Thornton Wilder, Our Town (1938)

I never heard about Thornton Wilder nor about “Our town” before Anna Quindlen mentioned it in her Short guide to a happy life (it’s funny how one book suggestion brings you to the next…). From the cover I learnt that the piece had been widely successful, but since the copy I got is a battered, yellowing second-hand edition, I have no clue if theater companies still play it nowadays. Have any of you seen it?

The play is about the deep meaning of life – or, you could say just as truly, about nothing much important. Small town in 1901, nothing that sets it apart, no bigger-than-life characters, just your average middle class families, among which young Emily Webb and George Gibbs. But Wilder (speaking through the stage manager’s character) constantly plays with the audience about it, interrupting the story, like a teacher who engages the class to better convey his message, not wanting us to get into the story on a literal level but immediately as a universal metaphor.

Wilder’s straightforward message (“Carpe Diem”) is delivered to Emily upon her death: the third act is a chorus of dead town dwellers sitting in the cemetery, who reflect on what they’ve lost in life, and how living people are blind to what truly counts in the end: the beauty of the most innocent tasks, of nature, the kindness of family and friends, all things that we often take for granted.

Anna Quindlen’s message in her short book was very close to the play’s: we all have around us everything needed to be happy and contented. Both pieces have a stern, warning, slightly elegiac voice. It’s quite moving and I totally see why the play has been quite popular.

Carpe Diem is a precious message to contemplate at an intimate level, for our personal life, one that I have been craving even more since Baby Smithereens is born. But I can’t help to find it disturbing at a collective, society level. Of course, if every single person was more aware of life’s tiny beautiful moments, people would be happier, there would be less anger, anguish, fear and sadness in general. But also nobody would yearn for something bigger, better, unheard of. Nobody would try to get out of their little town, learn something different and explore the world (it disturbed me that George Gibbs renounce to a secondary education to stay home and marry). In my opinion, “Carpe Diem” is not something on which a thriving, dynamic society build itself up.

When you think of it, life in “Our town” is quite conservative, and it’s no surprise that a 1938 play would take the 1901-1913 era as the reference for golden days. “Our town” is an idealized bubble outside time that makes me think of Laura Ingalls’ “Little house in the prairie” (even if time and progress are acknowledged by the first cars’ arrival and trains to Boston). It’s not a perfect world because sad events do happen, but it’s really preserved compared to the turmoil of world events in 1938 and now. I cringed when the stage manager praised women who cooked for their whole lives without taking a day off and never had a nervous breakdown. Wilder’s portrait of women (cooking, cleaning, raising children and arranging weddings) annoyed me again and again, because it was taken for granted, but I can’t deny that it was the reality back then (and still is in a large part). Wilder’s play is not meant to start a revolution, but if it changes the way you look at your daily life, it’s already enough.

Apart from these small reservations, I would certainly applaud with both hands and be tearful at the end if I was to watch the play onstage. I should really go to the theater more often (carpe diem!), or read more plays. Any suggestion? Happy weekend everyone!

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3 thoughts on “Thornton Wilder, Our Town (1938)

  1. Yes, this play is still given. I have seen it at least twice on stage and was moved by it both times. It is a favorite of small and community theater companies because of its limited numbers of actors and simple settings.

    There are TV and movie versions also, one I think with Paul Newman as Stage Manager.

    I don’t see it as an idealized bubble. Life can be tough. Women work long years unappreciated. Young people give up their dreams to take on mature responsibilities. A wife dies young. The “message” I took from the play is that you should enjoy life’s daily beauties while you can.

  2. Yep, as Silverseason notes, it’s still popular for local theater (an American classic). I’ve both seen and read it (been a long time, though). I seem to recall it as quite depressing, though, a commentary on people being stymied by small-town roles and views. Maybe I ought to revisit it. Meanwhile, yes, more theater and plays are always a good thing.

  3. Oh, I love Our Town! Although I am going through a phase where I am sick of the same old plays and would love to see a really new and innovative play come along…that said, my favorite play writes are the classics – Noel Coward (Blythe Spirit is my favorite!), Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shephard, just to name a few…

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