A Day with Tappy Wilder (continued)

By John Stewart

Thornton and Tappan: two Wilders of Yale

Thornton and Tappan: two Wilders of Yale

Almost all of us read and loved Hemingway in high school or college. Many of us read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. In more recent years both these writers fell into neglect. Hemingway’s decline seemed more sudden: admired and taught and then banished from the classroom and reading lists. Wilder more gradually became somewhat neglected, left to be known mainly for his great play, Our Town.

Thornton Wilder’s current re-emergence can be attributed in great part to his nephew. There are new editions of his novels with Tappy’s intros; a new biography in which the author acknowledges Tappy as “the foremost Wilder scholar and archivist;” over 65 productions of Our Town in 2013, including one at Sing Sing and one of the successful operatic setting by the distinguished American composer Ned Rorem. Tappy writes that since 2001 Our Town is coming into its own as perhaps THE great American play. And “over the last decade the play is becoming less and less misunderstood…. (It) is entering a golden age,….increasingly being mounted by a rising generation of directors and actors who know it to be the drama described by the playwright A. R. Gurney as ‘a starkly powerful meditation on death and the human existence,’ and by the playwright Lanford Wilson as ‘deadly cynical and acidly accurate.’” And let us remember that Thornton’s other two well-known and frequently performed plays are The Matchmaker and The Skin of Our Teeth.

Carol Channing and Thornton Wilder backstage at Hello Dolly! production

Hello, Thornton! Carol Channing and Thornton Wilder backstage at Hello Dolly!, drawn from The Matchmaker

After lunch Tappy filled me in on his life since Yale – several careers and including a trip with the Yale Alumni Glee Club. When in 1995 he assumed the Wilder estate executor duties, he described his ascension in typical Tappy fashion as having merely happened to the “last relative standing.” But he’s created an extensive website (which at his behest, I’m sure, nowhere mentions him), traveled extensively to meet with directors of presenting institutions to discuss their plans for performing Wilder’s works, brought about the reissue of most of Wilder’s books, with more in store, and in general served as promoter and gatekeeper. He’s had to deal with proposals to turn books and plays into movies or operas, and all other subsidiary rights, and he’s taken great care to make sure that any performances of the plays will be done in ways both honorable and esthetical. He frequently speaks about the Wilder works, and his own writing skills are evident in his contributions to at least one scholarly symposium on Wilder as well as his introductions and afterwords. Though Thornton’s appeal is special, all this is a model for others who are running estates of people in the arts.

New biography, published in 2012

Just out in paperback

In the midst of a busy life with a very important job, Tappy remains the somewhat self-deprecating, enormously warm and articulate fellow we knew at Yale. We had a quick dinner with Eddie and Lorna Goodman before the performance, and the evening was a roaring success, according to both the audience and the New York Times. Both pieces were done on the same set in the same staging, only adding an orchestra for the Hindemith. It was fascinating to contrast the actors with the singers, all really outstanding. As opera permits, there were some wonderful ensembles ranging from duets to a very moving sextet for the whole cast. Afterwards Tappy was swamped by friends, family, and admirers of his uncle. Before my midnight train I caught up with him at the Yale Club around 11:15 for a final word. I suspect that much of his life is filled with such rewarding days.

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  • William Keller July 20, 2015 at 10:11 pm

    Thank you very much for this piece.
    I had not known of Tappy’s role in this regard. I am
    glad to know, given my effort to facilitate
    research on the WW2 monuments
    work, Yale teaching and New Haven
    portrait practice of Deane Keller, 1923 (father of the late
    Deane G., 1962.)

  • Steve Buck May 10, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    A very very belated Well Done! Tappy. Sounds like you are doing wonderful work. Am I right that you are now in California, not my neighbor in Bethesda?

  • Gus Hedlund February 18, 2015 at 4:49 pm


    I found your article about the Wilders most interesting. I think the preservation of such an important person in literary history is a wonderful gift.
    Thornton Wilder will never be forgotten. Tappy, thanks for all your good work!! John, I am also jealous that I was not there for a very stimulating evening.


    Gus Hedlund

  • David Scharff February 18, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    You make us all jealous not to have been there for that wonderful evening. Lovely sketch of a deserving classmate.