The Professional Theatre at Southern Utah University

Skip to main content

A Modest Work, Modestly Conceived

A Modest Work, Modestly Conceived

By Jerry L. Crawford

Thornton Niven Wilder (April 17, 1897-December 6, 1975) had the double distinction of being a successful novelist and a successful playwright. Born in Wisconsin, he spent his childhood in California and China; he served in World War I; he earned a degree in archaeology at the American Academy in Rome; he taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago; he was with Air Force Intelligence during World War II; his greatest novels were The Bridge of San Luis Rey and The Ides of March; his greatest plays were Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth; and his comedy, The Merchant of Yonkers, became the great musical, Hello Dolly!

At its writing, Our Town seemed a modest work, modestly conceived by its author who consistently referred to it as his "little play." But, in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the play celebrates the commonplace, the not unusual, the daily life. It defined the dissatisfaction, the empty places, the frustrations inherent in American living, but it also illuminated our democratic vistas and provided a sense of national identity.

Sadly, the initial 1937 rehearsal preparation for the famous 1938 opening in New York was a miserable experience for Wilder. He and producer/director, Jed Harris, developed deep resentment over deletions and revisions; worse, at the first reading, Harris banished Wilder from the theatre for disturbances that distracted the actors. However, when Wilder returned shortly before the opening, he was relieved, even exhilarated, by the performances. Regardless, reviews of previews in New Jersey and Boston did not praise the work. Additionally, a woman staff assistant committed suicide over personal problems. Harris had failed to help the woman when she called him for assistance, and her death engulfed Harris in guilt and grief.

Wilder freed himself from resentment and devoted days to allaying Harris's guilt and sorrow. The two men grew closer then they would ever become again, and their unity provided Our Town with its final thrust.

The play opened Friday, February 4, 1938. The immediate response was only modest, save the great critic, Brooks Atkinson, who wrote a glowing tribute. John Mason Brown and Joseph Wood Krutch aligned with Atkinson. However, Richard Watts, John Anderson, and Wilella Waldorf claimed they were "uninvolved" in the experience of the play. Nevertheless, the play did not close. Later, John Steinbeck's dramatization of his novel, Of Mice and Men, was awarded the Drama Critic's Circle Prize as Best American Play, and Wilder was depressed and exhausted.

However, his spirits rose when Our Town was awarded the Pulitzer Prize later that spring. Gradually, as years passed, Our Town would attract the greatest number of performances, audiences, and readers in this century, rivaled only by Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Today, Our Town is generally considered the quintessential American drama, surpassing even the best of the "Father of American Drama," Eugene O'Neill.

While Our Town is clearly not autobiographical (Wilder was raised far from New England, had no teen-age courtship or marriage, and had a far different family than either the Webbs or Gibbs), Wilder did hale from New England stock. There is a kind of nineteenth century American Victorianism rooted in the play regarding sexual matters, all of which aligns well with New England of the time. The play is no sentimental idyll: the church organist commits suicide; young Gibbs dies on a camping trip; family members take one another for granted; the most promising boy in the village graduates from M.I.T. only to be killed in a remote war; and, of course, Emily dies in childbirth. Regardless of all these dark happenings, the play contains a spiritual uplift in its basic fabric of perseverance and faith. Our Town is a play about belonging—to a family, a country, a nation. The inherent optimism of the play derives from its native soil.

Using the Stage Manager/Narrator motif, a character who steps in and out of the action of the play, was considerable innovation in 1938. However, this role is rarely portrayed as Wilder intended. Ask any theatre person to describe a "stage manager" and the words you will likely hear include, "efficient, even officious or dutiful, cold, indifferent, stern, or dominating." You rarely hear, "warm, charming, pleasant, engaging"—words which often describe how the role is performed. Wilder, generally known to be a cool and efficient, almost ministerial personality, played the Stage Manager once just to get it right.

Our Town breaks with "fourth wall" or proscenium convention. The essence of the play is spontaneity—an ease or joyful improvisational quality. There is nothing of the virtuoso visible. No Cyrano is among us, no Tartuffe, no Juliet, no Lear, not even a flamboyant Willy Loman. The author and any major hero or heroine simple disappear. Only the ensemble matters—the group, the town, the county, the state, the country. While there is sadness, there is no meanness of small town life; no social ills or corruptions are dwelt upon; rather, the outward behavior of unexceptional people in rural American at the turn of the century returns to haunt our collective childhood memories.

We see Our Town again and again because it returns us to our roots and reminds us of what it is to be an American in an America of countless family units. Some count; some do not. We cannot classify or stratify the characters in Our Town. They reject tribalism and a state religion. Our Town is non-illusionistic, presentational drama. There is, as designer/director Gordon Craig once noted, "a noble artificiality" about the play. Yet, what remains in our minds and hearts after seeing the play? Visions of acute, homely reality—snapping beans, a newspaper tossed on a lawn, drug store sodas, a moon over ladders, coffee brewing, and umbrellas at a rainy funeral. Locating the play historically and exploring its form, style, and structure remain less important than experiencing the play. It is a work of love and wisdom.

The content of the play is so simple that it is momentous. The play deals primarily with the life in living. Wilder reminds us of our mortality. Therein lies the burden of the great playwright, the playwright who observes life as he or she lives it. Wilder saw that life and death were the same thing, even the same moment (he saw this well before the great absurdists, such as Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet). In Our Town, as Brooks Atkinson wrote, "There go all of us, not 'but for the grace of God,' but by the grace of God." For all that Our Town could not and does not encompass, it provides that shock of recognition to all of its heterogeneous audiences, enabling us to see that we are, in fact, race and creed aside, a nationality and people.

A telling anecdote regarding a dream he had while teaching at Harvard, typifies Wilder. The dream concerned his mother and father, both dead, yet awake and talking to him. Wilder said that, upon awakening, he rose to a level of consciousness never attained before and he thought: "How wonderful it is that people die." This astonishing thought evolved from an atmosphere of contentment and a joyous moment of illumination (such as Emily encounters in her famous speech in Our Town prior to returning to the dead). Wilder had not the faintest shade of resentment or repudiation of life—no weariness of life, no tragic protest against life's difficulty, no dread of declining years. Rather, Wilder released in Our Town some deep, purely natural acceptance of the given assignment of youth, maturity, age, and death. The Stage Manager's simple farewell says it all to each of us: "You get a good rest, too. Good night." We might add, "Love, Thornton."