Our Town and the Golden Veil

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Ten minutes up the road from where I live in Connecticut there is a town called Brooklyn, and when I go there or while I read the play I always see it as the scene of Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners in Our Town. Which of course it is not. And it is even a smaller town—there is no high school, no railroad—than Wilder's imaginary New Hampshire one. Further, unlike Grover's Corners, Brooklyn has been touched a little with remarkability: a huge equestrian statue of General Israel Putnam holds down his Revolutionary bones not far from the town's crossroads; in pre-Civil War days Prudence Crandall was jailed at Brooklyn for admitting Negro youngsters to her school over the hills in Canterbury, and until her death a surprisingly few years ago old Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt spent her summers in a square white house, now gone into tenements, alongside the Putnam monument. Wilder's point, on the contrary, is that Grover's Corners is not in the least exceptional: William Jennings Bryan once spoke from the Town Hall steps, the Stage Manager tells us, but very soon he assures us of his beloved place that “Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, —s' far as we know.''

Nevertheless, I "see" Brooklyn as Wilder's typical New England small town: its few stores, the clapboard houses set comfortably apart across lawns and under maples and elms, the schoolhouse with the flagpole in the yard near the crossroads and flanking the crossroads the village green, the Congregational, Baptist, Episcopal, and Catholic churches, the post office, the roofed town pump, the farms off from the outskirts, and over it all a simple air of living that is neither rich nor poor, neither distinguished nor negligible, neither large nor shallow.

This I believe is the associational power of reading which Gertrude Stein warred against: if she wrote "brook," she wanted it new, abstract, a Platonic "brook"; and she did not wish you to call up at her word a particular brook familiar to you. But how futile! This is merely the habit of the mind. It is not at all a narrowing sentimentality, it is one of the warmest responses to be got from reading. Again and again we do not construct, as the novelist is allegedly doing, an invented scene: as he constructs it he reminds us, reading, of something we know—and, hardly conscious of the process, we adapt our memory to his text at once.

It may be that we most generally do this over books which are themselves soaked with a sense of time and place: that is, not over the vastest things— the "King Lear," the "War and Peace"—but over lesser literatures intensely regional and profoundly native; for example, Tom Sawyer, Spoon River Anthology, Winesburg, Ohio. These are some of the masterpieces in a genre which even in minor instances such as Whittier's Snow-Bound, Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs, and many more, is curiously evocative and durable. Our Town has in this genre a high position, perhaps among the highest. It is narrower, less colorful, and sweeter than the best of the books I have mentioned, but it is a more intelligently managed work of art than any of them; it is not lacking in the instinctiveness which makes those other books great primitives—that is to say, it is not lacking in poetry—though no doubt it is more self-conscious and literary; yet in the very skillful construction of the play is the secret of why Our Town does rank as one of the most moving and beautiful of American books.

This construction, or this method, comes to its apotheosis almost at the very end of Our Town with the shattering scene in which the dead Emily wills her own return to a day in her childhood; actually the double point of view, an intermeshing of past and present, runs throughout the play and accounts for its peculiar poignancy. It is as though the golden veil of nostalgia, not stretched across stage for us to see through, bisects the stage down center: it glows left and right upon past and present, and the players come and go through its shimmering summer haze, now this side of it, now that, but the audience sees both sides of it. And so too of course does that deus ex machina of the entire play, the Stage Manager (whom, I have heard, Mr. Wilder himself can act very well)....

Emily appears, to take her place with the dead. Already she is distant from the mourners, but her discovery that she can "go back" to past time seduces her despite the warnings of the older dead. The ubiquitous Stage Manager, too, can talk with Emily, and what he says to her introduces the summation scene with the keynote of the entire play: "You not only live it," he says, "but you watch yourself living it." Now Emily, in the yet more poignant way of self-involvement, will achieve that double vision we have had all along; and now we shall be burdened also with her self-involvement.

"And as you watch it," the Stage Manager goes on, "you will see the thing that they—down there—never know. You see the future. You know what's going to happen afterwards."

Then perfectly in key comes Mrs. Gibbs' advice to Emily: "At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough." There sound the central chords of the play: the common day and the light of the future.

Emily chooses her twelfth birthday and the magic begins to mount to almost unbearable tension. Now the Stage Manager repeats his enrichened gesture as he announces that it is February 11,1899, and once again, as we saw him summon it in the same casual way so many years before, the town of Grover's Corners stirs, awakens; a winter morning—Constable Warren, Howie Newsome, Joe Crowell, Jr., making their appearances along Main Street, Mrs. Webb firing the kitchen stove and calling Wally and Emily to breakfast The little daily rhythms recur, now more touching for the big wheel has become vaster. Now we are taken back with Emily's double-awareness accenting our own. Though the then-living are unaware as always, now the golden veil shines everywhere, even all around us ourselves. It is a terrific triumph of dramatic method.

