O is for Our Town

How did a play written 72 years ago about a small town in New Hampshire, with no scenery and few props, “transcend the ages to become America’s most produced play”? Maybe it’s because it contains some universal themes.

From SparkNotes.com:
[Thorton] Wilder’s principal message in Our Town — that people should appreciate the details and interactions of everyday life while they live them — became critical…when the play hit theaters in 1938. It was a time of tremendous international tension, and citizens across the globe suffered from fear and uncertainty. Our Town directed attention away from these negative aspects of life…and focused instead on the aspects of the human experience that make life precious. Wilder revealed his faith in the stability and constancy of life through his depiction and discussion of the small town of Grover’s Corners, with its “marrying . . . living and . . . dying.”

Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager

Specifically, the dying. Act 1 is the ordinary, even mundane lives of the townspeople. Act 2 addresses the budding romance of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. Act 3 is in a cemetery, but has a flashback to a time about a decade in the past. This prompts a character to ask of the Stage Manager, the narrator: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” And, of course, the answer is “No”. But how could we?

There have been 4000 productions in the last decade according to this CBS News video, which shows segments of a recent long-running Off-Broadway production that closed only last month. One of the participants noted that if we realize life while we live it, every minute, we’d probably be on Twitter, tweeting 24/7, which would puncture the value of actually EXPERIENCING life.

The 2010 NYC off-Broadway production’s George and Emily

While there was a 1940 movie, the play has always been the thing. According to Wikipedia, there was a live musical 1955 TV adaptation starring Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager, Paul Newman as George, and Eva Marie Saint as Emily. I remember watching the 1977 TV adaptation of the play starring Hal Holbrook, Robby Benson and Glynnis O’Connor, though not the 1989 telecast with Spalding Gray, Frances Conroy, Penelope Ann Miller, and Eric Stoltz. And I HAD to view the adaptation of a 2002 Broadway revival starring Paul Newman, this time as the Stage Manager, a segment that can be seen here.

I should note that I was in a production of Our Town, some 25 years ago, produced by the FOCUS Churches of Albany. I played the drunken choir director Simon Stimson, one of the characters in the cemetery in the third act, who bitterly proclaims: “That’s what it was like to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those…of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know- that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.” Even in death, Simon seemed to miss the point.

Wilder was full of pithy sayings beyond the realm of this play. Perhaps my favorite: “”If you write to impress it will always be bad, but if you write to express it will be good.”

ABC Wednesday – Round 7

0 thoughts on “O is for Our Town”

  1. Thanks a lot dear Roger, you post bring to me lovely memories from my time at College ( I graduated in Fine Arts and I was part of a theater group in the time of College ), good memories! 🙂
    Very interesting play, very important text and work, your post, thanks so much! 🙂


  2. At secondary school I loved to play a role in plays. Later we did some plays in our church. I didn’t know about this play “Our Town”. I should read it now you have written about it.


  3. And, I loved to teach this play to young students when I was still in the classroom. IMHO, the critical part of the quote is at the beginning:
    “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
    Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”
    — Thornton Wilder


  4. Wonderful choice for this week, Roger. I saw the play here several years back, but I must say you’ve expressed the theme/message very well. Perhaps it’s time to see the play one more time considering the state of the world now. Have a great week!


  5. I’ve learned so much through blogging. It really is an education in itself. And your erudite account has added to the total of my knowledge and pleasure.


  6. Very interesting choice for O, Roger. I recall reading, years ago, that Our Town was the most popular play in US history, but had forgotten it until you reminded me.

    Kay, Alberta, Canada


  7. Thank you for the memories, Roger. I remember going to rehearsals for this play with my parents, – this would have been shortly after it was first written, and it was produced by the Edmonton Little Theatre Group. My mother had a part (don’t know which – not Emily) and my father did the lighting. When it came time to dim the lights he did it with a piece of metal attached to a rod, dipped in a ‘salt’ solution. A great play…..


  8. It’s been years since I’ve thought of that play – I can remember reading it in school and thinking then that it was so profound. Love the Wilder quote you included at the end – so true!


  9. It has been a long time since I read the play – i have never seen it performed! I am going to have to reread it and hopefully see a production. I need to revisit that message!
    thanks for sharing Roger -have a great week.


  10. ”If you write to impress it will always be bad, but if you write to express it will be good.”

    I love that pithy saying.

    I admit, I’ve never seen a production of Our Town. I think it takes a very special person to really appreciate life while living it. Perhaps the closer one comes to tasting death, the better they can appreciate life.


  11. you show a wedding photo, and we just had a family wedding. My niece was married on Sunday. My work commitment prevented me from going. Weddings give me a nice feeling, even if it is staged.


  12. I’ve heard of this play, but never saw it performed. If the movie ever comes on TV, I will try to watch it. TCM plays a lot of the Classic movies, so maybe they will show it someday. I enjoyed the YouTube of Mr. Newman, he was quite the actor.


  13. I think I may need to re-read this play. We staged a production in school and it was boring, I’m sorry to say. Your post makes me think that I should take a second look at it (actually, something I did with most of the book I hated in school, usually with the result that I found them to be much more interesting than I remembered)


  14. Very interesting, Roger. I’ve never seen this play and would now like to. I belong to a play reading group that gets together once a month just to read a play, as if for radio. But I suspect this play is longer than the time we have. Nice choice for O.


  15. Yet another classic I’ve never seen. Living abroad, it’s unlikely there’s a staged version anywhere around, but I’ll keep a lookout on my next trip stateside. And maybe, yes, for something on dvd. Thanks for the idea!


  16. Engrossing post, Roger. Your accounting of being in the play reminded me that I too was in a high school production of Our Town. I didn’t have any lines but I got to understudy Emily. It was fun. The Paul Newman clip was quite moving. Admire the Wilder quote at the end of your post.


  17. Wonderful post for the letter O Roger…It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Our Town…and seeing Paul Newman play the Stage Manager, well, let’s just say there’ll never be another Paul Newman. I totally wish I had seen that production.


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