Pullman Car Hiawatha

The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder Volume I

Premiered: Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio,
March 19, 1932
Type: Short Play

In this one-act comedy, set in a Pullman car on a train traveling from New York to Chicago in December, 1930, conventional time is suspended, and the only true measures of existence are life and death. Pullman Car Hiawatha takes us on a metaphorical journey by train through the American landscape, a diverse band of travelers encapsulated in a Pullman car hurtle through time, space and a range of emotions.

by Eric Specian

Plot Summary

Pullman Car Hiawatha never had a professional premiere in New York or elsewhere. Its first production was on March 19, 1932, at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This “future fabric of Our Town1 begins with the Stage Manager drawing chalk lines on the floor that represent the berths in the Pullman car on December 21, 1930, traveling from New York to Chicago. The Stage Manager conducts the train’s passengers, the first of the six sets of characters, onto the stage. “The actors enter carrying chairs. Each improvises his berth placing two chairs ‘facing one another’ in his chalk marked space.2 The only other scenery is a “balcony or bridge or runway leading out of sight in both directions” and “[t]wo flights of stairs descend[ing] from it to the stage.3 The first group consists of Harriet, the protagonist, in Compartment One; Philip, Harriet’s husband, in Compartment Two; Mrs. Churchill (Insane Woman) in Compartment Three; Bill, an engineer, in Lower Seven; Fred, another engineer, in Lower Nine; a maiden lady in Lower One; a middle-aged doctor in Lower Three; and “a stout, amiable woman of fifty4 in Lower Five. The Porter assists the passengers to settle in and prepare for bed. “The realistic performance against the anti-illusionistic backdrop is suddenly cut short, when the God-like Stage Manager no longer impersonates upper-berth passengers, and addresses the audience directly.”5 Assisted by the Stage Manager’s omniscience, the inner thoughts of the passengers are heard. Lower Five is checking over the Christmas gifts she is giving to family members. Lower Seven (Bill) is on his way to meet his lover Lilian, who lives in California. Lower Three, the doctor, impassively reads a medical journal, “punctuating his reading with an interrogative ‘So?’”6 Lower One complains about her broken hot water bag and her inability to sleep. Lower Nine is vexed about a fruitless business venture he made with the Soviets. The Stage Manager offers the Porter a chance to speak; he is embarrassed, yet shares his thoughts about his home in Chicago and his life insurance.

Meanwhile in the compartments, Philip attends to Harriet, who has not been feeling well since dinner. In Compartment Three the Insane Woman does not want to be brought to the asylum, but her attendants declare it is a “lovely place” with gardens and roses everywhere.7 Harriet calls the Porter over telling him she is sick and needs a doctor. When the doctor arrives, he declares she is dead and goes to break the news to her husband.

The Stage Manager steps forward to direct the audience away from the microcosmic Pullman car and toward macrocosmic levels. “Now for [the car’s] position geographically, meteorologically, astronomically, theologically considered.”8 Grover’s Corners, Ohio, The Field, The Tramp, Parkersburg, The Workman, and This Worker are brought on stage expressing statistics about the according geographic area, their life, or the journey. Each also recites lines from a famous author, poet, or song. The Workman, a ghost, is German and “was killed while they were building the trestle over which the car Hiawatha is now passing.”9 He delivers his “motto,” which resembles the Gettysburg Address,then exits. “This Worker” declares the train signals are properly working and wishes the travelers well. The Mechanic comes forward to forecast the weather.

The next set of actors, played by women, represents the hours, as explained by the Stage Manager: “The minutes are gossips; the hours are philosophers; the years are theologians. The hours are philosophers with the exception of Twelve O’clock who is also a Theologian.”10 Ten O’clock is Plato; Eleven O’clock is Epictetus; Twelve O’clock is Saint Augustine.

The hours are sent away and the planets enter. They have no lines, but are conducted to make sounds. The Stage Manager now calls everyone to come forth, blending the micro- and macrocosms. “Come, everybody. This is the earth’s sound.”11 The Insane Woman asks him for something to do, but he silences everyone and the Archangels descend from the balcony, the theological aspect. Gabriel and Michael walk past the passengers. The Insane Woman can see them and asks the archangels to take her; however, they make her understand that she must wait. Harriet is reluctant to go with the archangels. What they whisper to her is inferred by dialogue. “I’m ashamed to come with you […] But it’s not possible to forgive such things […] But no one else could be punished for me.”12 When they start to take her away she has an epiphany: “I never used to talk like this. I was so homely I never used to have the courage to talk. Until Philip came. I see now. I see now. I understand everything now.”13

