A partial eclipse would apparently have been visible here in Manchester, but as sod’s law would have it, Monday was gloomy; the air hanging heavy, the memory of the previous week’s sunshine blotted out by a silent shimmer of rain.
Nevertheless, I marvelled at this cosmic conspiracy, this collusion of celestial bodies. At the end of the first act of OUR TOWN, a little girl asks in wonder whether the moon she sees in her tiny corner of New Hampshire might also be seen in ‘South America, Canada and half the whole world.’ As I peered vainly out my window, thinking of those millions, rapt, on the other side of the globe, I felt a bit like little Rebecca Gibbs myself.
At all turns it seems the universe is pointing me back towards this play. We are beginning our third week of rehearsals here at the Royal Exchange, and—solipsism aside—it’s clear to me just how remarkable Thornton Wilder’s play is. A portrait of life in a small New England town at the turn of the 20th century, this deceptively straightforward story burgeons with enormous questions on love, and loss, and the nature of life itself. The inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, in their ‘growing up and ... marrying and ... living and ... dying’, reveal the strains of eternity thrumming at the core of every human existence.
In OUR TOWN, in the dual iteration of content and structure, Wilder makes fully manifest the idea that theatre is a fundamentally empathetic art-form. With regard to the first iteration, I find it surprising that OUR TOWN is so often stereotyped as parochial or sentimental. The characters of Grover’s Corners are never idealised, and are instead burdened—as we all are—by flaws, neuroses and inner demons. Wilder does not suggest that the town is devoid of social inequality, nor does he exalt it as a paragon of communal love. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that Grover’s Corners and its inhabitants are, in fact, remarkable at all.
However, with immense generosity, the characters are held aloft in their entirety and presented without judgment. The rhythms of everyday life are as often brittle as they are beautiful, yet it is the intermittent chill drifting through the play that makes its overall gesture all the warmer. For Wilder, crucially, there is no reason to assume that these details of everyday living are “unimportant”; simply by existing, the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners are tied to something immense. Wilder was partly inspired by an archaeological dig in Rome—visiting paintings of a family called Aurelius, he wrote that:
We were clutching at the past to recover [their] loves and pieties and habits ... while the same elements were passing over us.
He supposed that, although separated by thousands of years, ancient and present-day people were perhaps not very different after all. In another two thousand years, other people would be striving to recover the artefacts, experiences, atmosphere, and humanity of his own time; and human lives, across the centuries, are universally conjoined by certain personal moments and milestones. In the words of the hymn that acts as a refrain throughout the play, OUR TOWN investigates the ties that bind us together as human beings, not only to one another, but also to our forebears.
We, as audience members, are therefore implicated in the second part of Wilder’s empathetic enterprise. His play takes place in the here and now, in the very theatre in which it is being performed. Wilder, fully alert to the idea that drama is dependent on an imaginative conspiracy, takes advantage of its seance-like quality as characters are summoned up like ghosts. The form allows him to explore the universal by way of the particular; to link generations together; to draw tight associations between Grover’s Corners and the auditorium itself. In doing so, he makes "our town" "your town". The result sometimes suggests Chekhov by way of Pirandello. Wilder had attended the premiere of SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR during his sojourn in Rome; like Pirandello’s play, OUR TOWN implies, crucially, that the distinctions between performer, character, and spectator are porous.
In the play, Wilder dramatizes the sentiment expressed by his compatriot and quasi-contemporary, Elizabeth Bishop: that the art of losing isn’t hard to master. This, then, is a third iteration of Wilder’s empathetic endeavour; more subliminal and ineffable, perhaps, but most powerful. If we are invited to see ourselves in the residents of Grover’s Corners, there is, by proxy, something deeply consoling in the representation of loss and letting go. He offers gentle encouragement to celebrate life in the moment we live it. To paraphrase one character, to enjoy each unremarkable day as if it were the most remarkable. To cherish the everyday rituals of breakfast; of the walk home from school; of falling in love, and out of love, and of growing old. At our end, to perhaps embrace the dying of the light, rather than necessarily raging against it.
Such a message seems not only appropriate, but necessary, for the world we live in today. The darkness of eclipses, for example, whilst serving as an apt metaphor also distracts attention from the more perfidious shadows stretching their way across the United States, epitomized recently by the tiki-torch Nazis of Charlottesville, spurred on by demagoguery and xenophobia at the highest levels. Tendrils of hatred, cowardice, and violence threaten to strangle the world we live in like a vice, as felt everywhere from Barcelona less than two weeks ago to Manchester in May. A lack of compassion for one another has made itself clear; not least, for example, in the response to Grenfell.
In my eyes, it is not insignificant that OUR TOWN was first produced in 1938. At a time of tremendous international tension, it offered a tonic of sorts; a consolation, a reminder that human experience is a beautiful thing, and it is sometimes enough to merely focus on the everyday aspects that make it precious and liveable. That we should celebrate difference rather than be fearful of it; to appreciate those things we have in common rather than what divides us.
It seems particularly fitting to perform the play here, in a city still healing from the wounds of terror. Famously, all the world’s a stage; here, all the stage is a world, and the Royal Exchange’s unique space is perfectly suited to Wilder’s brand of theatricality. It has been a privilege and a pleasure creating Grover’s Corners over the last two weeks, and it would not have been possible to do so without such a warm and generous company of actors (including members of the Young and Elders Companies), under Sarah Frankcom’s expert leadership. This play requires an immense level of openness, and it is testament to our company that they have all risen to its challenges. They consistently offer reminders that the collective imaginative exercise of a group can almost literally change the very temperature of the room. The process of rehearsal has, in itself, something of archaeology and excavation; mining the play’s depths to try and reach some universal essence. Though there is plenty of work to be done, I have no doubt the result is going to be quite special.
The play suggests that we might see the world in a grain of sand. That there is hope and joy to be found in community and togetherness, and that life is worth living. That we would do well to love one another lest the past cling to us like damp. And that, in the simple act of loving one another, there is as much wonder as in the entire vastness of the universe.
Our Town runs at the Royal Exchange 14 September - 14 October 2017
Atri Banerjee is assistant director on OUR TOWN and Trainee Director at the Royal Exchange as part of his MFA in Theatre Directing at Birkbeck, University of London. @atri_rohan