“Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s three-act play set in a small town in New Hampshire a century ago, turns 75 Tuesday. It was Jan. 22, 1938, when the main character, the Stage Manager, first guided an audience through the play — staged at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.
“Our Town” has had a great run ever since. It won Wilder the second of his three Pulitzers, and remains one of America’s most-performed plays. (Theater lore has it that every night it is staged somewhere around the country.)
“Our Town” takes place over three days in Grover’s Corners: May 7, 1901, an ordinary day in the town; July 7, 1904, George’s and Emily’s wedding day; and the day in the summer of 1913 when Emily is buried. (From her grave, Emily makes a brief and disappointing visit back home for her 12th birthday, Feb. 11, 1899.)
The Stage Manager informs us that the play will tell generations a thousand years hence: “This is the way we were: In our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”
It does so for us 75 years later. Those basics come to us through the Stage Manager and the families of Doc Gibbs and Mr. Webb, editor of The Sentinel, and all those around them.
The play is not a celebration of small town life, as many suppose. Instead, it shows us that in the essentials, people are alike, small town or big city: They want to be happy, to love and be loved. Their youthful dreams dim with age. They worry and despair; they want strong families; decent work. They bicker, they grieve. Death lies at the end. They want to believe there is something eternal.
“Our Town” lasts because it shows us lasting things in a lasting way.
The Stage Manager breaks with theater tradition and speaks directly to the audience throughout the play.
The stage is stripped to bare bones: no scenery, no opening curtain, few props. Doc Gibbs totes an imaginary black bag; Joe Crowell Jr., tosses imaginary newspapers at imaginary porches.
Two ladders represent the second floor windows where George Gibbs and Emily Webb — a budding romance in the first act who marry in the second — talk across the space between their houses about home work and the brightness of the moon.
In the cemetery, chairs stand for graves.
This spare setting itself is part of conveying the lasting story.
The first act looks at daily life and growing up; the second at the blessings and disillusions of love and marriage. With the third act, the play ends, like life itself, in death and grief and the step into eternity. The dead speak with no emotion about leaving life behind, instead they look to “be ready for what’s ahead.” (Emily makes her troubling visit back home, which she cuts short because of the pain.)
Hopeful notes run through the play, one of them small in the few lines it occupies, but a foundation for the message: “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds. the first line of the hymn by that title. This tie binds the people of Grover’s Corners in community; to one another, past and present; to the living and the dead — to eternity.
In the cemetery, the Stage Manager tells us: “... everybody knows in their bones something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.”
And he says of the dead: “They’re waiting for something that they feel is comin’. Something, important and great. Aren’t they waiting for the eternal part of them to come out clear?”
All around the country, theaters are putting on 75th anniversary productions. So far as I know, there aren’t any here. Maybe in the next year or two?
“Our Town” prompts us to consider what we miss when we talk past one another, when we don’t really see or listen to our families, when we don’t take pleasure in the ordinary things day by day even as we look toward what lies beyond.
As the Stage Manager tells us from the cemetery: “There are some things we all know, but we don’t take ’em out and look at ’em very often.”
“Our Town” urges us to do so.
Tack Cornelius is a Gainesville resident and writer whose columns appear occasionally.