Finally, the Stage Manager brings together the whole cast. “He gives two raps on the floor, like the conductor of an orchestra attracting the attention of his forces, and slowly lifts his hand. The human beings murmur their thoughts; the hours discourse; the planets chant or hum: HARRIET’S voice finally rises above them all.” She recites a verse from “Lead, Kindly Light.” Harriet and the macrocosmic cast are waved away, and the play returns to the microcosmic level. Having arrived in Chicago, the passengers jostle around as if nothing peculiar has happened. As they depart the train, “an army of old women with mops and pails enter and prepare to clean up the car. The curtain falls.14

Critical Analysis

Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author is often referenced in discussions of Pullman Car Hiawatha. Wilder’s Stage Manager echoes the director in Pirandello’s text because they perform the roles of actor and director, and break down the reality of the play; but they are not identical. Castronovo notes, “Wilder has softened the role of the manager, made him less irascible and resistant to the drama before him than Pirandello’s short-fused director…[he] becomes one of the first real American people/actors who give the audience a sense that the reality of theater and the reality of their lives are intertwined.”15 The Stage Manager’s command over the stage and characters suggests he is a god-like figure. “The Stage Manager of Pullman Car Hiawatha is closer to the portrait of God as creator in the first book of the Bible: Genesis.”16 He controls who appears on stage and what happens, and his repetition of “All right”17 mirrors God’s “and it was good” from the Bible. If the Stage Manager represents God, then the characters are representative of all walks of life:18 the married couple, a grandmother, a businessman, engineers, a doctor and nurses, an insane woman, and a porter. The fact that they are on a train is not only a metaphor for the journey through life, but “of a passage of time as it roars to its destination.”19 The train travelling on tracks toward a fixed destination symbolizes fate, which further emphasizes why Harriet must leave and why The Insane Woman cannot be taken by the Archangels despite her willingness and desire to leave. It is Harriet’s time and her time only.

Hansong Dan states that Harriet’s dying in the play was Wilder “brewing one of his favorite themes in allegorical narrative – the moral and aesthetic values of death.”20 The meaning of life is inferred by the dialogue between the Archangels and Harriet, “an allegorical message Wilder hopes to render to the spectators.”21 As for the rest of the passengers on the train, they remain blind because “only the mad and dead can actually see the world.”22 The characters not only represent all walks of life, but highlight the problems of a materialist view of life, as their monologues revolve around the things they can’t take with them. The doctor is distracted by his magazine; Lower Five is focused only on her gifts; Bill is not blinded by love, but the “politics”23 of love; Lower One is too busy thinking about illness and disease; and Fred is blinded by money. Harriet finally “understands everything” once she says her series of goodbye’s, thus freeing herself from everyone and everything. Paul Lifton notes Harriet’s instant metamorphosis as “the most complete and ‘expressionist’ wandlung [transformation] depicted in all of Wilder’s plays…she metamorphoses posthumously from a timid self-effacing invalid…into an impulsive, outgoing, voluble soul.”24 Wilder’s philosophical background, specifically Plato’s “beatific vision,” is pronounced in Pullman Car Hiawatha. Adrienne Hacker-Daniels proposes it is a theme that “Wilder’s plays seem to be striving toward.”25 Harriet is able to see the imperceptible beauty in the micro- and macrocosm and is brought closer to God. Emily’s epiphany in Our Town, which mirrors Harriet’s, is based on the same premise; she realizes that she went through her whole life blind to the people and conversations around her. Through philosophy, Wilder opens the eyes of his characters and the audience. Pullman Car Hiawatha “much more than others, then, points ahead to Wilder’s future dramatic technique and philosophy of life.”26 However, it is philosophy the audience must figure out; for as Dan states, “Wilder refuses to end the play with Harriet’s sermonizing poetry-reading and the audience’s sobbing.”27 Instead, the Stage Manager directs the stage to be cleared, and the cleaning crew enters. “Thus by returning [the stage] to the mimetic Wilder destroys the soothing religious illusion…perhaps to unhinge the spectators from any kind of intellectual complacency they hope to take away from the theatre.”28 Though Wilder may not be able to give the answer to the meaning of life, the play opens it up for discussion, beginning with the unsettling truth of how much goes unseen in daily living.


1Tallmer, Jerry. “Two by Thornton Wilder at the Connelly.” Rev. of Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. The Villager [New York] June-July 2004, Theater sec.: n. pag. The Villager.com. Community Media LLC, June-July 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.
2 Ibid.
3 Wilder 93.
4 Ibid.
5 Dan 123.
6 Wilder 95.
7 Ibid 97.
8 Ibid 99.
9 Wilder 101.
10 Ibid 102.
11 Ibid 103.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid 107.
14 Ibid 108.
15 Castronovo 71,72.
16 Konkle 110.
17 Wilder 93, 95, 99, 101, 102, 103, 107.
18 Burbank 61.
19 Kuner 105.
20 Dan 128.
21 Ibid.
22 Wheatley 114.
23 Wilder 95.
24 Lifton 77, 78.
25 Hacker-Daniels 337.
26 Papjewski 148.
27 Dan 128.
28 Dan 129.


Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publisher, Inc, 1961. Print.

Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: Ungar, 1986. Print.

Dan, Hansong. To Realize the Universal: Allegory Narrative in Thornton Wilder’s Plays and Novels. Bern: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.

Hacker-Daniels, Adrienne. “Plato and Heraclitus Speaking to Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Long Christmas Dinner.” Thornton Wilder New Essays. Ed. Martin Blank, Dalma Hunyadi Brunauer and David Garrett Izzo. West Cornwall: Locust Hill Press, 1999. 330-347. Print.

Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri, 2006. Print.

Kuner, M.C. Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972. Print.

Lifton, Paul. “Vast Encyclopedia”: The Theatre of Thornton Wilder. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1995. Print.

Papajewski, Helmut. Thornton Wilder. Trans. John Conway. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968. Print.

Wheatley, Christopher J. Thornton Wilder & Amos Wilder: Writing Religion in Twentieth-century America. Notre Dame: Univeristy of Notre Dame, 2011. Print.

Wilder, Thornton. “Pullman Car Hiawatha.” Thornton Wilder Collected Plays & Writings on Theater. Ed. J. D.McClatchy. New York: The Library of America, 2007. 93-108. Print.

Further Commentary
by Jacobina Martin

Pullman Car Hiawatha was first published on November 5, 1931, in a volume entitled The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act. On March 19, 1932, the play had its first licensed performance at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Until after World War II, the play, and others in the volume, were performed chiefly by amateur groups using the book or other copies in typescript. An acting edition of the play was published in London in 1952. It was revived at the Circle in the Square Theater in 1993 and, again, at Baltimore’s Center Stage, in January 2001.

Like many of Wilder’s plays, the events in Pullman Car Hiawatha are choreographed by a Stage Manager, who serves as narrator, director, and occasional actor. He creates the set, directs the action, and guides the audience’s outlook on the unfolding universe of the play. First, he explains that the set, a combination of balcony, stairs, and footlights, is a Pullman car traveling from New York to Chicago; the audience is to imagine this car as having an aisle and nine compartment, each with a lower and upper berth. He summons the actors onto the stage, directing them to set up their chairs in such a manner as to represent the inside of the berths.

Few of the characters have names; they are known instead by the location of their berths, such as Lower One, whom we come to know as “a maiden lady,” or Lower Three, who, we discover, is a doctor. Only Mrs. Churchill, The Insane Woman who dominates the stage at several key moments, and a young couple, Philip and Harriet, have clearly given names. Harriet, a central figure, dies early in the play, but reappears touchingly as a ghost, no longer part of the journey; Mrs. Churchill, insistently referred to as The Insane Woman, is accompanied by two attendants to whom she constantly complains. Most of the characters occupy the lower berths. The Stage Manager assumes the voices of the few upper berth passengers.

At the beginning of the play, the characters get settled on the train and talk about the practicalities of the trip, such as a leaking hot water bottle or the need for an aspirin. Then, as the Stage Manager instructs (the passengers to talk, the audience to listen), they reveal their thoughts, hopes, and fears. Lower Five worries about the gifts she is taking to her family; Lower Seven’s concerns are about the woman he is to meet in San Francisco, his final destination; Lower Nine has fears about money. All are concerned with the daily considerations of human life. Even the Porter is encouraged to reveal his thoughts, but he feels unworthy; his anxieties about his home and life insurance seem, to him, too simple to be considered. He is uncomfortable about talking, unaware that his concerns are the same as the passengers who command his services and attentions. The Stage Manager dismisses The Porter’s discomfort as shyness.

The only passengers who speak at any length are The Insane Woman and the young couple Philip and his wife Harriet, who dies shortly after the journey begins. These three are given painful and difficult dialogue (or in the case of The Insane Woman, monologue. She has difficulty speaking with others.)

As soon as Harriet dies, the journey changes. The Stage Manager broadens the context of the journey, as if Harriet’s death enlarges the play’s context and importance. “All right,” he says, “So much for the inside of the car. That’ll be enough of that for the present. Now for its position geographically, meteorically, astronomically, theologically considered.” First, he considers the journey “geographically.” The passengers leave their berths to become the inhabitants of “Grover’s Corners, Ohio,”(a village to be revived in Our Town) “Parkersburg, Ohio,” and even “A Field,” all components of the countryside through which the train travels. These areas, like the passengers of the Pullman car, voice their thoughts and concerns, and other characters, such as The Tramp and The Workman, who is the ghost of a German railway worker, speak of hardships far bleaker than those of the train’s passengers. All quote poetry, attributing the lines crisply to their author. The Worker, a railway watchman worried that the train will be late, wants to speed the train along. The “signals are all right for this train,” he says. The world is ticking along.

