By David Kranes
Thornton Wilder seems the sly old man of American theatre. Half the critics see him as optimist; half, as pessimist. Half see him as apple-pie American; half, as deeply rooted European. Half see him as romantic; half, as cynic. The critic Malcolm Cowley, speaking of Wilder in “The Man Who Abolished Time,” says: “[It is as if] he were looking sometimes through one end of the telescope and sometimes through the other.” In Wilder’s 1930 novel, The Woman of Andros, we read: “I have known the worst that the world can do to me . . . nevertheless, I praise the world and all living.” In Our Town, Emily Webb does the same thing. She--in extolling its stunning beauty--will praise the world and all living. But she will qualify that praise. She will hope and doubt in the same breath: “Oh World, you are too beautiful for anyone to realize you.”
Life is a gift. It is given. It is taken away. Thornton Wilder was born a twin. His twin brother, Theophilus died at birth; Thornton lived. A grimmer playwright than Wilder, Samuel Beckett, has said, “We give birth astride the grave.” Again and again, in Our Town, life is given—only to be taken away. If you listen carefully, you will hear that paradox taking place within a single sentence. We are given the paperboy Joe Crowell, only to be told—upon his very entrance—that he died. Births and deaths are reported in the same daily news. Life is framed—here in Grover’s Corners—as if it were a mere moment: bright-shining as a star then, as quickly, dark. We are told of the evening star: that it is always “wonderful bright . . . just before it has to go out.” Light. Light extinguished. Hello. Good-bye.
If we can, so quickly, have life then lose life within the same breath, within the same blink of the eye, how fully do we value what we have? Emily asks: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” The Stage Manager’s answer is less than heartening: “Saints and madmen.”
Saints and madmen--the first luminously; the second darkly--transcend Time. Most of us don’t; we live in it. We have this moment. We have this brief Time. And that urgent reality compelled Thornton Wilder. He was Time’s student, not simply in his own life, but as a reader of literature, of philosophy, of theology, of astronomy and geology.
Time telescopes and multiplies in Wilder’s plays. It contracts to “Daily Life” only to spiral out, through Love and Marriage into the vast infinities of Death. Listen to the numbers increase: from tens to hundreds to thousands to millions. So, whether we value any of our daily moments--as they enact themselves backdropped by the infinite—depends upon how we see them: with the eyes of a vain child looking in a mirror or from the centuries-old perspective of a star-canopied hilltop, above and beyond life and vanity.
At the threshold of marriage, Emily wishes she were dead. Only moments later (though in the next act), we see her, not only having been given her wish but now, having crossed the threshold of Death, wishing this time for a return to life. When we don’t value Time, we wish carelessly. When we see the gift of time, we wish longingly.
“Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” Simon Stimson tries to get his choir to sing convincingly. “It’s a question. Make it sing!” he instructs them. And what is that Tie? What is it that binds any of us in that breath of a moment--now light-flooded, now dark--that we might share, in our town? It’s a question. Make it sing.