Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is surely one of the most persistently misrepresented plays in the history of theatre.

Its depiction of ordinary life in rural New Hampshire during the early years of the twentieth century has led many to treat it as a nostalgic, rose-tinted paean to small-town values. Isn’t this just Wilder, in the middle of the Great Depression, looking sentimentally back to a quieter, simpler America before the coming of the automobile or the chaos of world war? Years ago, I made the mistake of expressing this uninformed view to the late American playwright and pioneering gay activist, Doric Wilson. He raised an eyebrow at me and, with the understated irony characteristic of both his work and Wilder’s, responded: “Anyone who thinks that probably hasn’t read the play very carefully.” Wilson’s friend and colleague Edward Albee (author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) put the issue still more bluntly in a later interview: “It’s one of my favourite plays,” he told me in 2003, “and it’s a real tough play – tough and bitter and deeply moving. But everybody performs it like it was a f**king Christmas card.”

OurTown3 

The play’s mis-reputation dates all the way back to its 1938 Broadway premiere. That show’s producer, Jed Harris, insisted on treating the play as an endearing “local colour piece”, and attempted to make changes during rehearsals by cutting out passages he didn’t like, and replacing them with his own “amiable dribbling” -- as Wilder scathingly put it. The production was a hit, but as Wilder explained in a letter to his friend, Gertrude Stein, the week after its premiere: “it’s been one long fight to preserve my text from the Interpol-ations of Jed Harris, and I’ve won only fifty percent of the time. The play no longer moves or even interests me; now all I want out of it is money.”

Wilder was also unimpressed by the 1955 television adaptation of the play, for which the crowd-pleasing interpolations were musical. Frank Sinatra, then at the height of his fame, was completely miscast as a singing Stage Manager, while Eva Marie-Saint (fresh from On the Waterfront) and a young Paul Newman provided wide-eyed support as Emily and George. Newman, however, never shy about revising his mistakes, returned to Our Town almost fifty years later – starring as the Stage Manager in a 2002 revival which deftly mined the play’s darker undertones and displayed not a whiff of sentimentality. Wilder would surely have approved. Still darker was the 1988 New York revival that starred Swimming to Cambodia monologuist Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager, and in which Eric Stoltz played a positively creepy version of George (he appeared interested in Emily for only one thing). That interpretation arguably pushed the delicate balance of Wilder’s play a little too far away from small-town innocence. Yet his text certainly invites and permits such alternative readings, precisely because so much of the play’s action lies in what is not said out loud. Examined carefully, the dialogue between characters is full of subtextual implications and uncomfortable ironies, which are further accentuated by the Stage Manager’s wry, oblique commentaries. We are invited to view all this, like God in the Bette Midler song, “from a distance.”

Perhaps Wilder the ironist eventually came to appreciate the greatest irony of Our Town’s production history. Jed Harris, and too many others after him, had failed to grasp the real value of what was in front of them, but such failures of perspective are exactly what the play is about. “Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in New Hampshire,” Wilder explained, but as “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.” The play’s dramatic tension arises from our growing awareness that Wilder’s characters repeatedly fail to appreciate these wonders -- until it is too late. As the play constantly reminds us, life is short. Some characters have barely been introduced to us before we’re told of their demise. And yet the townsfolk of Grover’s Corners lock themselves into narrow frames of reference, obsessing over gossip and trivia, while never seeming to find the time to look around and “smell the coffee”. Many cups of coffee are drunk in this play, but are they really tasted? Do the characters really see the beauty of their New England surroundings? Or appreciate the love of their family members? There are some who yearn for something beyond the same-old-same-old, but they seem doomed to be thwarted. In the first act, for instance, Mrs. Gibbs has come into an inheritance, and talks of spending it on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to France, yet her husband will not hear of such extravagance. In the last act we learn, almost in passing, that the inheritance money was eventually spent on a “a great long cement drinking fountain” for livestock. We are such stuff as dreams are dashed on.

OurTown4

In one sense, of course, these are universal concerns. In another sense, they are distinctively American. It is tempting to assume that Our Town presents Wilder’s own, autobiographical memories of growing up in New Hampshire, but in fact he would have been only four years old in 1901, when the first act takes place. Born in Wisconsin and raised, variously, in Hong Kong and California, Wilder chose a New England setting for Our Town not for personal reasons but for historical ones. In the seventeenth century, the Pilgrim Fathers had thrown themselves out into the great unknown, across the vast Atlantic Ocean, in one of the great adventures of human history. And yet what they founded was a new England, a curious copy of what they’d left behind. The new nation eventually freed itself of kings and queens and nobles, but it quickly replaced such tyrannies with what Wilder once described as “the aggressive complacency of the middle class.” The America he depicts is one of small towns and unwittingly small minds – a nation which champions the idea of individual endeavour while stifling the practice of it.

