No scenery. Not even a curtain hides the back wall of the stage. A few chairs; two tables; two stepladders. No props, except for the Stage Manager's pipe. No breathtaking special effects; no stirring musical score. Just a few recorded sounds and some hymns. Why, then, has Our Town not only endured since 1938, but prospered as America's most often produced play?
Thornton Wilder shows human beings as they believe in their hearts they live. Life in this play seems simple. Nearly everyone is happy and good-natured. Only one, Simon Stimson the church organist, appears to be truly unhappy, but, other than some gossip, the audience never gets to know him as a developed character.
By setting the play in the not too distant past, Wilder strikes a responsive chord with feelings of nostalgia. The past, the way things used to be, seems better than the present, the way things are. The combination of life as people would like it to be set in a less complicated (and better) time than the present day creates enormous appeal. If Wilder explored the darkness of Simon Stinson’s life, that would detract from the innocence of George and Emily. If Wilder had set the play in the nineteenth century instead of at its end, there would be difficulty relating to the characters. Instead of dealing with the particular aspects of a small New England Town and its inhabitants, Wilder focuses attention on the bigger picture—the universality of events, emotions, and responses.
In the classic film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart's character, Ric Blaine, says to Lisa (Ingrid Bergman), "[T]he problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." Thornton Wilder would not agree. By using the ordinary, everyday events of people from a town off the beaten path, Wilder argues that it is precisely the problems of the common people that make life interesting and worth examining. The focus of Our Town is two events which are common to every single human who has ever lived, who lives now, and who will live long after the current population has turned to dust: birth and death. A third event, love and marriage, is so much a part of people's lives that it receives equal billing. Everyone who watches the play can identify with some part of what is going on and can probably name a counterpart from their own real world for each of the characters.
Act One, called "Daily Life," introduces this concept of the particular representing the universal. The inhabitants of Grover's Corners go about their routines: delivering milk and newspapers and babies in the early morning hours; preparing breakfast; getting ready for school; feeding chickens; stringing beans with a neighbor; chatting about a dream; worrying about looks; gossiping about the town drunk; walking home from choir practice. Those in the audience are drawn into this world because, even though it is set in the recent past, it is familiar territory; these events are part of the audience's experiences too. Thus, a bond between actors and audience is established.
Thornton Wilder points out in the preface to a 1957 collection that includes Our Town that "the recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are 'hundreds, “thousands,' and 'millions.'" How can people comprehend such vast numbers? Wilder maintains that they do not—"each individual's assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner." The only way to make sense, then, of this "crazy world'' is to look at those things that are real and important, those that happen on the inside. The actions on...
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the stage are not important in and of themselves; what becomes important, then, is how the individual responds to them. And, because the actions of the play are part of the overall human experience, the response becomes one of connectedness and not alienation.
In Act Two, "Love and Marriage," Wilder, through the Stage Manager, manipulates time so that the audience can not only participate in the wedding of George and Emily, but also see how and when this romance began in earnest. "I'm awfully interested in how big things like that begin," the Stage Manager declares, Throughout this act we are reminded of the vast continuum not only of human existence, but of the residents of Grover's Corners. In three years since Act One, the sun has "come up over a thousand times." The mountain has eroded ever so slightly and "millions of gallons of water [have gone] by the mill." Babies aren't babies any longer, and some inhabitants have grown older. Other residents have fallen in love. It is against this vast backdrop that Morgan's drugstore becomes the focal point for the moment when George declares his affection for Emily in the halting shy way that countless others have attempted to express their deepest feelings.
In his descriptions at the beginning of Act Three of those who rest in the cemetery on a hilltop in Grover's Corners, the Stage Manager comments on the beauty of the setting. He also points out that these people were both silly and noble, Wilder's reminder that the human race is not an either/or proposition—it contains all possibilities.
At the beginning of the play, the Stage Manager mentioned the death of Mrs. Gibbs, but it was simply a statement of fact. Now, to learn that Mrs. Gibbs has died and is buried in the cemetery along with Wally Webb and Mrs. Soames and Simon Stimson strikes a responsive chord. These are no longer just names; the audience has met them and the characters they represent have become real. Death becomes less of an abstraction and more a part of the universal experience. Everyone—the characters in the play, the author, the audience, the reader, the critic—is going to die. That is part of what it means to be human, and one of the two events that all humans share no matter what their station, background, or ability.
The dead in the Grover's Corners cemetery are waiting, says the Stage Manager, for the earth part of them to be burned away and for the "eternal part in them to come out clear." It is this idea that the dead hardly remember what it was like to be alive that Wilder seeks to emphasize here. It is this movement toward the "eternal" rather than an emptiness or void that Emily joins but is not yet ready to accept. When she realizes that she can return to earth to relive her life, she persists in making it happen, even though the dead and the Stage Manager strongly advise against it.
It is when Emily relives her twelfth birthday (her happiest memory) that she comes to realize that the living don't appreciate being alive. "They're sort of shut up in little boxes," she says. With her knowledge of past, present, and future time, she becomes overwhelmed at the realization that the tiniest moments of everyday life are full of the essence of being alive. "Oh earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."
As the Stage Manager draws a black curtain across the scene, the cycle is complete. The play began at daybreak and ends at night. It began with birth and ends with death. It began with the particulars of daily life and ends with eternity.
Source: William P. Wiles, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
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.
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.