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.