The Long Christmas Dinner — From Page to Stage

by Tappan Wilder

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

The Long Christmas Dinner is one of six short plays by Thornton Wilder published jointly by major publishers in the U.S. and Great Britain in November 1931. The playwright was thirty-four years old and dividing his year between writing, lecturing, and teaching comparative literature and composition at the University of Chicago.

Wilder’s one-act plays integrated different theatrical forms—from broad farce to satirical comedy; classical tragedy to grand melodrama, with touches of parody, irony, and pathos along the way. Wilder privately described three of the plays—The Long Christmas Dinner, Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, and Pullman Car Hiawatha—as his “cosmic ones.” In these plays, he experimented with such innovative dramatic techniques as pantomime, non-linear time schemes, elimination of literal scenery, and a substitution of conventional plot-and-conflict structure. He explored Everyman themes of birth, life, and death. Death was especially present in these three works; it is a stalking presence at ninety years of meals around the same table in The Long Christmas Dinner.

Wilder was still unknown to the public as a dramatist in 1931. He had wanted to be a playwright from an early age, and published many short dramatic pieces as a student, including a full-length drama (which suffered an indifferent critical response off-Broadway in 1926), and had even, in 1928, published a book of sixteen 3-minute playlets titled The Angel that Troubled the Waters and Other Plays. But this slender volume contained plays designed to be enjoyed in a comfortable chair before the fire. Our Town, his first full-length Broadway play and the work that opened the door to his theatrical fame, still lay seven years in the future. His breakthrough into the world of literature came not through plays, but through the (hugely) best-selling novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Wilder found important publishers for his short plays because, in a period when drama was read as literature, Wilder had admirers in the world of print only too happy to feed his following with new titles, whatever the content.

And Wilder was in agreement with the way in which his plays were introduced to the world. From 1931 to the end of his life, he held the view that both his playlets and his short plays were, first and foremost, literary rather than dramatic exercises. Case in point, in 1947, Wilder selected the distinguished German translator of his fiction and non-fiction to translate his one-acts, rather than the well known translator of his major plays, saying: “I have never regarded the shorter plays as really practical drama, but as belles-lettres.”

And despite the coming of the Great Depression, Wilder’s dramatic contribution to belles-lettres sold well and attracted much thoughtful comment on both sides of the Atlantic. While Time magazine damned the book as limited to the “intelligentsia” and “affluent” and dismissed The Long Christmas Dinner as “Alice’s mad tea-party in Wonderland,” The New York Times described the title play and several of its companion pieces as “very near to miniature masterpieces.” The Scottish Stage hailed the works (especially the cosmic plays) and saluted Wilder as a writer “bound by no confines of nationality,” possessing “the universal quality which is a greatness in itself.”

Fortunately, it turned out that Wilder’s belles-lettres played on the stage as well as they read on the page. In the 1930s, one-act plays flourished in schools, colleges, community playhouses, and living rooms large enough to accommodate monthly gatherings of the local play-reading group. In these environs, Wilder’s short plays put down roots quickly. Wilder himself was responsible for planting the first seeds by providing proof copies of the forthcoming volume to directors of undergraduate dramatic clubs. The response was quick; within six weeks of the book’s publication on November 1, 1931, all six of the plays had world premieres by undergraduates from four colleges. In a historic collaboration that attracted national attention, The Long Christmas Dinner was first produced on November 25, 1931 by the Yale Dramatic Association and the Vassar Philalethesis at the Yale University Theater in New Haven, Connecticut; other plays in the volume were produced at The University of Chicago and Antioch College. The faculty directors of the three productions were all acquaintances or friends of the budding playwright.

Eighty-three years and hundreds of performances later, Wilder’s one-acts continue to flourish in the one-act habitat described above. But their stature as timeless works of art that wrestle deeply with our humanity have also led to well-received productions Off-Broadway and on notable professional stages around the country, and on radio and television. A story of a very long Christmas dinner has also been translated into some seven languages, and, as you will see tonight, been adapted as an opera. True, it has never played Broadway like The Happy Journey, which made it to the Cort Theatre as a curtain raiser in 1947. But tonight, The Long Christmas Dinner can claim the no less fabled address of Lincoln Center, where we all have a seat at its table.

For additional information on Wilder’s 1931 one-acts, now called “Wilder’s Classic One-Act Plays,” visit thorntonwilder.com and thorntonwildersociety.org.

