MONDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2021
Our Town meets My Hometown: In Sunday's Washington Post, Peter Marks reported on a new book about the Thornton Wilder play, Our Town.
Wilder's Pulitzer-winning play appeared in 1938. It focused on life and death in a small and fictional New Hampshire town in the years before World War I.
According to Marks, Our Town "is so durable that it remains one of the nation’s most oft-produced plays, and it has been translated into 80 languages." In his new book (it's an oral history), Howard Sherman explores why that is.
Why has Our Town survived and prospered? Why does the play seem to have a universal appeal? At one point in Marks' report, a performer in a recent adaptation links the appeal of the play to this, the age of Trump:
MARKS (1/31/21): In 2017, for instance, Jane Kaczmarek played the Stage Manager in a production by Deaf West Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse, alongside deaf actress Alexandria Wailes.
At the time, Donald Trump had become president, Kaczmarek recalled in a telephone interview, “and there was this idea in the production of taking the time to look at each other, to talk to each other, which made it the perfect play to do.”
What made it "the perfect play to do?" Kaczmarek seems to be referring to the famous speech near the end of Our Town.
Emily Webb, who has died in childbirth, has been allowed to return to earth, unseen and unheard, to revisit one day of her previous life. She finds the experience unbearable.
Revisiting the people she loved, it's she who says that we never take the time to look at each other, to listen to each other. For the record, she's speaking about the people in her immediate household, the people she loved in her immediate (past) life.
It breaks Emily's heart to see her (beloved) mother and father again. It's this painful experience which leads her to say that we never stop to appreciate the joys and the beauties of our lives, which canend at any time.
For Kaczmarek, this theme made Our Town a perfect vehicle for this, the age of Trump. A bit later, a black actor from a recent production staged in Creole refers to Emily's speech, and a British actor brings the note of race, ethnicity and global politics in:
MARKS: “I love this play,” added [Keith Richard] Smith, who was in the Broadway cast of August Wilson’s “Jitney” early in 2017. “We keep asking the questions: ‘Why are we here? What should we do with the time we have while we’re here?’ It’s that third act, when Emily says, ‘We really don’t look at each other, do we?’ I don’t know where Thornton got that inspiration.”
The impulse to examine the play’s relevant boundaries was tested that same year in Britain, where the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester staged an “Our Town” a few months after a suicide bomber at an Ariana Grande concert killed 22 people there. Director Sarah Frankcom approached Youssef Kerkour, a Moroccan-born Englishman who had acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company, to play the Stage Manager with a clearly stated agenda.
“She was upfront about it,” Kerkour recalled via Zoom. “She said, ‘Listen, the reason I want to hire you for this is because you’re a big, bearded man, and you represent what this town is currently afraid of.’ "
The British production was now testing the possible global political relevance of Wilder's small-town in New Hampshire play.
In Kerkour's account of the British production, the theme that we don't listen to one another has been extended to the idea that we don't stop to look at and listen to those we may frame as the political, racial or ethnic other. Presumably, this resembles what Kaczmarek meant when she said Our Town's central theme made it the perfect play for this age of Trump.
For the record, there is no politics in the original text of Our Town. There's also no reference to "race," and virtually none to ethnicity.
Wilder wrote about life and death in a fictional town whose residents would all have been listed as white. The real-life model for Grover's Corners was apparently Peterborough, New Hampshire, a small town which the Census Bureau lists as 96.0% non-Hispanic white even today.
Decades later, Bruce Springsteen wrote about a different American town.
It would be hard to find a better-written song than Springsteen's My Hometown. (As a single, it was one of his biggest hits.) His fictional town was apparently patterned on Freehold, New Jersey.
Unlike Grover's Corners, Springsteen's fictional town wasn't all white:
In '65 tension was running high at my high school.
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do.
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night
In the back seat there was a gun.
Words were passed, then a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come
To my hometown...
At present, and quite appropriately, race is a constant journalistic topic in this, our age of Trump. What did Kaczmarek mean when she said Our Town was the perfect play for this (ongoing) age?
At the very least, she probably meant that we don't listen to one another across the dividing lines of (fervent) political belief. For many liberals, this will possibly mean that They don't listen to Us.
We'll join with President Lincoln in suggesting a wider sphere of imperfection. We'll suggest that those of us who live in Our Town may also be disinclined, on occasion, to listen to Those People, the ones in the other towns.
At present, an extremely large amount of The Crazy can be found in those other towns. Here in our own rather self-impressed town, our own flirtations with imperfection will often surface in our discussions of gender and race.
When we launch such discussions, is it possible that we sometimes fail to stop and listen to others? More broadly, is it possible that we may be inclined to go astray in our discussions of gender and race?
At present, extremely large amounts of The Crazy can be found in the other towns. Starting tomorrow, we'll be exploring the things we say, here in our own town, especially on the topic of "race."
Stating the obvious, there's a lot to say on that terrible topic, the source of so much suffering across the sweep of time and around the globe. But how well do we say those things here in the streets of Our Town?
Are we sometimes at fault, even here in Our Town? Tomorrow, we'll start by addressing those scare quotes.
Tomorrow: Actually, there's no such thing, doctor says on Democracy Now