First produced in 1931, Thornton Wilder's play has grown in reputation ever since. Set over 90 years, it depicts several generations of the Bayard family as they sit around the Christmas table. As characters arrive and depart, Wilder depicts what changes with the years — and what remains the same. "The characters think that they're merely sharing a mundane holiday meal, and chatting about their humdrum lives," said Jeremy McCarter, former drama critic of New York magazine and the curator of the Public Theater's Public Forum Lecture Series. "But as successive generations come and go, Wilder allows the audience to see what they can't: that life consists almost entirely of family dinners and pedestrian conversations, and it goes by much, much faster than any of us can realize. It's formally inventive and almost unbearably poignant — a little masterpiece of dramatic irony." Wilder himself said of the work, "Of all my plays it is the one that has found the widest variety of receptions. At some performances it has been played to constant laughter; some listeners are deeply moved and shaken by it; some find it cruel and cynical." (This may explain why it's never been a regular choice for holiday programming.) "Wilder's play shows us how family continues to resonate throughout the years," said playwright Paula Vogel, whose work has been influenced by Wilder. (Her own Christmas play — a personal favorite of this reporter — is titled The Long Christmas Ride Home.) "It is a wonderful ghost play, a portent of Emily [in Our Town] to come. It is incredibly poignant in the recognition of how ephemeral human life is, how brief our mortality." The Brave New World Repertory Theatre in Brooklyn produces the play annually in historic homes, this year with two separate casts.
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