Tappan Wilder is Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, and the manager of his literary and dramatic properties.

Thornton Wilder and Music — A Note

by Tappan Wilder

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Thornton Wilder’s collaboration with Paul Hindemith on the opera The Long Christmas Dinner reveals an intriguing aspect of the author’s creative life: his close, complex relationship with music.

During his lifetime, with some exception, Thornton Wilder rejected requests from composers eager to turn his two major dramas, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, into operas or musicals. He did permit Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman to fashion The Matchmaker into Hello, Dolly! and he collaborated as librettist with composer Louise Talma on the full-length opera The Alcestiad. Wilder did grant rights to Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green in 1965 for a musical, stage adaptation of The Skin of Our Teeth. That venture collapsed. When Bernstein returned later, now seeking opera rights for The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder shut the door with a definitive no! Bernstein was not alone on the outside. Wilder also said “no” to musical and/or opera rights for his two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays to many others over the years, including Aaron Copland, Howard Deitz, Ned Rorem, and Italy’s Luciano Chailly. Television adaptations were a different matter; as a general rule he viewed these rights as one-time, financially favorable opportunities. He thus permitted an NBC Producers Showcase musical of Our Town in 1955 that opened the heavenly door for Frank Sinatra to sing Sammy Cahn’s and Jimmy Van Heusen’s Emmy-award winning song, “Love and Marriage.” Fortunately, he was also open to seeing his shorter plays put to music.

Wilder did not make these decisions based on inexperience or lack of knowledge. On the contrary, from the time he was a boy, music played a vital role in Wilder’s creative life and provided a source of inspiration for his pen. Though very few details of this chapter in Wilder’s life are known, the early building blocks are clear: a supportive mother, violin and piano lessons, participation in an Episcopal boy’s choir—that well-known training ground for the life-long love of all things choral—and ready access to major music concerts. On April 29, 1909, twelve-year-old Thornton wrote to his grandmother from his home in Berkeley, California, “We had a Bach Festival Thursday in which the Mass in B miner [sic] was given with great success. The Chicago Symphony orchestra is coming…”

Through his teens and early college years, music and writing represented all but equal passions. As a high school sophomore at Thacher School in California, he wrote, produced, and starred in his own first play. He also played violin in the school orchestra and performed solo concerts on piano and violin. At Oberlin College, where Wilder attended his first two years of university, he published drama, prose, and poetry, sang in choirs, and, as a sophomore, studied organ at the Oberlin Conservatory. When Wilder later transferred to Yale, John Farrar, one of his new undergraduate friends, would recall in 1928 that Wilder was, “from the start, interested in the literary and dramatic undergraduate activities, and perhaps even more in music.”

At Yale, Wilder’s interests shifted decisively away from music to literature and drama. Yet, throughout much of his life, Thornton Wilder, celebrated playwright and novelist, remained an excellent sight-reader, devoted four hand pianist, and concertgoer. He had a special interest in attending rehearsals, where he enjoyed watching a work being constructed. He referenced music often in letters, wrote about music in his private journals, and annotated sheet music as a serious hobby, claiming to be able to hear the individual parts of a score in his head. The appraisal of Wilder’s personal library at his death included the category “Music Annotated by T.W.” with this summary of its content: “33 volumes of scores, including works by Palestrina, English madrigal composers, Mozart, and Beethoven.” His taste ran from classical to opera to choral music. He also enjoyed jazz, and near the end of his life developed a passion for twelve-tone music. His many friends included such stars as Otto Klemperer and Robert Shaw, and the musicians he met at The MacDowell Colony, where he first met Louise Talma, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Yale, where he met Paul Hindemith.

In the late 1930s the composer Mabel Dodge (1877–1971) drove Wilder from Walpole, New Hampshire to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough. She recalled, in a memoir, playing a game in which one of them would hum classical or operatic melodies and the other identify the exact movement or act from which they derived. While Dodge did well on the orchestral end, she recalled that Wilder, “succeeded in immensely broadening [her] operatic repertoire.” What amazed her most was “Thornton’s ability to sing snatches from an opera in the language in which it was written…it doesn’t make any difference to him in what language an opera is sung, he is at home in all of them.”* For a 1935 University of Chicago production honoring the 250th anniversary of Handel’s birth, Wilder not only rewrote the translation of Handel’s Xerxes, but also served as its stage director, “seeking the authentic baroque method of staging with enough of the modern tendency introduced to interest completely a 1935 audience,” and cast himself as a soldier in the chorus. Newspapers across the country printed a wire story out of Chicago with this lead: “FAMOUS AUTHOR NEAR OPERA BOW.”

