Appreciating Thornton Wilder’s Our Town
By Steve Scarpa
Late spring day. Around 7 p.m. The sun is starting to set, glowing orange-red in the sky. There are birds singing around the Mount Carmel Burying Ground in Hamden, and a rustle of wind from off Sleeping Giant. These are the outward markers of calm, but it isn’t calm, not by a long shot. Cars rush past, heading back and forth on Whitney Avenue. Motors drown out the peace.
By any measure, it’s a small cemetery, bordered by homes with nice family sized yards on two sides. The Wilder family is all together here, marked by a modest stone near the back of the grounds. Right next to them is the most famous of them all—the eccentric and gifted son Thornton.
Nothing special about his marker. Just a stone tablet on the ground, nestled in the close-cropped grass. Just his name, Thornton N. Wilder, and his dates, April 17, 1897, to December 7, 1975. Nothing to note that 75 years ago the man buried here wrote perhaps the greatest play in the American theater— Our Town.
‘Our Town is, without a question, one of the
three or four greatest plays ever written by an American.’
Our Town is set at the turn of the century in the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners. It tells the story of the people of the town, with the growing love of teenagers George Gibbs and Emily Webb as the centerpiece of the work. Using no scenery and mimed props, and led by an all knowing Stage Manager, we see these people living, marrying, and dying.
Throughout this year events have been held to recognize the anniversary, including major professional productions, city-wide reads, talks, photos collections, videos, and other recognitions of the play’s import and meaning.Since its debut at Henry Miller’s Theatre on Broadway in 1938, Our Town has become an essential piece of American art. It has been performed countless times all over the world – indeed, it’s likely as you read this that the play is being done somewhere. In the last decade, the play has been performed 80 times in Connecticut, five times in New Haven alone. Famous actors like Paul Newman and Hal Holbrook have tackled the play. It has been filmed, performed on radio and television, adapted into opera.
In 1930, flush with cash from the commercial success of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton purchased a house just over the Hamden-New Haven line, on Deepwood Drive, for his family’s domicile. Wilder, while known as a writer who crafted one of the most archetypal renderings of small-town life, remained itinerant over the course of his own days. Deepwood Drive would remain a base of operations for Wilder, a place where he could be assured that his large family would be tethered and safe. But for himself, he only chose to be home for bursts of time before he would return to the road for as many as 200 days a year, traveling through Europe and the United States, spending time alternately with groups of devoted friends and in solitary thought, crafting plays, essays, and novels.
“I would drive him around and we would have dinner,” Tappan said. “He knew every Italian waiter in East Haven.”The inspirations for Our Town were myriad and far reaching, even though Wilder himself expressed exasperation with that kind of examination of his work. Thornton’s first glimpse at eternity was seeing the tomb of an ordinary Roman family as a student in 1920. The modern world went on the street above them as their lives were frozen and over time forgotten. The writer Gertrude Stein’s lectures contributed to Wilder’s thoughts about the repetition of life. Some of the family dialogue was quite literally taken from the family dinner table, Tappan Wilder said.
“Wilder’s Our Town was shaped by his imagination and memory, his experience with family and friends, his love of country, his concern about world events, and his passion for the theater,” wrote Penelope Niven in her biography Thornton Wilder— A Life.
But one cannot underestimate what was waiting for Wilder on Deepwood Drive as an influence for the play.“Wilder returned to a family whose lives at the time ran the gamut of issues and emotions: a dying father, a weary mother, happy newlyweds beginning a life together, one sister —Janet— thriving in her life and work, and two sisters —Charlotte and Isabel— struggling in theirs,” Niven wrote.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies, himself a New Haven resident, regularly teaches Our Town to his Yale students, allowing himself the opportunity to introduce —or in many instances, reintroduce— wary students to one of the great works of dramatic literature.
“Indeed the play’s success across cultural borders around the world attests to its being something much greater than an American play; it is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive,” Margulies wrote in the forward to the 2003 edition of the play.
Over time, however, the play has received an unfair lambasting in some quarters as being soft, a charge Edelstein unilaterally rejects.
“People are often fooled because of countless sentimental productions of the play that they’ve seen. They are fooled into thinking it is a corny Frank Capra movie, but it is as bleak and devastatingly sad. I know of no other work of art that, with more ferocity and even rage, communicates the admonition to treasure and savor your brief life,” said Edelstein, who has seen the play a half dozen times in his life, but has never directed it.
It could be the case that, Tappan Wilder believes, people simply don’t always recognize what the play is actually about. They might think it’s about the teenage love story between George and Emily, or that it is an idealized portrayal of small town life. Those interpretations miss the complexity of his uncle’s play, or what he was even attempting to convey.
“This play is about memory and imagination. It is not a play about a small New England town,” Tappan Wilder said. “Our Town is not a New Hampshire chocolate milk shake … It is about how we remember the past,” he said.
Our Town sets one’s everyday actions, the small gestures and moments, against the rush of eternity, juxtaposing “the village and the stars,” as Wilder himself put it. It’s a theme that runs throughout Wilder’s work. The play asks us to consider that the small things in our lives -driving from Wilder’s grave to home, eating a hot dog, typing this story, talking to one’s family on the phone- have meaning and value and are irreplaceable when lost to time and memory.
Steve Scarpa is the director of marketing and communications at the Long Wharf Theatre.