How did a play written 72 years ago about a small town in New Hampshire, with no scenery and few props, “transcend the ages to become America’s most produced play”? Maybe it’s because it contains some universal themes.
[Thorton] Wilder’s principal message in Our Town — that people should appreciate the details and interactions of everyday life while they live them — became critical…when the play hit theaters in 1938. It was a time of tremendous international tension, and citizens across the globe suffered from fear and uncertainty. Our Town directed attention away from these negative aspects of life…and focused instead on the aspects of the human experience that make life precious. Wilder revealed his faith in the stability and constancy of life through his depiction and discussion of the small town of Grover’s Corners, with its “marrying . . . living and . . . dying.”
Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager
Specifically, the dying. Act 1 is the ordinary, even mundane lives of the townspeople. Act 2 addresses the budding romance of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. Act 3 is in a cemetery but has a flashback to a time about a decade in the past. This prompts a character to ask of the Stage Manager, the narrator: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” And, of course, the answer is “No”. But how could we?
There have been 4000 productions in the last decade according to this CBS News video, which shows segments of a recent long-running Off-Broadway production that closed only last month. One of the participants noted that if we realize life while we live it, every minute, we’d probably be on Twitter, tweeting 24/7, which would puncture the value of actually EXPERIENCING life.
The 2010 NYC off-Broadway production’s George and Emily
While there was a 1940 movie, the play has always been the thing. According to Wikipedia, there was a live musical 1955 TV adaptation starring Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager, Paul Newman as George, and Eva Marie Saint as Emily. I remember watching the 1977 TV adaptation of the play starring Hal Holbrook, Robby Benson, and Glynnis O’Connor, though not the 1989 telecast with Spalding Gray, Frances Conroy, Penelope Ann Miller, and Eric Stoltz. And I HAD to view the adaptation of a 2002 Broadway revival starring Paul Newman, this time as the Stage Manager, a segment that can be seen here.
I should note that I was in a production of Our Town, some 25 years ago, produced by the FOCUS Churches of Albany. I played the drunken choir director Simon Stimson, one of the characters in the cemetery in the third act, who bitterly proclaims: “That’s what it was like to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those…of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know- that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.” Even in death, Simon seemed to miss the point.
Wilder was full of pithy sayings beyond the realm of this play. Perhaps my favorite: “If you write to impress it will always be bad, but if you write to express it will be good.”