Before the coronavirus and mass quarantines halted social gatherings, one of the most repeated but still unappreciated bits of theater trivia is that on any given night in America, someone is staging a production of “Our Town.”
Like many, I’ve spent the last month of sheltering-in-place working my way through the lists of “must-see” movies and TV shows. I’d heard of “Our Town.” As a fan of Aaron Copland, I’d listened to his beautiful score from the 1940 film version. I knew everyone called it a “classic.” But I had just never gotten around to seeing it performed. Now I’m wondering what took me so long.
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” debuted in 1938. The play depicts small-town New England life at the dawn of the 20th century, ending one year before the start of the First World War. Few Americans today still imbue their conversations with “gee” and “golly.” Even fewer have had the pleasure of drinking a strawberry phosphate. But in a world that appears to be changing before our eyes at an ever-accelerating pace, the central lessons of “Our Town” are more relevant than ever before.
After eight decades of performances, you’d think the public would move on. But clearly, they can’t. Americans keep coming back to the fictional New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners. It’s been produced more than any other play in history.
One easy explanation for the nonstop popularity of “Our Town” is its no-frills nature. Wilder’s stage directions call for “no curtain” and “no scenery.” The opening “set” consists of two tables and six chairs. Later, two ladders are added to represent the second-floor rooms of the play’s young lovers. Props are minimal. The hallowed metaphorical “fourth wall” that separates the audience from the actors is often ignored, especially by the play’s narrator, the folksy, charming, and unpretentious Stage Manager.
The show’s spartan requirements lend themselves to community theater companies and high school drama clubs alike. But ultimately, it’s more than that. Its timeless, life-affirming message has struck a chord with three generations. In the devastating wake of coronavirus, there’s much we need to rediscover and relearn. To that, “Our Town” has a lot to say about living, dying, and the lives we lead in between.
‘Our Town’ Urges Us to Stop and Take It All In
“Our Town” prompts us to slow down and treasure the little things, reminding us there can be beauty and joy in the most seemingly mundane parts of our day. The ordinary often contains the profound.
The play’s heart belongs to its bright and idealistic protagonist, Emily Webb. Most of the daily life of Grover’s Corners is seen through her earnest eyes. Wilder uses Emily, along with the Stage Manager, to convey the deeper messages “Our Town” contains.
At the close of the play, Emily finally understands. “It goes so fast,” she realizes, “we don’t have time to look at one another. … All that was going on, and we never noticed.” Faced with this, Emily asks the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” His reply is stark but honest: “No. … The saints and poets, maybe — they do some.”
It’s a gut-check moment. If we’re honest, most of us will admit we move through our daily lives far too quickly. Rarely do we stop to savor the best parts of the week, let alone the ho-hum of our routine.
In reality, fully taking in every small gesture, every tiny event that shapes our lives, would be impossible. Even if it were possible, we’d only be spectators witnessing life instead of living it. It isn’t Wilder’s wish to have us view our fellow man as we eye fish at a pet store. But “Our Town” tells us we can all be more thankful for everything around us each day. Every morning deserves a certain amount of inherent wonder and gratitude. It is an immense gift to be alive.
In Emily’s final monologue, she sings the praises of the little blessings we take for granted: the sound of clocks ticking, sunflowers, food, coffee, new-ironed dresses, and hot baths. Now, 107 years later, who thought we’d be offering similar odes to hand sanitizer and toilet paper?
Learn to Marvel All the Time
Among the quarantine orders, panicked grocery store runs, and the inability to see friends and loved ones, Wilder’s “Our Town” reminds us to pause and marvel at the world’s goodness. The shutdown of schools and businesses combined with the end of numerous activities we assumed would go on forever has shined a light on what truly matters. Alternatively, the pandemic has also illuminated the things that at the end of the day don’t matter very much at all.
It may not be possible to permanently defeat the coronavirus. But, Lord willing, it can at least be held at bay like the seasonal flu. Once this time of hardship is past, it’s hard to predict how Americans will act. Handshakes, movie theaters, and large public gatherings may become relics of a bygone era. Or maybe pent-up yearnings for meaningful fellowship will send the nation in the opposite direction.
One reaction may be a conscious effort to linger in conversations, extend visits with grandparents, hug those we love, and spend long hours frequenting favorite watering holes with friends. To that, Wilder would likely respond, “Good. … Now keep it that way.”
We may be tempted, after a while, to forget what we’ve learned during this pandemic. Drifting back into either complacency or apathy would add further tragedy to the virus’s toll. The thesis of “Our Town” is not just that we need to be aware of how good things are in trying times, it’s to live a full, purposeful life of grateful reflection all the time, as much as we can, together with those we love.
“There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being,” says the Stage Manager. “You’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.” Let’s hope these trying times help us recognize that truth as well. But for now, we’ve still got a whole lot of living left to do.