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.

15 Fascinating Facts About Beatrix Potter

Getty Images
Getty Images

Even today, more than 75 years after her death on December 22, 1943, celebrated children’s author Beatrix Potter's beautifully illustrated tales—featuring animals and landscapes inspired by her beloved home in England’s Lake District—are still hugely popular. Below are 15 fascinating facts about The Tale of Peter Rabbit author.

1. Beatrix wasn't Potter's real first name.

Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and was actually christened Helen after her mother, but was known by her more unusual middle name: Beatrix.

2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was inspired by a letter.

The first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Aleph-bet books via Wikimedia // Public Domain

Potter’s most famous book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit , was inspired by an illustrated letter Potter wrote to Noel, the son of her former governess, Annie, in 1893. She later asked to borrow the letter back and copied the pictures and story, which she then adapted to create the much-loved tale.

3. Peter Rabbit and her friends were partly based on Beatrix Potter's own pets.

Peter was modeled on Potter’s own pet rabbit, Peter Piper—a cherished bunny who Potter frequently sketched and took for walks on a leash. Potter's first pet rabbit, Benjamin Bouncer, was the inspiration for Benjamin Bunny, Peter's cousin in her books. Potter loved sketching Benjamin, too. In 1890, after a publisher purchased some of her sketchers of Benjamin, she decided to reward him with some hemp seeds. "The consequence being that when I wanted to draw him next morning he was intoxicated and wholly unmanageable," she later wrote in her diary.

4. Potter’s house was essentially a menagerie.


Riversdale Estate, Flickr // Public Domain

Potter kept a whole host of pets in her schoolroom at home—rabbits, hedgehogs, frogs, and mice. She would capture wild mice and let them run loose. When she needed to recapture them she would shake a handkerchief until the wild mice would emerge to fight the imagined foe and promptly be scooped up and caged. When her brother Bertram went off to boarding school he left a pair of long-eared pet bats behind. The animals proved difficult to care for so Potter set one free, but the other, a rarer specimen, she dispatched with chloroform then set about stuffing for her collection.

5. Peter Rabbit wasn’t an immediate success.

Potter self-published the Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901, funding the print run of 250 herself after being turned down by several commercial publishers. In 1902 the book was republished by Frederick Warne & Co after Potter agreed to redo her black-and-white illustrations in color. By the end of its first year in print, it was in so much demand it had to be reprinted six times.

6. Beatrix Potter understood the power of merchandising.

In 1903 Potter, recognizing the merchandising opportunities offered by her success, made her own Peter Rabbit doll, which she registered at the Patent Office. A Peter Rabbit board game and wallpaper were also produced in her lifetime.

7. Potter was a naturalist at a time when most women weren’t.

Potter was fascinated by nature and was constantly recording the world around her in her drawings. Potter was especially interested in fungi and became an accomplished scientific illustrator, going on to write a paper , “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae, ” proposing her own theory for how fungi spores reproduced. The paper was presented on Potter’s behalf by the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens at a meeting of the Linnean Society on April 1, 1897, which Potter was unable to attend because at that time women were not allowed at meetings of the all-male Linnean Society—even if their work was deemed good enough to be presented.

8. Potter sometimes wrote in secret code.

Between 1881 and 1897 Potter kept a journal in which she jotted down her private thoughts in a secret code . This code was so fiendishly difficult it was not cracked and translated until 1958.

9. Potter was reportedly a disappointment to her mom.


Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite her huge success, Potter was something of a disappointment to her mother, who had wanted a daughter to accompany her on social calls and make an advantageous marriage. In 1905 Potter accepted the marriage proposal of her publisher Norman Warne. However, her parents were very against the match as they did not consider him good enough for their daughter, and refused to allow the engagement to be made public. Unfortunately, Warne died of leukemia just a few weeks after the engagement. Potter did eventually marry, at age 47, to a solicitor and kindred spirit, William Heelis.

