Our Town is one of the plays of the American theatre that is likely to be cherished longer than any other written during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century. Yet, this now firmly established play came close to being stillborn, and arrived at its first presentation in New York only through the never-say-die persistence of its original producer, Jed Harris.
Prior to its New York opening, Harris had sent the play to Boston for a three-week shake-down. Its novelty offended Boston critics, and Boston play-goers simply stayed away. Ordinarily in a situation like that, when reviews are thumbs-down and box office response is nil, plays close during their pre-Broadway tryouts and are never heard of again. Jed Harris would not take no for an answer. He curtailed the Boston engagement after one week, brought the show to New York for two weeks more of rehearsal and a few previews, then opened it formally on 4 February 1938.
On that chilly evening, when the first-flight dramatic critics of the New York newspapers gathered to witness the opening performance, they did not quite know what to expect. They were aware that Wilder was a novelist of some reputation, having in fact won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for his book The Bridge of San Luis Rey. They may have known, or been informed, that he had written quite a number of short plays, but never a full-length one and never one that had reached Broadway. And when they opened their Playbills in Henry Miller’s Theatre, they discovered that the play they were about to witness would deal with three great adventures of living, sub-captioned as “Life,” “Love,” and “Death.”
Yet, when all was said and done, Broadway was a bit awed by Our Town. Although a majority of the reviews the next morning were frankly ecstatic, a few were modestly doubtful of the complete applicability of Wilder’s statement. And one or two mildly questioned the effectiveness of the scenery-less stage and of the story told in a unique combination of pantomime and Greek chorus recital by a Narrator performing as Stage Manager.
One of the few who was accurately able to gauge the profound effects of what he was seeing was Brooks Atkinson, critic for the New York Times. In his review the next morning, Atkinson wrote: “One of the finest achievements of the current stage. Mr. Wilder has transmuted the simple events of a human life into universal reverie. He has given it a profound, strange, unworldly significance--brimming over with compassion. Our Town has escaped from the formal barrier of the modern theatre into the quintessence of acting, thought, and speculation. A hauntingly beautiful play.”
The New York World-Telegram added more insight: “Mr. Wilder and Our Town have struck another blow at conventional theatre. Our Town is a theatrical experience I would not like to miss. A beautiful and affecting play.”
The truth was that Our Town was a trailblazer for a whole new school of playwrights who were going to attempt for the first time--at least in any concentrated and determined effort--to circumvent the boundaries of the traditional stage setting. True, there had been other plays produced without scenery, and a number had been shown without the curtain that, in the tradition of the theatre, acts as the fourth wall of an interior, of the fourth boundary of such landscape as may be revealed.
But overall, attendance at Our Town provided a genuinely new experience in play-going. Entering the theatre for one of its performances, the spectator’s first view is of a completely bare stage, exposed in semi-darkness. The side walls of the stage are remote and hazy. The rear wall is piles of flats from old stage sets.
Presently, without any formal notice that the play has begun, the Stage Manager, hat on and pipe in mouth, enters and begins placing a table and several chairs around the stage. Then he saunters casually down to the footlights, leans against the proscenium pillar, looks a little patronizingly over the audience, watches a few late arrivals slide apologetically into their seats, takes the pipe out of his mouth and begins to speak. And--just like that--the play is under way!
Audience response to that opening night back in 1938 was highly favorable. The theatre-goers may not have known exactly what they were seeing, but they knew they liked it. And in the spring, Our Town was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the best play of American authorship, giving new impetus to the run, which finally reached the imposing total of 336 performances.
But it was only after the play had closed in New York that it began to achieve the unique eminence it has enjoyed every since--an eminence that continues and gains added stature with each passing year. Since 1938, the judgment of those first audiences has been resoundingly vindicated around the world.
For example, when in 1973 the Soviet government invited the United States government to send a two-play repertory to Moscow showing the American theatre’s best and most representative plays, Our Town was inevitably chosen by the State Department as one of them. Similarly, an American Theatre Festival in Bochum, Germany, in 1955, designed to show Europeans examples of the best of the American stage, included a production of Our Town.
In road show, in hundreds of stock and amateur productions in this country, in translations into nearly every translatable language that man speaks on this earth, Our Town has gradually won for itself a secure place as one of the very few authentic dramatic “classics” this country has ever produced.