That place where everyone knows your name. Where milk bottles are delivered to your door and the horse doesn’t let the driver miss your house. Ice blocks are delivered, too; and the deliveryman breaks off pieces for children in the street. Everyone leaves doors unlocked. At delivery, the birthing mother first learns that her newborn will come out the same way it got in! Such is the nostalgia that opened our discussion of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town.
The week before our discussion, some of the book club members joined a few other library patrons for our first Table Reading. We read out loud, sitting around a table on the stage of our beautiful theater – not as a performance, but as a chance to step outside our comfort zone and do something different and challenging. As a bonus, I found that hearing the play read, imperfectly and yet movingly, helped me appreciate this outwardly nostalgic and simplistic play all the more. For those of us who participated in the reading, our experience and understanding could not be but different than those who did not. During this month, as people at the library noticed the book selection, several stopped to share that they had performed in this play during high school!
We discussed how the play’s stage manager role, minimalistic set and lack of props was groundbreaking for 1938. Our Town won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 “For the original American play, performed in New York, which shall best represent in marked fashion the educational value and power of the stage, preferably dealing with American life, $1,000.”[ii] Does “in marked fashion” mean obvious? One of us had trouble visualizing the story through reading. Was the author the stage manager? Thornton Wilder did actually portray that role on stage.[iii] We discussed the change in gender roles and society over time. If Emily had lived, would she have achieved her “dream of greatness?” Probably not. [iv] What did we think Mrs. Webb meant when she says that sending girls into marriage is cruel?[v] Work? Sex? Dr. Gibbs doesn’t want to travel because he might then be dissatisfied with Grover’s Corners. Well, what about Mrs. Gibbs and her dream? If the town takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves, why does the drunken choir director commit suicide?
None of us had seen the 1940 film version and I believe all of us were surprised that the dream-sequence third act was not a Hollywood happy ending but a choice by Thornton Wilder: “He wrote to Sol Lesser, the film’s producer, ‘Emily should live … in a movie you see the people so close ‘to’ that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstractions in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete … It is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live.’”[vi] Ah, allegory. Life. Love. Death.
We discussed many more things in snippets. Comparisons with previous book club selections, films, our wages over the years. One of us wondered if anyone else had found the play just too saccharine. No real drama or action, compared to say, Tennessee Williams.[vii] I had researched the relevance of Our Town in the Twenty-First Century for that very reason! Our discussion helped, but we wondered about the validity of updating such a classic to reflect modern times.[viii] Perhaps it should remain as a time capsule.
We could have continued, but our discussion lasts for just an hour. And like the characters in the play, I don’t remember all the details. We ended with one member’s comment about something like a dose of daily joy. If we take anything away from this play, it should be to notice the joy in what appears to be mundane, everyday life. And for many of us, that is certainly not simplistic.
Other works discussed:
- The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
- War of the Worlds by HG Wells
- A Street Car Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
- Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
- Paterson 2016 film starring Adam Driver
[i] Even in 2019, Our Town, first produced in 1938, made NPR’s list of Top Highschool Plays and Musicals #4: https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2019/07/31/427138970/the-most-popular-high-school-plays-and-musicals. The play came to my attention because one of the main characters in the 2017 film Wonder plays Emily in her high school production. The play ranked sixth in a 2010 list of most important American plays https://www.denverpost.com/2010/02/11/the-10-most-important-american-plays/.
[iii] The Stage Manager, played by Wilder himself for two weeks in the 1938 Broadway production, breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. http://www.twildersociety.org/works/our-town/
[iv] Discussion question 2: https://www.arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/our-town
[v] Discussion question 5: https://www.arts.gov/national-initiatives/nea-big-read/our-town
[vii] Two of Williams’ plays made the Denver Post’s list of top ten American plays: A Street Car Named Desireand Glass Menagerie. https://www.denverpost.com/2010/02/11/the-10-most-important-american-plays/
[viii] Here we discussed the alteration of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jan/05/huckleberry-finn-edition-censors-n-word.