"Oh, that's the town I knew as a little girl. And, look, there is the old white fence that used to be around our house. Oh, I'd forgotten that!... I can't look at everything hard enough," Emily says. "There's Mr. Morgan's drugstore. And there's the High School, forever and ever, and ever." For her birthday young George Webb has left a postcard album on the doorstep: Emily had forgotten that.

The living cannot hear the dead Emily of fourteen years later, her whole lifetime later. Yet she cries out in the passion, which the play itself performs, to realize life while it is lived: “But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another " And when offstage her father's voice is heard a second time calling, "Where's my girl? Where's my birthday girl?", Emily breaks. She flees back through the future, back to the patient and disinterested dead: "Oh," she says of life, "it goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another."

Here if the play is to get its proper and merited response there is nothing further to say of it: one simply weeps.

It is thus, finally, that Emily can say farewell to the world—that is, to Grover's Corners. Night, now; the night after Emily's burial. The big wheel of the mutable universe turns almost alone. The Stage Manager notices starlight and its * 'millions of years," but time ticks eleven o'clock on his watch and the town, though there, is mostly asleep, as he dismisses us for "a good rest, too.''

The aptest thing ever said about Tom Sawyer was said by the author himself and applies as nicely to Our Town. Mark Twain said his book was "a hymn."

Source: Winfield Townley Scott, "Our Town and the Golden Veil" in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 29, no 1, Winter, 1953, pp 103-5,116-17.

Review of Our Town

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Although Thornton Wilder is celebrated chiefly for his fiction, it will be necessary now to reckon with him as a dramatist. His Our Town, which opened at Henry Miller's last evening, is a beautifully evocative play. Taking as his material three periods in the history of a placid New Hampshire town, Mr. Wilder has transmuted the simple events of human life into universal reverie. He has given familiar facts a deeply moving, philosophical perspective. Staged without scenery and with the curtain always up, Our Town has escaped from the formal barrier of the modern theatre into the quintessence of acting, thought and speculation. In the staging, Jed Harris has appreciated the rare quality of Mr. Wilder's handiwork and illuminated it with a shining performance. Our Town is, in this column's opinion, one of the finest achievements of the current stage.

Since the form is strange, this review must attempt to explain the purpose of the play. It is as though Mr. Wilder were saying: “Now for evidence as to the way Americans were living in the early part of the century, take Graver Corners, N.H., as an average town. Mark it 'Exhibit A' in American folkways." His spokesman in New Hampshire cosmology is Frank Craven, the best pipe and pants-pocket actor in the business, who experimentally sets the stage with tables and chairs before the house lights go down and then prefaces the performance with a few general remarks about Grover Corners. Under his benign guidance we see three periods in career of one generation of Grover Corners folks— "Life," "Love" and "Death."

Literally, they are not important. On one side of an imaginary street Dr. Gibbs and his family are attending to their humdrum affairs with relish and probity. On the opposite side Mr. Webb, the local editor, and his family are fulfilling their quiet destiny. Dr. Gibbs's boy falls in love with Mr. Webb's girl—neighbors since birth. They marry after graduating from high school; she dies several years later in childbirth and she is buried on Cemetery Hill. Nothing happens in the play that is not normal and natural and ordinary.

But by stripping the play of everything that is not essential, Mr. Wilder has given it a profound, strange, unworldly significance. This is less the portrait of a town than the sublimation of the commonplace; and in contrast with the universe that silently swims around it, it is brimming over with compassion. Most of it is a tender idyll in the kindly economy of Mr. Wilder's literary style; some of it is heartbreaking in the mute simplicity of human tragedy. For in the last act, which is entitled "Death,'' Mr. Wilder shows the dead of Grover Corners sitting peacefully in their graves and receiving into their quiet company a neighbor's girl whom they love. So Mr. Wilder's pathetically humble evidence of human living passes into the wise beyond. Grover Corners is a green corner of the universe.

With about the best script of his career in his hands, Mr. Harris has risen nobly to the occasion. He has reduced theatre to its lowest common denominator without resort to perverse showmanship. As chorus, preacher, drug store proprietor and finally as shepherd of the flock, Frank Craven plays with great sincerity and understanding, keeping the sublime well inside his home-spun style. As the boy and girl, John Craven, who is Frank Craven's son, and Martha Scott turn youth into tremulous idealization, some of their scenes are lovely past all enduring. Jay Fassett as Dr. Gibbs, Evelyn Varden as his wife, Thomas W. Ross and Helen Carew as the Webbs play with an honesty that is enriching. There are many other good bits of acting.

Out of respect for the detached tone of Mr. Wilder's script the performance at a whole is subdued and understated. The scale is so large that the voices are never lifted. But under the leisurely monotone of the production there is a fragment of the immortal truth. Our Town is a microcosm. It is also a hauntingly beautiful play.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, review of Our Town (1938) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 198-200.


Critical Overview


Our Town, Thornton Wilder