Title: Our Town
Author: Thornton Wilder
Publisher: Harper and Row, Publishers
Device: Hard cover
For a plot summary
Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God
I have always found Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town fascinating. From the bare stage void of props and the only furniture benches, chairs and ladders, to actors miming a lot of the action, to the Stage Manager speaking directly to the audience and calling all the shots and especially to the “strawberry phosphate” that, to my 16 year-old self, sounded more like a science experiment than a soda fountain drink.
This 1938 play has a seemingly simple premise: a group of actors portray small town (population 2,642 “at the moment”) Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire during the early years of the 19th century through births, daily life, marriage and death. “The way we were.” The characters names are well-known in pop culture: Emily and George, the Webb and the Gibbs families, the Stage Manager.
Small town though this may be, there is an awareness that it is part of the vast greatness of the Universe. The characters are always looking up at the moon or the stars. They know their little lives in this little town is part of the collective of the larger world.
However, this awareness is unconscious until they die. When Emily, who married George and then died a few years later, tells the other inhabitants of the cemetery she wants to go back to the living for just a day, she has a rude awakening. She realizes in life, no one looked at each other; they just went about their lives, going through the motions. “Mama I’m here. I’m grownup. I love you all, everything—I can’t look at everything hard enough.” “Let’s look at one another.” Finally, she pleads with the Stage Manager to take her back, “I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”
In this rereading I noticed something I hadn’t before. In one scene, the Stage Manager calls for Mr. Webb to give the audience “the political and social report” of the town (he’s the editor of the paper). Mrs. Webb calls to the Stage Manager to say her husband cut his hand on an apple, he’ll be right out. There are other times the Stage Manager starts and stops the action when something occurs to him that he wants the audience to know; or he feels the actors aren’t going fast enough so he stops them. That’s what you do at lectures or presentations when you have actors dramatizing certain points you want to make.
I suddenly had this thought: the play is actually a show, maybe a road show for people to come and learn about the town (representing Anytown, USA?) as evidenced when the Stage Manager invites the audience to ask questions.
What an odd idea. Our Town as a touring stage show to present to the moderns of 1938 an America on the brink of a really terrible war and what they would be fighting for? What America really stood for? What they have forgotten and need to rediscover?
The depth of the play obviously belies its simple plot and universal appeal. In fact, as I was finishing it yesterday morning, I got word that a friend of mine had died. I immediately thought about a passage of the Stage Manager’s and wrote it out to send to our mutual friends. It touched a chord in all of us.
Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. It just closed in Reston, Virginia, is on this season’s calendar at the prestigious Shaw Festival in Canada and if you hurry you can still get tickets for tomorrow’s production at the Eagle Theater in Hammonton, New Jersey. In modern parlance, it is safe to say, “this thing never gets old!”