Why “OUR TOWN” by Thornton Wilder is Still Done Today


Our Town

The Pulitzer Prize winning play “OUR TOWN” is in most parts an actor’s piece. Meaning that we actor’s love the style… the bare stage, if done right you have a person or two at a table on one side of the stage doing all the sound effects, like old-time radio, the actor mime the actions being heard. It’s great fun to do. I’m not so sure how much fun for the audience. Though this play is done thousands of times a year all over the States and even all over the world.

Why do people like this play?

When Thornton Wilder’s play opened on Broadway in 1938 no one was more surprised by its success than him. Wilder’s own thoughts were, “unremitting preoccupation which is the central theme of the play: What is the relation between the countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas.” The great mystery to him and even to me is That we as an audience would simply sit there and watch all those live unfollowed right before our eyes. We care for them and want to know more of them and their history.

“Our Town” is borne out of the grand American experience, yet in other countries The play speak to their cultures too. It speaks across cultures, across time zones, even across languages. I believe it’s the most produced American play out there.

My first brilliant taste of “Our Town” as was in 1977 with Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager and Barbara Bel Gess, John Houseman, Robby Benson, Ronny Cox, Sada Thompson, Ned Beatty and many others on TV. It was magical. I had never saw anything like it before.

After watching that TV broadcast I wanted to do the Stage Manager part… after seeing Holbrook in the part. I also love his Mark Twain. I hadn’t done any theatre yet, that would be in another 4 years. But, Hal’s performance would and still stays on my mind. That whole show was great.

With “OUR TOWN” The spare sets reinforce the unexceptional quality of the setting, plot, and characters. This minimalism allows us to see and hear the character better. Plus, this way the ordinary and mundane are invested with a timeless quality, and the events of the plot are transformed into universal experiences for us all to live at the same time as the actors. The primary theme of “OUR TOWN” is humanity’s failure to appreciate every precious moment of life. This is stated most clearly by Emily as she returns to her grave, asking the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” Emily’s early death and nostalgia for her childhood further express themes of the precarious nature of our lives and the inevitability of our own death’s. Our Town addresses the age-old questions of the meaning of life. The play is ultimately life-affirming in its urging the audience to appreciate ordinary, everyday life in the face of an always changing complex and fast moving world before us.

Mr. Wilder said even more, “What is trivial and what is significant about any one person’s making a breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a ‘love scene,’ in dying?”… those make the scenes come to life even more. Those beautiful slices of real life he captured.

Thornton Wilder had been writing plays and acting in them since boyhood. In the fall of 1938, he briefly had to step into the role of the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” filling in while actor Frank Craven took time off from the very successful Broadway run that would ultimately total 366 performances in ten-and-a-half months. Wilder was nervous about having memorizing all those lines he had written. He stated,“ he wasn’t very good,” writting to his sister after a performance. He felt he got better. “I went through my paces without a single fluff, ‘tho’ I perhaps didn’t put quite enough umph into the prelude to Act III,” he wrote again to her. He took his criticism in stride from the reviewers of his performance: “I see in the paper. . . that I was no ball of fire.” He was a man, a playwright who understood the stage and it’s limits.

One of the best features of “OUR TOWN” is the way in which the play repeatedly breaks the so-called “fourth wall”, the imaginary division between the world of the stage and the audience that nearly all drama respects. This happens mostly through the character of the stage manager, but also through scenes in which characters like Professor Willard speak directly to the audience. The play also includes a scene in act one in which actors playing audience members participate in the play, entering into dialogue with the stage manager on-stage. In addition to all this, the play makes no attempt to create a realistic backdrop on the stage. The actors mime (pretend that they are interacting with things on-stage we cannot see) and there are hardly any props on the stage. The upper levels of the Webbs’ and Gibbs’ houses are represented simply by two ladders, which George and Emily climb up when they “go upstairs”. As these details of staging demonstrate, the play is not interested in pretending to be real. The fourth wall, props, and elaborate stage sets are all ways of encouraging the audience to pretend that what they are watching is real, and not an artistic representation of reality. By contrast, Wilder’s play emphasizes itself as an artificial symbol of our lives, it lays bare the fact that theater is always an illusion, no matter how realistic. We actors try to bring a truth to the stage, within the limits of the stage, the props, the sets and ourselves

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