All this is to say that Paul Hindemith had in Wilder a collaborator who knew his way around music. Wilder-the-librettist’s knowledge of languages, particularly German, his fascination with music, and his prior successful experience with translations and adaptations predicted a happy outcome for Paul Hindemith and The Long Christmas Dinner.

*Mabel Dodge’s Thornton Wilder—A Musical Memoir, appeared in the Radcliffe Quarterly in May 1964.

Tappan Wilder is Thornton Wilder’s nephew and literary executor, and the manager of his literary and dramatic properties.

The Long Christmas Dinner: The Wilder-Hindemith Collaboration

by Janie Caves McCauley

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Thornton Wilder had a lifelong love of music. Given the playwright’s appreciation of and training in music, it is no surprise that several contemporary composers approached him about collaborating on an opera based on one of his plays. But he ultimately only worked with two of them. The first, Louise Talma (1906–96), was Wilder’s good friend whom he met at the MacDowell Colony. After Wilder’s major drama The Alcestiad appeared in 1955, he acquiesced to Talma’s suggestion that they adapt the play into an opera. Wilder worked on the piece intermittently over a period of six years. After its premiere in Frankfurt in 1962, he determined never again to take on such projects.

In June 1959, while Wilder and Talma were hard at work on The Alcestiad, the German composer Paul Hindemith queried Wilder about working with him on an opera based on The Long Christmas Dinner, a play published in 1931. The two men had met during the years they had both lived in New Haven, where Hindemith served on the Yale music faculty from 1940 to 1953. After the composer returned to Europe, taking up residence in Switzerland, Wilder’s play appeared in a German translation as Das Lange Weihnachtsmahl, four years before Hindemith first approached Wilder about the collaboration.

Hindemith recognized many features of The Dinner as potentially rich veins for opera. To begin with, the play centers on the theme of time, a motif that suggests countless possibilities to a composer. Most prominent among the subjects Wilder’s characters converse about are birth, death, and marriage. The simplicity of the set, the tightly knit structure, the striking dramatic unity, and the relatively large cast of eleven characters, almost all of whom are equally significant—all these elements make the play very attractive to a composer. But even better, in a unique way the play portrays ninety years in the life of a family in less than one hour’s traffic on the stage.

On May 14, 1960, Hindemith sent Wilder a three-page outline of the play divided into twelve operatic scenes. It also included a chart of the distribution of the music and text the composer envisioned for the opera, a character list by scenes, and the musical structure and forms he planned to use in each scene—arioso, duet, trio, quartet, etc. The chart specified the number of lines Wilder should write for each scene as well as how many of these lines were to rhyme.

Hindemith’s basic plan was traditional in the sense that the libretto would juxtapose prose and poetic texts for the singers. The recitative sections, those passages that relate the narrative to the audience, would be in prose. The arias, passages that allow characters to express their feelings to each other and the audience, would be written in verse.

The most difficult part of Wilder’s work as librettist proved to be generating rhymes for Hindemith’s arias, but he managed to do so masterfully, and Hindemith composed music that maintains continuity as the work moves from recitative to aria and from scene to scene. His plan for adapting Wilder’s plot and characters to the operatic stage proved both efficient and artistically satisfying.

Between June 8, 1959 and April 9, 1962, Wilder wrote thirty letters and eighteen telegraphs to Hindemith, and Hindemith, usually through his wife, Gertrude, wrote eight letters and three telegrams to Wilder. Theirs was a fast-moving, successful collaboration.

To create the libretto Hindemith required, Wilder undertook an extensive condensation and revision of his play. The result proved to be the ideal text to serve Hindemith’s intentions. It is a credit to both artists that Hindemith’s style in this, his last opera (he died two years later), is both unique among his works and far ahead of its time for the mid-twentieth century. As a result, more than fifty years after its 1961 premiere, The Long Christmas Dinner appeals to contemporary audiences as fresh and universal, with its largely transparent orchestral score, its unpretentious mood, its rhythmical variety, and its free, poetic sound. Sadly, it would prove to be Wilder’s last opera as well.

