Monday, April 21, 2014

O is for Our Town

In  case you hadn't noticed from some of my previous posts--
when I was young I read pretty much anything I could get my hands on, including old English text books that had belonged to my mother. It was in her American Literature book the I first read Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

Our Town is one of those plays that seem deceptively simple on the surface, but which one finds new details in every time one reads it.
What initially seems like a simple, nostalgic slice of life, is actually a profound meditation on life and death. 


When the play was first performed on Broadway in 1938
its staging was one of the most groundbreaking aspects
of the production.  The story is told on  a nearly bare stage
with minimal props, narrated by The Stage Manager, a seemingly
omnipotent character, who speaks to both the audience, and  to characters in the show, and seems to have considerable knowledge of both past and future. 

The first act tells the story of a typical day in this small town, and in the lives of two main families: That of Dr Gibbs and that of Mr Webb who publishes the town paper.  There are several scenes between the Doctor's son, George, and the editor's daughter Emily; as well as other vignettes of small town life, a choir practice, neighbors gossip, and so on. The Stage Manager interviews and expert about the town, and takes questions from the audience. (All this breaking of the fourth wall was pretty daring in 1938)  

The stage manager says they are planning a time capsule for a new building's cornerstone, and he plans to leave a copy of this play:

So-people a thousand years from now-this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.-This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying."

Act Two, announces the Stage Manager, is called Love and Marriage.  There's another act coming as well, he adds, saying we probably know what that is about as well.  
This is the day of George and Emily's wedding.  Again we are given small slices of both families' lives, moms cooking breakfast, having last moments with their children, a brief flashback to the day George and Emily realized they were right for each other. 
a little last minute nerves for both parties
and then the wedding itself.  Our old friend the Stage Manager takes the role of minister. preaches a sermon and then sends us out to intermission again.

It's the third act of Our Town that made the play famous. The stage is set with chairs, most occupied by people we met in the earlier acts.  The stage is a cemetery and these are the dead of Grover's Corners.  One chair is empty however.  

The Stage Manager muses a bit on the long history of the graveyard, and then tells us we need to think about something in the third act. 

"Now there are some things we know 
but don't take out to look at them very often.
We all know that something is eternal...
All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being."

We find the dead in the cemetery have become dispassionate and matter of fact.  They are frustrated with the inability of people to appreciate life. 
We learn the new grave is for Emily, who has died in childbirth, having her second baby,  We see the mourners, and then they leave Emily with the dead.  Emily is still full of life, still interested in the world she has left behind.  She realizes she can go back and relive days, but the others warn her not to, or at least not to pick an important day.  She chooses her 12th birthday.  

She slips back into her old home. suddenly aware of everything. She tries to get her mother to really see her but fails.  She asks the Stage Manager "Do any human beings ever realize life as they live it, every every minute?" "No. Saints and Poets maybe, they do some" is his reply. Emily asks to go back to her grave.

So we are left are left with several messages from the play.  One is that life is not just about the big moments, birth/death/marriage, but about all the little moments in between. And we are reminded that we need to aware of the gift of being alive in every one of those little moments in between, while we still can. It's why we are here.

This post is part of the A=Z challenge. Please click on the link to read more.

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