More often than most people realize, the spirit of Thornton Wilder hovers over the American theater.
Whenever a modern American play deliberately dispenses with scenery, or actors use direct address to shatter the traditional "fourth wall" (the invisible barrier separating actors from the audience), or the standard passage of time is fractured, Wilder's influence is at work.
In the broadest terms, he helped change the course of American playwriting. He took a form that had become immersed in naturalism and infused it with theatricality, experimentation and freedom.
"He really felt ... that the well-made play, and the well-made novel, too, no longer spoke to people about the things that he cared about, and he was revolutionary in [his use of] time, staging -- all those things," says Tappan Wilder, the late playwright's nephew and literary executor, who lives in Chevy Chase.
Although Wilder's approach reached its fruition in his pair of Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, "Our Town" and "The Skin of Our Teeth," his experiments started with a series of one-act plays he began writing as early as high school. A production of four of his short plays -- "And Now the Servant's Name was Malchus" (1928), "Pullman Car Hiawatha" (1931), "The Long Christmas Dinner" (1931) and "The Wreck on the Five-Twenty-Five" (1956) -- opens Wednesday at Center Stage.
"He re-liberated the stage for the 20th century," says James Magruder, associate dramaturg at Center Stage. "American playwrights are all indebted to him."
And yet, Wilder's innovations are often taken for granted.
"What he did has now become so much a part of ordinary American theater practice that we don't even see it anymore," says Tim Vasen, director of the Center Stage production. "It's like having a TV or a refrigerator in our house has become so ordinary ... and at one point they completely revolutionized our lives."
The only writer ever to win Pulitzer Prizes in both drama and fiction (for his 1927 novel, "The Bridge of San Luis Rey"), Wilder wrote only three full-length plays. The first of those, however, "Our Town," is one of the most produced -- and often misinterpreted -- dramas in American literature. Wilder had a genius for uncovering universal truths, and he did so in a way that was at once technically inventive and unsentimental.
Born in Wisconsin in 1897 and raised in the Midwest, Asia (after his father entered the foreign service) and California, he was educated at Oberlin College, Yale University and the American Academy in Rome. Part of his career was spent teaching prep school and college students.
"There's probably not an American playwright who was better read than Wilder," says Jackson R. Bryer, professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park and co-editor of a forthcoming collection of selected Wilder letters. "His letters are filled with references to what he's reading; what he's read and his command of it is incredible."
While he was an undergraduate at Yale, Wilder worked briefly as a drama critic for the Boston Evening Transcript. It was a time when naturalism dominated the American stage.
"Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theater," Wilder wrote in the introduction to the 1957 edition of his full-length plays. "I began writing one-act plays that tried to capture not verisimilitude but reality."
"His idea -- which is, of course, as old as the history of theater, he just reclaimed it for Americans," Vasen says, "is that abstraction is often a better way to get to truth than realism."
Bryer explains it like this: "What Wilder is constantly reminding you is that the more concrete the theater is, the more it narrows what it's about."
For example, in the stage directions for "The Long Christmas Dinner," Wilder stipulated that the characters "eat imaginary food with imaginary knives and forks."
"It was quite revolutionary for him to stage a play that takes place at Christmas dinner and there's no food on the table," Vasen says. "It allows it to be all times -- and no time."
In his introduction to "Three Plays," Wilder described his vision of theatrical reality. "Ninety years go by in 'The Long Christmas Dinner,' " he wrote. "In 'Pullman Car Hiawatha' ... plain chairs serve as berths and we hear the vital statistics of the towns and fields that passengers are traversing; we hear their thoughts; we even hear the planets over their heads. ... Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind -- not in things, not in 'scenery.' "
Much of the reality, or truth, that Wilder hoped to convey was explored by contemporary writers and thinkers he admired -- Gertrude Stein, Sigmund Freud and James Joyce. "There was a newfound fascination at the time with the unconscious and the inner life and Wilder found a way to put it on stage," Vasen says.