Janie Caves McCauley is Professor of English Literature and Theater Arts at Bob Jones University.

Marking Time Musically

by Joel Haney

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

While preparing for an interview in 1948, a dozen years before adapting The Long Christmas Dinner with Thornton Wilder, Paul Hindemith noted, “the opera industry should be made to serve ethical purposes; it should serve the education of the audience—its intellectual and spiritual formation.” This conviction had already shaped Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1935), whose painter-hero struggles to justify high art amid Reformation-era upheavals. It would motivate his revision of Cardillac (1926; rev. 1952) as yet another study of the artist’s social role. It would decisively stamp Die Harmonie der Welt (1957), a meditation on the astronomer Kepler’s faith in a cosmic harmony that persists beneath worldly disorder. And it would undergird his final opera, which ponders the modern experience of time as a condition of human possibility and limitation—“the bright and the dark”—through the rise and decline of an American bourgeois family.

Hindemith wrote the music for The Long Christmas Dinner between May and August 1960 in Blonay, Switzerland, where he and his wife Gertrud had settled in 1953 after his years of teaching at Yale. This followed a triumphant U. S. conducting tour that had included appearances with the New York Philharmonic, renewing his confidence in American professional opportunities. After finishing scoring the opera in mid-1961 but also losing hope in a companion project with Wilder, he led the premiere of his own German version in Mannheim on December 17th alongside two of his ballets: Hérodiade (after a Mallarmé poem) and Nobilissima Visione (on the life of St. Francis of Assisi). Performances in English had to wait until 1963, the year of his death, when Hindemith conducted the opera at the Juilliard School on the 13th and 14th of March (faculty member Jorge Mester led additional performances) and then at the Library of Congress. More performances followed in several European cities and Tokyo, but to date the opera has not established itself in the repertory.

In the postwar years, Hindemith’s influence declined rapidly amid the sea of change that spawned a new international avant-garde, but his public status as an established master and his growing reputation as a conductor helped arouse considerable interest in The Long Christmas Dinner. The premiere was heavily attended by critics and favorably reviewed. Early commentators identified traits of a distinctive “late style” and spoke of a newfound clarity, lyricism, and rhythmic and harmonic subtlety. They reserved special mention for the coloristic refinement of Hindemith’s scoring, which employs what he called a “Mozartian orchestra” (augmented by bass clarinet, contrabassoon, low brass, harpsichord, and percussion) that ingeniously complements the vocal parts without intruding on them.

In its musical dramaturgy, The Long Christmas Dinner recalls the innovations of Cardillac by presenting a sequence of discrete musical sections that broadly analogize the action instead of a seamless flux of emotion and psychology. Baroque anapests, trills, and a jangling harpsichord project the industrious optimism of the new firm through a retrospective aural scrim; a rollicking jig ushers in the young Charles at the crest of entrepreneurial self-confidence; he and Leonora are symbolically wedded in a subtle waltz; the spinster Ermengarde rapidly recites family history to a bustling boogie-woogie for obbligato bassoon, harpsichord, double bass, and brass; Lucia II and her twin, Sam—heir to the firm and proud World War I soldier—enter to the stately rhythms of a French overture; the unruly Roderick II and aging Genevieve finally renounce the family in rebellion and despair to a reckless, centrifugal tarantella.

Hindemith also infused his score with themes and motifs whose transformed recurrences indicate super-generational continuities: the lilting arioso in which Mother Bayard recounts her childhood also bears along her descendants’ memories; the gasps and joyous outcries of the birthing room hurry the Nurse onstage with each new Bayard arrival; the Christmas toast that displaces the opening prayer routinely brings on jaunty rhythms. More complex associations also accumulate: the churning music with which Roderick II rejects the firm echoes in distorted form the youthful jig of his father (also a tenor); Ermengarde’s elegiac final scene recalls in tone and imagery the memory song of Mother Bayard (likewise an alto) even as it opens toward the future.

