Thornton Wilder, Our Town (1938)
The 1938 Club is a week-long blogging event that encourages everyone to read and post about books published in that particular year. Do check it out! It’s so interesting to see what came out in that twelve-month span, including some very well-known titles and some nearly forgotten today. Thanks to Simon and Karen for coming up with this fun idea.
For my own 1938 pick, I was happy to be able to overlap with my own Reading New England Challenge, in which I’m focusing on poetry and drama this month, and read Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Since it was first produced this three-act play set in a small New Hampshire town in the early twentieth century has become a classic of world drama; it’s performed at least once a day somewhere on the globe. What is the basis of its long-lasting appeal? And do we really understand what Wilder was trying to say, or do we distort his vision with our own notions of what “Our Town” is?
Most Americans first encounter the play in high school, whether as assigned reading, or even better, through watching or performing in a school production. (That didn’t happen in my school, though I do remember watching the TV production with Paul Newman in class.) Since the central characters, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, are adolescents in the first two acts, this would seem to make sense. But as I realized on this reading, it takes a highly sophisticated, adult understanding of life and of the theater to comprehend all that Wilder is doing in this play. All seeming simplicity on the surface, it aims to open our minds and hearts to the mystery behind everyday life, and that’s something that usually takes a certain amount of maturity.
Take the famous bare-stage method that Wilder specifies in his directions. The play starts with the curtain open and the stage empty. The audience watches the “Stage Manager” placing chairs and tables to represent the Webb and Gibbs houses. Only the bare minimum of scenery and props is used: George and Emily perch on ladders to indicate their second-story bedrooms; a board and a couple of chairs become a soda fountain; a row of chairs indicates graves in a cemetery. Such techniques seem commonplace today, but in 1938 they were more unusual, and perhaps startling. What is the meaning of this gesture? Is it really necessary to the play, or could it be staged in a more conventional way with the same effect?
I do think that Wilder’s stage directions are important, and not only as a shake-up for complacent audiences, or a convenience to low-budget productions. When the apparatus of our lives is removed, all the physical objects and scenery that distract and preoccupy us, what remains? Human relationships. Connections between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, friend and neighbor, individual and community — this is the stuff of which Our Town is made. And even though in contrast to its visual bareness, it’s located in a very specific place and time, with dates and latitude and longitude and scientists and historians brought in to pin it down, we come to realize that those too can be discarded, indeed must be discarded when our life comes to a close. And what remains then?
For though the first two acts are given titles — “The Daily Life” and “Love and Marriage” — it’s the subject of the untitled third act that gives Our Town its weight and substance. “I reckon you can guess what that’s about,” says the Stage Manager. In fact, it’s already been part of the play from the beginning; the Stage Manager has informed us of the deaths of several of the characters almost before we even hear them speak. Not in a morbid or lugubrious way, but simply placing the inescapable fact of life’s end alongside the myriad details of how we live it. How to live in and with that knowledge, that mystery, is the question that shapes what otherwise might seem a random collection of ordinary events into a true drama — that is, an artistically crafted group experience that partakes of the quality of ritual.
“The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, — doesn’t it?” says the Stage Manager early on, in his first speech to the audience. A casual, commonplace remark, it seems, a typical New England observation — but after experiencing the play as a whole it may come back to us with a subtle resonance. That, to me, is the genius of Our Town: the particular and the universal are so finely woven together that each embodies and reflects the other. That’s why productions that treat it as an exercise in nostalgia are so misleading. It’s not a play for a season or a year or even a century, but for all time.