Thornton Wilder and Frank O’Hara: A New Discovery and a Footnote


Thornton Wilder, 1947

Karin Roffman, who is completing an eagerly-awaited biography of the young John Ashbery, posted a very interesting piece yesterday on Stylus, the blog for the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard.  Roffman writes about an incident that occurred in 1951 at the inaugural event of the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, involving the playwright Thornton Wilder and Frank O’Hara.

During the course of an evening of one-act plays that included the premiere of Frank O’Hara’s Try! Try! (starring John Ashbery in the role of “John”) and plays by Ashbery and Richard Eberhart, Wilder — who was already a renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright at the time — shocked the audience by launching into an extended rant.   As Roffman notes, Wilder’s disruptive speech has been discussed in various places over the years, including in Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara, City Poet, and has even “become part of the lore of the period.”

But what actually happened?  What did Wilder actually say?  Roffman points out that “since that memorable evening, myth and fact have quietly merged in retellings.”  Well, we now have a much better sense of what Wilder actually said, thanks to a serendipitous find in the archive:

Last October, Christina Davis, the imaginative and disciplined curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, made an amazing discovery: the original recording of an unscripted rant by playwright Thornton Wilder about the current state of drama and poetry, which he delivered spontaneously to a captive audience of theatergoers… 

As Roffman notes, people who were at the event seem to have quite varied memories of Wilder’s rant, its content, its tone, and even its length: “In one interview I did a few years ago for my biography of John Ashbery’s early life, a former Harvard student present that night told me that Wilder’s ‘kind of crazy’ rant lasted ‘nearly twenty minutes.'”  She also quotes from Nora Sayre’s “The Poets’ Theatre: A Memoir of the Fifties”:

During the Poets’ very first evening, in 1951, the spectators laughed freely at the comic juxtaposition of images in [Frank] O’Hara’s one-act play Try! Try!. Thornton Wilder, who was a visiting lecturer that year, leaped to his feet at intermission and scolded them: how dared they laugh? How could they fail to appreciate the vitality of “the new creative dramatic poetry in America?” Pacing to and fro while shaking his finger at his listeners, he lectured them until even the smiles were suppressed. Then he asked for contributions for the Theatre.

Roffman goes on to note what the newly-discovered recording reveals:

In the fall, Christina and I listened repeatedly to Wilder’s impromptu speech, the existence of which both corrects and complicates the existing record of the evening, though several words are difficult to hear due to Wilder’s impassioned delivery. First, the “nearly twenty-minute” rant actually lasted only three minutes and seven seconds. Second, despite the feelings against it reported by individual members of the audience, it received thunderous applause. Third, the speech occurred not at intermission but after O’Hara’s play (the third of four plays performed that evening). Fourth, while Wilder reacted to the audience’s laughter at O’Hara’s very witty, though also very sad, play (reprinted in Amorous Nightmares of Delay), his speech suggested he was more excited by the play than upset by the laughter.

As Roffman explains, Wilder did not simply chide the audience for laughing at the play; he also urged them “to recognize that the play they just witnessed was full of ‘very remarkable things.’ ‘Wish him well…do what we can for him,’ he concluded. He fully championed the young poet and his play, suggesting in his encomium that he and O’Hara shared a wonderful vision for the future of American theatre.”

Previous versions of this story have mistakenly downplayed Wilder’s enthusiasm for the play, and for O’Hara as a young writer, Roffman argues.  “In fact, the audio record shows that Wilder loved O’Hara’s play, championed its language and spirit, and saw the two of them as moving forward contemporary American theater jointly.”

This is a wonderful and interesting find.  Since Roffman concludes by asking: “Do memories, strong feelings and sensations about an event offer a true account of what Wilder really meant to say or does this audio record correct the record?”  I thought it  might be useful to add a footnote to what Roffman and Davis have uncovered.

There is one other account of this evening and Wilder’s behavior, and it is not one filtered through the mist of time and memory.  As I wrote about in 2013, Daniel Ellsberg, who would later become famous as the whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers, was an undergraduate at Harvard at the time and published a review of the Poets’ Theatre’s inaugural event in the Harvard Crimson.  In the piece, Ellsberg wrote critically of what he witnessed that night:

One event marred the evening for some. Thornton Wilder, after an appeal for funds, lectured the audience vehemently on its ‘bad performance’ during the O’Hara play, at which it had laughed loudly (and which got an extra curtain call). I think Mr. Wilder misjudged both the play and the audience’s response; if so, his action was regrettable.

And, to add one more point of view to the mix, Brad Gooch relays that Richard Wilbur, who was also present, recalls that “Archie MacLeish, who was seated next to me and had given a number of guffaws, muttered to me ‘I think Thornton’s gone a little off his trolley.”

Now, in addition to the various perspectives of those who were present, we have this remarkable opportunity to hear what Wilder actually said on that evening in February 1951, as it is now posted here, on the Woodberry Poetry Room blog.  Had Wilder “gone a little off his trolley”?  You be the judge.

Ellsberg on Poets Theatre

Ellsberg’s review, as reproduced in Amorous Nightmares of Delay: Selected Plays of Frank O’Hara



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