Interview: Wilder on Stage

The following is an excerpt from an interview with James Magruder, who was the Production Dramaturg for the recent production of four of Thornton Wilder’s short plays at Center Stage in Baltimore. Magruder is an institutional and production dramaturg as well as a translator of such plays as Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love and Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid. He received his doctorate in 1992 at the Yale School of Drama, where he now teaches translation and adaptation.

James Magruder recently spoke about Wilder the playwright with Penelope Niven, who is writing a biography of Thornton Wilder. His full interview will be published soon in the Thornton Wilder Society Newsletter.

Penelope Niven [PN]: Do you need to be a playwright yourself, at least in spirit, in order to translate the work of others?

James Magruder [JM]: I am always aware of the impossibility of rendering exact translations. As a translator, it does help that I’ve been trained to I know what works on stage, You can only hear the language go by once. You have to pay attention to euphony and speakability.

One of the many amazing things about Wilder is his ability or his need or his injunction to himself to keep the language as plain as possible. He is so far out there with his dramaturgy, his thoughts are so cosmic, and the package he presents them in their original context is so revolutionary that if his language had become precious, then I think he would be less performable because he would have been so far out in the avant-garde.

But Wilder was very smart in that he knew to package these wild notions, these new thoughts for the modern stage in very plain language that everyone understood. He had an ear for how American speech is spoken. There is a difference between how an American speaks and how a stage American speaks.

Wilder also knew how to make something work on stage. He gave it his own background–all of the languages he knew, everything that he read. He could have written in a much higher diction, and really pulled out the five-dollar words. But he wasn’t interested in that because he was going after essential human truths.

PN: So the language is organic with the whole timeless, universal thrust of his work?

JM: Yes, and what’s interesting is that when other playwrights try to go for timelessness, they clunk, but Wilder doesn’t. I think of something like Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. that was hailed in its own time but it’s so weighty and fraught with clunks as he strives for some sort of natural speech. But Wilder is just amazing.

PN: Wilder is so often dismissed outright as belonging to an earlier, totally different time. How do we change that perspective?

JM: We have to do more productions. We have to get audiences to see Our Town later in life. We associate that play with schooldays. You grow up and you put away childish things, even if they are not childish. Our Town is so over-known and over- exposed to young people that we think that we’ve outgrown it, and we never will.

PN: If you say to your colleagues, “I am doing Wilder,” what sort of response do you get?

JM: They’ll say, “Oh, gosh, are you doing Our Town?” Every major regional theater has done Our Town. It is also unfortunate that Hello Dolly has sort of obscured the glories of The Matchmaker. Skin has one huge idea. The Matchmaker has seven huge ideas. There is nobody like Wilder in the American dramatic tradition.

PN: Do you see the dramatist’s hand in the constructions of Wilder’s novels?

JM: Yes, in the later ones especially. Again, Wilder has come along at the right time in my life, for I am shifting from writing plays to writing novels. The lessons that I have learned from playwriting, I am putting into my novel that I’m finishing. I see Wilder doing that in the later novels. It helps to write a scenes in a novel as scene work to keep the forward motion going. Wilder is just as good with dialogue. Some novelists don’t do dialogue terribly well. It’s not a preoccupation. But Wilder took the best of his lessons from the drama, and put them in the later novels.

What Wilder, at the age of 28, knew about each and every one of us is just incredible. He’s like Charlie Chaplin in that way. I don’t know much about Charlie Chaplin, but Charlie Chaplin knows a lot about me. Wilder’s that way. Thornton Wilder knows a lot about me, a lot about each one of us.