10. Potter wrote much more than you. (Probably.)

Potter was a prolific writer , producing between two and three stories every year, ultimately writing 28 books in total, including The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin , The Tale of Mrs Tiggy Winkle , and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher . Potter’s stories have been translated into 35 different languages and sold over 100 million copies combined.

11. Potter asked that one of her books not be published in England.

In 1926 Potter published a longer work, The Fairy Caravan . It was at first only published in America because Potter felt it was too autobiographical to be published in England during her lifetime. (She also told her English publishers that it wasn’t as good as her other work and felt it wouldn’t be well-received). Nine years after her death in 1943, the book was finally released in the UK.

12. Potter's later books had to be cobbled together from early drawings.

As her eyesight diminished it became harder and harder for Potter to produce the beautiful drawings that characterized her work. As a result many of her later books were pieced together from earlier drawings in her vast collection of sketchbooks. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was Potter’s last picture book, published in 1930.

13. A lost work of potter's was published in 2016.

A lost Potter story , The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots , was rediscovered in 2013 and published in summer 2016. Publisher Jo Hanks found references to the story in an out-of-print biography of Potter and so went searching through the writer’s archive at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Hanks discovered a sketch of the kitty in question, plus a rough layout of the unedited manuscript. The story will be published with supplementary illustrations by Quentin Blake.

14. Potter was an accomplished sheep farmer.

Potter was an award-winning sheep farmer and in 1943 was the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

15. You can visit Hill Top, Potter's home.


Strobilomyces, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 

When Potter died in 1943 at the age of 77, she left 14 farms and 4000 acres of land in the Lake District to Britain’s National Trust, ensuring the beloved landscape that inspired her work would be preserved. The Trust opened her house, Hill Top, which she bought in 1905, to the public in 1946.

Mental Floss is partnering with the Paper & Packaging – How Life Unfolds® “15 Pages A Day” reading initiative to make sure that everyone has the opportunity (and time) to take part in The Mental Floss Book Club. It’s easy! Take the pledge at howlifeunfolds.com/15pages.

This article has been updated for 2019.

No, Ernest Hemingway Didn’t Write That Six-Word ‘Baby Shoes’ Story

Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper (right) leave a cinema on the Rue Royale in Paris, France in 1956.
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Journalist-turned-novelist Ernest Hemingway was known for his clean, restrained writing style. Which makes it conceivable that he's the author of the most famous six-word short story of all time.

The story goes that Hemingway wrote the gut-punching line "For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn" to win a bet against his writer friends. But there's no evidence that such a bet ever took place, and it's likely that one of the best-known works attributed to Hemingway has nothing to do with the author at all.

According to Open Culture, the urban legend sets Hemingway in a hotel (usually the Algonquin, but the location varies) some time in the 1920s. He was allegedly having lunch with a group of writer pals when he bet them he could write a story with a full narrative in just six words. After his friends put their money down, Hemingway jotted down a few words on a napkin and passed it around the table. Though brief, the other writers couldn't deny that "Baby Shoes" was indeed a full story.

Chances are this story actually originated years after Hemingway's 1961 death. It first appeared in print in the 1991 book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by agent Peter Miller. When recounting the anecdote, Miller wrote that he first heard the tale from an unnamed newspaper syndicator in 1974.

The story spread from there and its original source only became murkier. A retelling of the tale was included in the one-man biographical Hemingway play Papa in 1996, and then in a Reader's Digest essay in 1998. The internet—for which Hemingway's punchy, compact style was a perfect fit—got "Baby Shoes" in front of more eyeballs than ever.

Though it's been cited in articles and books numerous times, no one has ever been able to trace the story back to a first-hand source. As for the true author of "Baby Shoes" if it isn't Hemingway, flash fiction fans may never know his or her identity. It's possible that the line was never meant to be a fictional story in the first place: Real ads that bear striking similarities to the legendary work predate the myth.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER