Why Wilder's Play Continues to be So Popular
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 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...
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