Nobody expects Emily Webb, for example, to make anything much of her precocious intelligence. Instead, she learns to act dumber than she is, so as not to scare off the boys. She and George Gibbs eventually cajole each other into marrying too young, too soon, and only their mothers doubt the wisdom of repeating the same, patriarchal patterns that they, too, once submitted to. Meanwhile, the other townsfolk coo delightedly at the wedding, once again confirmed in the correctness of the established order. It’s tempting to think, now, that we’ve left such narrow attitudes behind. Yet it’s worth asking what other kinds of self-limitation Wilder would draw our attention to if he were writing today. In what ways might we still see Grover’s Corners as “our town”?

OurTown5

That question is implicit in the many references to Our Town that we see in later dramatic works – from Lars von Trier’s sinister film Dogville (2003) to Moises Kaufman’s documentary play The Laramie Project (2000). The latter, which deals with the 1998 killing of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, borrows both Wilder’s three-act structure and his funeral imagery of umbrellas and chairs (see illustrations), as a way of subtly indicating that the homophobic violence experienced in Laramie is not some “Hicksville” aberration but something that happens in (y)our town too.

Similarly, the Royal Exchange’s decision to stage Our Town in 21st century dress and with (mostly) the actors’ own accents is a simple and obvious way to connect us to the here and now. Critics often complain about such choices -- as they did for instance when The Crucible was staged here two years ago, without a Puritan ruff in sight. But it’s important to note that the question of historical authenticity in staging was entirely irrelevant to Wilder himself, who despised the dominant naturalism of his day. As he argued in a key essay titled “Some Thoughts on Playwriting” (1941), there should be two guiding principles when writing for the stage. First, that “the theatre is a world of pretense”, and second, that “the action on the stage takes place in perpetual present time.” The job of a stage play, in other words, is not to the persuade us of the illusion that we are watching events taking place in another time and place, but to involve us in a collaborative act of imaginative playing. Rather than pretending to be realistic, theatre should foreground the reality of pretending.

Thus, in Our Town, Wilder gives us a few fragments of scenery, “for those who think they have to have scenery,” but mostly strips his staging back to a functional minimum. He envisages actors simply miming many of their props, so as to avoid onstage clutter, and to encourage spectators’ imaginations. This approach also means that those props which do appear are given added resonance. Perhaps paradoxically, we notice stage objects more when there are less of them. All of this is consistent with Wilder’s desire to have us pay closer attention to “the smallest events of our daily life”.

OurTown2

The same principle guides the dramatic structure of the play. The play’s three acts deliberately mirror the beginning, middle and end of many life stories – beginning with a birth, ending with a funeral. Yet throughout the play, Wilder also creates as strong a sense of cyclical rhythm as of linear travel. In Grovers’ Corners, certain basic patterns of daily life are repeated, with slight variations, in every act – the delivery of milk and the morning paper, for example. Through this almost musical structure of theme and variation, Wilder draws our attention to simple details that so often pass unnoticed.

It's worth stressing that such aesthetic choices emerged from Wilder’s long and careful consideration of creative forms. A friend and peer of many leading experimental artists of his day, from poet Gertrude Stein to painter Pablo Picasso to composer Virgil Thomson, he initially found fame as a novelist, winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1928 (it still reads beautifully today). That same year, however, he published his first attempts at playwriting, in the form of The Angel that Troubled the Waters, a compendium of strange, esoteric, three-minute dramatic sketches. During the 1930s he then wrote a number of experimental one-act plays such as The Long Christmas Dinner and Pullman Car Hiawatha, in which he developed the “bare stage” and time-compression methods subsequently employed in both Our Town and Wilder’s other most celebrated play, The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). In short, Wilder’s major theatrical achievements, which both won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, represented the culmination of more than a decade of rigorous experimentation.

Unlike the townsfolk in Our Town, then, Wilder was not to be satisfied with established forms. But nor was he willing to operate on some abstract plane of avant-garde elitism. He was concerned to make artistic endeavour accessible to a broad, popular audience – to speak, in other words, to and with and about the lives of ordinary people. His model, in this respect as in others, was William Shakespeare -- who wrote for both monarchs and “groundlings”, and for whom a bare wooden stage could encompass an entire universe. The Chorus of Henry V is a clear pre-cursor to Wilder’s Stage Manager when he humbly exhorts his audience to “let us, ciphers to this great account, on your imaginary forces work . . . Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.”

Stephen Scott-Bottoms
Stephen Scott-Bottoms is Professor of Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the University of Manchester. Among other things, he is a specialist in modern American drama.


Our Town plays at the Royal Exchange 14 September - 14 October 2017