Thornton Wilder’s Aspen
Thornton Wilder was present at the creation of modern Aspen.
The iconic American writer — still the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for both drama and for fiction — helped organize and attended the Goethe Bicentennial Celebration in 1949. The international gathering of writers, philosophers, artists, symphonies and scholars was the catalyst for the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Music Festival and School and the prototype of Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke’s “Aspen Idea,” their vision for a mind-body-spirit utopia for the post-war world in this tumbledown former silver-mining town.
Wilder, his legend in American letters already well established by 1949, served as director of the Goethe Bicentennial Foundation, which produced the festival. He stayed in Aspen for the entire summer, from early July through the second week of September. The author of “Our Town,” the quintessential work of small-town America, was taken with this town.
“I loved Aspen that summer,” Wilder recalled to The Aspen Times nine years later. “Goethe took charge. There was none of the pap and triviality which abounds at most summer festivals. Here we had earnestness with gaiety.”
The social pages of the Times that summer included weekly updates on the dinner parties Wilder attended, the company he kept and the readings he gave, including regular discussion groups with local young people at the Roaring Fork Inn, dramatic readings in private homes and an August reading of “Our Town” at the Frontier Lodge in Basalt.
“Mr. Wilder gave generously of his time both during the Goethe Bicentennial and afterward,” the Times stated in an editorial when the playwright left town in September.
His dinner companions, according to the Times reports, were a who’s who of modern Aspen’s cultural architects and early ski industry titans: the Nitzes and the Paepckes, airport director Tom Benedict, Bauhaus architect and artist Herbert Bayer, ski industry pioneer DRC Brown, along with visitors like the poet Sir Stephen Spender and Hollywood movie executives.
Wilder, whose masterpiece “Our Town” Theatre Aspen will produce in a limited engagement opening Friday and running through Aug. 4 at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park, took the stage at the Goethe festival to translate lectures by theologian Albert Schweitzer (from German) and Spanish philosopher Jorge Ortega y Gasset (from Spanish). Today, at the Aspen Historical Society, you can listen to a phonograph recording of Wilder translating Schweitzer, where Wilder’s crisp Midwestern diction is interspersed between Schweitzer’s German.
“The spirit,” he translates Schweitzer, “does not let man simply assert and impose himself over other beings but obliges him to have consideration for them. The spirit in this fashion brings order into the chaos of relations. The man who really finds himself cannot do otherwise than let himself be guided by love.”
Wilder also gave a talk titled “World Literature and the Modern Mind” on July 5. The lecture led the Times to exclaim: “Thornton Wilder’s great wisdom is matched only by his dynamic enthusiasm.”
Wilder also used his public remarks to make a quip about the condition of the notoriously dusty, bumpy and unpaved roads of Aspen in 1949.
“Herr Goethe would have felt very happy in Aspen,” he was quoted as saying in a letter by Rutgers University professor Alice Schlimbach printed in the Times. “The roads in Weimar were in a worse condition with the cow dirt and ‘Misthaufen’ in front of the houses when Goethe arrived.”
As the festival ended, the Times sounded a note familiar to today’s Aspen of massive events and post-event exoduses: “In a few days Aspen will have returned from the spectacular to the more normal routine of its usual existence.”
But the newspaper placed Wilder in a pantheon of exemplary presenters at the proceedings: “Goethe lives again most notably in three men: Albert Schweitzer, Thornton Wilder and (Greek conductor and composer) Dimitri Mitropoulos.”
(A few years later, in 1952, when the Aspen Institute launched a $2.75 million fundraising campaign, an article in the Times quoted Wilder supporting the Institute’s mission and extolling the virtues of Aspen for authors: “Isn’t there some way you can tell people Aspen is good for writers?”)
Wilder charmed Aspen over his two months here. Reporting that the author spent a night at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs before heading back east on Sept. 8, the Times wrote: “We hope that Aspen will have the pleasure of being host to Mr. Wilder again in the near future.”
Wilder did return once more, in May 1958, while on a road trip from California back to his home in Connecticut.
Based on the extensive Aspen Times reports on his visit, Wilder was in a decidedly less scholarly mood than he’d been during the summer of the Goethe festival. On this pleasure trip, he rolled into town in a Ford Thunderbird and stayed for a week of drinking and talking.
“Aspen has known few men like the short, robust, white-haired man who held court in the Hotel Jerome bar last week,” a Times story read on May 29, 1958. “In Aspen he was not only lionized by the smart set, but himself entertained all comers at his philosophy corner in the Jerome bar nightly from 5 til 7. His interview with the Aspen Times was conducted on the sidewalk, in the Red Onion, in a car, at the apartment of a young lady stranger. But his swift, brilliant conversation fascinated all who heard. … A prize catch for any hostess, he has been known to walk up to a stranger and say, ‘My name is Thornton Wilder, will you have dinner with me tonight?’”
During this stay, Wilder championed a return to the basics of theater and the unadorned staging style epitomized in “Our Town.”
“The theater must get rid of its frills, its scenery, its curtains and props,” he said. “We must return to the plain, dynamic stage like the one used for ‘Our Town.’”
Wilder was writing an opera libretto for “The Alcestiad” at the time of this visit to Aspen. Apparently, in every corner of the town, he was encouraged to bring it to the Aspen Music Festival.
“Locals who converse with him, ski bums in bars, or (Aspen Music Festival) trustees in swank homes, have one thought in common, the premiere of ‘The Alcestiad,’ when completed in 1960, should be held in Aspen,” the Times reported. “The noncommittal author is not averse to the idea.”
It didn’t happen.
When Wilder completed “The Alcestiad” in 1962, it premiered in Frankfurt. (J.D. McClatchy’s operatic adaptation of “Our Town,” however, was staged at the Wheeler Opera House in 2006.)
Wilder also used the occasion of his visit to praise the gritty literary and theatrical trends taking hold late 1950s, and the “angry young men” movement epitomized in the era’s dramas from the likes of John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Kenneth Tynan — writers who were then supplanting Wilder, at age 61, on the world’s stages.
“I am happy to see nihilist tendencies in literary schools at this time,” he said. “William Blake once said, ‘The road to wisdom lies through the valley of excess.’ And the 19th century of optimism which threw a long shadow into the 20th century has proved insufficient to sustain a life in the war-shaken years in which we live. … Angry writers, destructive writers, can be looked on as those who may yet build a house, not of borrowed material, but of costly hard-won lumber.”
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