The Short Plays of Thornton Wilder

830496I picked The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder, published in 1997, to fill my last open category in Karen’s Back to the Classics challenge. If you don’t know his plays, read (or watch) them. As the name implies, they are short. And in the length lies what I admire most about them. The situation and atmosphere Wilder can create in sometimes only 10 pages of dialogue (and a few stage instructions) are incredible.

I liked all of the plays in this collection, but my three favorite ones are:

The Long Christmas Dinner (first published in 1931)

This must be one of the longest dinners in history; it lasts 90 years. The action never leaves the dinner table, and yet the play portrays the lives of three generations of the Bayard family. It is almost eerie to see how much remains the same despite the unstoppable passing of time. And it is remarkable how much can be said with so few words.

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (first published in 1931)

A mother, father, and their two children drive from Newark to Camden to visit their married daughter Beulah, who has recently been ill. Throughout their ride, they talk, laugh, cry, admire, and remember. It soon becomes clear that the mother is the center of the family, a no-nonsense woman with clear ideas and expectations and still an open ear for everyone. Her strength is made obvious in the final lines of the play.

MA: Now let me look at my girl. Well, well, when I last saw you, you didn’t know me. You kep’ saying: “When’s Mama comin’? When’s Mama comin’?” But the doctor sent me away.
BEULAH: It was awful, Mama. It was awful. She didn’t even live a few minutes, Mama. It was awful.
MA: God thought best, dear. God thought best. We don’t understand why. We just go on, honey, doin’ our business. Well, now, what are we giving the men to eat tonight?

The Drunken Sisters (first published in 1997)

In this play, Apollo sets out to trick the Three Fates. He wants to spare the life of Admetus, King of Thessaly. He tricks the Fates into granting him one wish, but, as is so often the case, as soon as his wish has been granted, Apollo realizes its high prize, which makes the wish itself worthless.

Aside from the plays, I also like this quote from the introduction:

“He never went out to see like O’Neill or Melville or on the road like Kerouac or mad like Poe or even stayed in his room like Emily Dickinson. He was never on the river like Mark Twain. He served in two wars but never fought in a battle like Stephen Crane or shot big game like Hemingway. He never drank himself to an early death like Fitzgerald. […]

Wilder found his wilderness, his running off to sea, his trip up the Amazon, his polar expeditions, his Spanish civil war in the library.”

—John Guare, New York City, May 1997



  1. I love Thornton Wilder. I read all his novels not long ago — The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Theophilus North are my favorites, but all are worth reading. And I picked The Matchmaker as my classic play for the Back to the Classics challenge. The problem with reading plays is that then I really want to see them on stage! Doing it in my imagination is just not the same.

  2. I have never read plays (except maybe in first year English) – I have always thought it would feel bumpy to read a play, because of the dialogue cues, etc. But maybe I should give it a try sometime. These sound interesting, especially The Long Christmas Dinner.
    I really love that quote about Wilder! He sounds like my kind of guy.

    • I don’t usually read plays either, and I picked this collection precisely because it said “short plays” in the title. I figured that at least they would read quickly if I didn’t enjoy reading them. But I was really pleasantly surprised and read the entire volume. I liked the plays, and reading them, a lot more than I had anticipated. I put his Pulitzer-winning novel on my TBR list now, too. (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)

    • I started out with The Long Christmas Dinner, since I thought it would fit well into the season. And it is very fitting; I could see my very traditional family sitting at the table (although I think our conversations vary a little more 🙂 ).

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