuality, later in his life he is believed to have had discreet affairs with younger men.

Despite his reticence concerning his sexuality, Wilder was a notably convivial man who enjoyed friendships with writers and actors and academics.

A Private Public Life

Wilder is the only writer to receive Pulitzer Prizes for both literature (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927) and drama (Our Town, 1938; The Skin of Our Teeth, 1943).

In his novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a rope suspension bridge in Peru snaps, plummeting five people to their deaths. A Franciscan monk, Brother Juniper, witnesses the event. He investigates the accident, seeking to justify God's ways, wondering why these seemingly random five people were meant for that particular fate. Or--the question that haunts the book--was there any meaning at all?

Heaven's My Destination (1935), Wilder's first novel set in America, satirizes an evangelical traveling salesman and fundamentalism. For many years the author regarded this as his best work.

In the play, Our Town, one of the twentieth century's most frequently produced dramas, the small town of Grovers Corners, New Hampshire is a sort of Anytown, U.S.A. Wilder presents a charming and folksy celebration of the daily lives, the simple loves, and the hopeful relationships of a typical American town's inhabitants. We witness their traditions of church, childhood, marriage. We confront the town's deceased ancestors in the most timeless tradition of all: death.

The Skin of Our Teeth is a broad apocalyptic farce in which the many Ages of Man clash on one stage. Ice Age meets Global Warming meets War meets Disaster. Dinosaurs roam the backyard. Archetypes collide. Homemaker battles with Femme Fatale. Climatic and man-made catastrophes destroy civilizations through time-lapsed millennia, but the Family of Man (ably represented by the Antrobus household) manages to rebuild with comical persistence, always surviving by the skin of our teeth. Produced in the midst of World War II, the play offers optimism while frankly acknowledging the perils that beset human life and continuity.

During World War II, Wilder enlisted in the armed services, eventually becoming a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force and earning the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

In the 1940s, Wilder also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

After the war, he reworked an earlier play, The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), a comedy set in New York in the 1880s, that features the adventures of a neighborhood matchmaker, Dolly Levi, who eventually snares herself the perfect husband. It was not much of a success originally, but it became The Matchmaker (1955), a popular vehicle for Ruth Gordon, and it evolved into the even more popular Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical Hello, Dolly! (1964).

In The Alcestiad (1955), Wilder reworked the Greek legend of Alcestis, featuring a wife, mother, and queen who gives her life for her husband Admetus. She was loved by Apollo, and was brought back from hell by Hercules. This was likely Wilder's most troubled play, taking many years to write, and never very popular. He conceived it as an imitation evening at an Ancient Greek theater, complete with a short comic satyr play called The Drunken Sisters.

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