Throughout, Hindemith’s music models the flexibility of human temporal experience by establishing normative rhythmic and formal patterns only to stretch, compress, and superimpose them. We hear this in the orchestral introduction, which elaborates the traditional English carol “God rest you merry, gentlemen” in the manner of a chorale prelude sounding in a time warp. Roderick’s premature death triggers a subjectively brooding version of the vigorous music that had precipitated it, and this shift recurs when his son Charles departs decades later. More generally, as characters pause to reflect on the passage of time, musical “business as usual” dissolves into dreamy, suspended moments, as in the trios for Lucia, Roderick, and Brandon and their successors Leonora, Charles, and Genevieve.

Most arresting is the sextet featuring Sam. A detailed outline that Hindemith sent to Wilder shows an initial plan for a “grandioso” climax here, but far more was ultimately achieved through gestural restraint. Standing near the Door of Death, Sam “looks at the table as though he were taking a photograph” and asks his family to “do what you do on Christmas Day.” They patter through the circular conversation of seventy-odd years while he lovingly pledges to “hold this tight” in a lyrical cantus firmus and then steps into the darkness. Producing “one of the most extraordinary and moving effects in contemporary opera” (Hugo Weisgall), this simultaneity of perspectives signals a duality that Wilder noted in a letter to Hindemith: “From one point of view the great Mill-Wheel of birth and death seems mechanical and frustrating; from another point of view, filled with new promise, and the rewards of human life ‘quand même.’”

Not a religious drama in any conventional sense, The Long Christmas Dinner nonetheless offers sustained engagement with ultimate questions. By the end, the family firm is presumably defunct or sold, the house quiet, and the older generation fading. Ermengarde tells us, though, in words that Hindemith reportedly found “moving and extremely beautiful,” that a remnant lives on in another place amid other circumstances. Interleaved with her short-breathed phrases are those of the opening carol, now spare and melancholy but also tonally elevated, suggesting continuation. Along with the introduction, this musical return evokes the framing chorales of the Lutheran cantata, a quasi-dramatic genre eminently concerned with its hearers’ “intellectual and spiritual formation.” Hindemith’s penchant, moreover, for the wordless quotation of traditional songs—evident in his output since the Nazi period—hints eloquently at a balance between human fragility and tidings of comfort and joy.

Joel Haney is Associate Professor of Music at California State University, Bakersfield.

The Long Christmas Dinner

by Leon Botstein

Written for the event The Long Christmas Dinner, performed on December 19, 2014 at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center.

Every American high school student must confront the work of Thornton Wilder; in a way his incredible success, especially with the iconic Our Town, has led us to take him a bit for granted. Thornton Wilder was a prolific author of plays and novels. He is one of those writers who is continually the subject of such comments as “I didn’t know that was by Thornton Wilder!” when one learns, for instance, that Hello, Dolly! is based on a Wilder play. Wilder was the recipient of multiple Pulitzers and a force to be reckoned with in American literature. There is more to him than we have come to assume.

Paul Hindemith, however, has as his Pulitzer equivalent the honor of being called a “degenerate” and “atonal noisemaker” by Josef Goebbels. Although Hindemith was considered a great composer during his lifetime, his career suffered great peaks and slides, especially in the 1930s, after the opera Mathis der Maler. Owing to his emigrations between Europe and the U.S., and the scandalous reception of some of his early works, he was forced to reinvent himself. His reputation posthumously has declined somewhat, though one can hear his influence on American music in the work of his students at Yale, notably Easley Blackwood and Lukas Foss. Hindemith’s work during the last fifteen years of his life, the period into which The Long Christmas Dinner falls, have been quite neglected.

One aspect that Thornton Wilder and Paul Hindemith both shared was their mastery of the short form in their respective fields: the single-act work. Nowhere is Wilder’s skill in this dramatic form so ambitiously and thrillingly demonstrated than in The Long Christmas Dinner, which transforms the concept of duration by compressing 90 years into under an hour, and thereby exposes fundamental issues of life and its rebirths. Hindemith, too, loved the form, and used it to invoke sudden spikes of emotion, whether it be horror, laughter, or astonishment: that is the progression of emotions in his triptych of one-acts, Murder, Hope of Women; The Nusch-Nuschi; and Sancta Susanna (all performed in an evening by the ASO in 2004). That these two great artists collaborated on a form that they both dominated and reinvigorated is a rare and happy historical convergence.

It is therefore with the greatest pleasure and profound gratitude that I have the opportunity to perform this rare work, to help make a case for the late, neglected work of a great composer, and for one of the lesser-known masterpieces of a premier voice of American literature.