MONDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2020
Hapless and dumb, not well liked: Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town in 1938. The leading authority on the play offers this thumbnail account:
Our Town is a 1938 metatheatrical three-act play by American playwright Thornton Wilder which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover's Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.
Throughout, Wilder uses metatheatrical devices, setting the play in the actual theatre where it is being performed. The main character is the stage manager of the theatre who directly addresses the audience, brings in guest lecturers, fields questions from the audience, and fills in playing some of the roles. The play is performed without a set on a mostly bare stage.
We've never seen the play, but we watched the 1940 film a few years ago. George and Emily fall in love. At an early age, Emily dies.
Did Wilder have a message to bring in his play about a small New England town from the early 1900s? The leading authority on the work floats this tiny hint of a possible minor clue:
Once the funeral ends, Emily emerges to join the dead. Mrs. Gibbs urges her to forget her life, warning her that being able to see but not interact with her family, all the while knowing what will happen in the future, will cause her too much pain.
Ignoring the warnings of Simon, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Gibbs, Emily returns to Earth to relive one day, her 12th birthday. She joyfully watches her parents and some of the people of her childhood for the first time in years, but her joy quickly turns to pain as she realizes how little people appreciate the simple joys of life.
The memory proves too painful for her and she realizes that every moment of life should be treasured. When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it, he responds, "No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some."
Should we the people teach ourselves to "appreciate the simple joys of life?" Life may have been a bit simpler then, at least within the part of the world Wilder was thinking about.
Life may have been somewhat simpler then, though a whole lot of people died young. Today, children drown in the Mediterranean, with their parents, as they try to make it to Europe. Luckily, our cable stars never ask us to think about things like that.
For some reason, we've been thinking about Our Town of late—the movie, not the play. A bit more precisely, and for whatever reason, we've thought about the phrase "Our Town" as we've watched the hapless, sometimes unpleasant behavior of various members of our own failing tribe.
Our tribe is deeply self-impressed. We're also very strongly inclined to be dumb, self-defeating, unpleasant.
As a general matter, we're unable to see these obvious facts about ourselves. According to major anthropologists, we humans are wired to see the dumbness and ugliness Over There—to survey the lives of others, the ones who reside in Their Town.
For the next few weeks, we plan to be exploring some of the behaviors which make Our Tribe so hapless and so little-loved. As we've occasionally noted, our team is silly and stupid and nobody likes us. Casting ourselves in the role of stage manager, we'll push through the firmly resistant fourth wall and undertake to explain why that is.
In fairness, an enormous amount of haplessness can be found in the next town over. But how often do we stop to consider the truth about our own failing town?
For now, we'll skip this discouraging essay. (Before too long, we expect to tackle the topic addressed in that piece.) Tomorrow, and for the rest of the week, we'll be starting right here. Also, in an astonishing number of similar, look-alike neighborhoods.
Why aren't we the people of Our Town better liked nationwide? Tomorrow, and for the rest of the week, we'll be discussing the part of Our Town which comes to the surface right there.
For extra credit only: According to the leading authority, Wilder was pushing back against the era's artistic conventions when he wrote Our Town:
Wilder was dissatisfied with the theatre of his time: "I felt that something had gone wrong....I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive."
Hence his decision to employ "a metatheatrical style." His play's narrator, the Stage Manager, was "completely aware of his relationship with the audience, leaving him free to break the fourth wall and address them directly."
We'll add one last fact about Wilder's play; it doesn't end especially well. Here's the authority's fuller account:
The memory proves too painful for [Emily] and she realizes that every moment of life should be treasured. When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it, he responds, "No. The saints and poets, maybe–they do some." Emily returns to her grave next to Mrs. Gibbs and watches impassively as George kneels weeping over her. The Stage Manager concludes the play and wishes the audience a good night.
For whatever reason—for good or for ill—that's the way Our Town ends.