Having established the earthly context of the train, the Stage Manager enlarges the play’s scope a second time, considering the world “meteorically” by asking A Mechanic about the regional weather. Next, the Stage Manager, expanding a bit from his set list of considerations, presents the journey “temporally considered.” As he introduces time, in the form of three “beautiful girls, ” the Hours of Ten, Eleven, and Twelve O’clock respectively, he comments, “Now for the Hours. The minutes are gossips, the hours are philosophers, the years are theologians.” Twelve O’clock, he adds, is also the theologian. Each puts time into perspective through quoting passages from the philosophers, such as Epictetus and St. Augustine. For these three, time is the human condition as manifested by the words of philosophers; The Hours view time as human time, written in human terms.

The context shifts, grandly, one last time, as the Stage Manager reflects on the journey “astronomically considered,” presenting the audience with the wordless, noisy Planets, whose humming is almost deafening. Like an orchestra conductor, the Stage Manager directs the entire cast of characters in a symphony of whispers, which includes all aspects of the journey: the passengers’ whispering, the voices of the places through which the train passes, the overlooked ghost and workmen, the philosophical Hours, and the murmuring Planets. The journey’s universe is harmonious.

But such universal harmony cannot last. Not everyone is included in the chorus. The Insane Woman breaks the euphony of the “Earth’s Sound” by human despair and complaint: she feels useless, her insanity at odds with the gorgeous sound of the spheres. And so the Stage Manager again turns to his last category, the journey “theologically considered.” He summons the divine world, notably the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, to guide The Insane Woman and Harriet to another sort of world and life, where they, the misfits on this journey, will belong. They will become inhabitants of a place filled with people like themselves, at odds with the context of the journey of the living, purposeful travelers on the train. The misfits in human life become at home in an afterlife, where they will “inherit the Earth.” Once they leave, the universal orchestra, full of glory and harmony, can play again, and the train’s passengers can reach their momentary destination, Chicago.

Pullman Car Hiawatha is a symphony of Wilder’s ideas. The play examines many concerns explored in Wilder’s longer works. As Gilbert A. Harrison, Wilder’s biographer, remarks, “[Pullman Car Hiawatha] foreshadows techniques and themes Thornton would develop in Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth.” In Our Town, Pullman’s Grover’s Corners, Ohio, becomes Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Harriet’s moving farewell speech renders her “…the forerunner of Our Town‘s Emily,” as Harrison notes. The philosophic Hours of Pullman are reexamined in The Skin of Our Teeth, where Skin’s Stage Manager, Mr. Fitzpatrick, comments, ” . . . each of the hours of the night is philosopher or great thinker. Eleven o’clock, for instance, is Aristotle. And nine o’clock is Spinosa. Like that.” Fizpatrick’s commentary echoes that of the Stage Manager in Pullman. And finally, the dialogue of the train’s inhabitants reflects the ordinariness of everyday life, just like the dialogue of The Happy Journey from Camden to Trenton, another journey through life. In some of Wilder’s shorter one-act plays, such as Three-minute Plays for Three Persons, such dailiness of life is juxtaposed with a larger metaphysical reality, as in The Wreck on the 5:25. Pullman Car, like many Wilder plays, takes on an otherworldly quality by combining dialogue with sound, what is spoken with what is unspoken. The combination creates a reality larger than the stage or the play, pushing the limits of drama to the edge.

As in other plays, such as The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, Wilder uses the journey as both practical and metaphorical human transportation. “Thornton, who was himself so often on the move, saw the human journey as an endless movement through space and time,” says Harrison. “What had an effect on Thornton was his cross-country lecture tour in the early thirties –the train rides, the glimpses of boardinghouses and shady hotels, salesmen on the road, waitresses, small town businessmen, housewives and their children.” No character in the play is extraneous. If their lives are not revealed at length in dialogue or plot, all have opportunities to divulge their inner thoughts and concerns. Even the landscape, such as The Field, pleads the importance and rich history of the land and its inhabitants, gophers, mice, and snakes.

Wilder treats the play as a map. After a tight examination of the train and its passengers, we zoom out of the narrow context into the scenery. The panorama becomes wider as we come to the sky, the solar system, and eventually the heavens themselves. The lives of a few rather ordinary people are made extraordinary as we view them in the grand scheme of world order. And this, perhaps, is Wilder’s point: no human is without importance, and yet all are humbled in the face of the vast universe. In Gilbert Harrison’s words, “Millions came before you, millions will come after you, the playwright is saying; the universe is vast, time is indifferent to pride and ambition, do the best that you can in this short span, that’s all you can do, God knows why – or perhaps God doesn’t know.”

For further discussions of Pullman Car Hiawatha, please visit the Bibliography.

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