Author: Karin Roffman

THORNTON’S LOST RANT: On Wilder’s Poets’ Theatre Outburst

Last October, Christina Davis, the imaginative and disciplined curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, made an amazing discovery: the original recording of an unscripted rant by playwright Thornton Wilder about the current state of drama and poetry, which he delivered spontaneously to a captive audience of theatergoers at the inaugural Poets’ Theatre event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 26, 1951. Since that memorable evening, myth and fact have quietly merged in retellings. Like much of the drama surrounding the New York School poets and painters in the 1950s, Wilder’s harangue, which followed the first performance of Frank O’Hara’s Try! Try! with John Ashbery playing the part of “John, a friend of the poet’s,” has become part of the lore of the period. In one interview I did a few years ago for my biography of John Ashbery’s early life, a former Harvard student present that night told me that Wilder’s “kind of crazy” rant lasted “nearly twenty minutes.” Wilder’s “scolding” of the audience for laughing during O’Hara’s play, and their annoyance at him for misunderstanding …