Saturday, May 01, 2010

Misunderstood American Masters #3: Thornton Wilder

When Annie told me she was going to play Mrs. Webb in a local production of Our Town, I tried to talk her out of it. She’s trying to get a story collection ready for a Memorial Day prize submission deadline, and plays eat time like stoners eat Cracker Jack. But it wasn’t just that. I had seen Our Town when my high school mounted the play in 1967, and I remembered it as corny, sentimental small town schmaltz – hardly worth learning all those lines, wasting two months of rehearsals and giving up all those balmy Spring nights for.

I wonder about that initial reaction now, having been marinated for weeks in the words of Thornton Wilder, running lines and watching various versions of the play. My memory might have been playing tricks on me; or maybe I was just too young to really appreciate the harsh truth and the austere beauty of what may just be the Great American Play. As the Stage Manager, says, discussing the time-capsule cornerstone for the new bank being built in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire:

…Y’know Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ‘m is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts and – the sales of slaves. Yes, every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney -- same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then. So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone, so the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us – more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight. See what I mean? 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.

The play is deceptively simple. Its three acts show a day in the life of Grover’s Corners New Hampshire, circa 1901; the marriage of George Webb and Emily Gibbs, three years later; and a graveyard scene nearly a decade after the wedding. The production design is minimalist, to say the least. At one point stage-hands roll a trellis into view “For those of you who feel you have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager remarks. He’s a curious conceit, this Stage Manager. He narrates the play, comments on the action like a one man Greek Chorus. But the characters on stage are aware of him; they talk to him. At his request, Mr. Webb, the editor of the town newspaper, steps up to deliver the “political and social report” on the town for the audience. Mr. Webb is aware of the audience, too, it seems – he even takes questions from them. His wife and her neighbor, Julia Gibbs come and go at The Stage Manager’s command. He thanks them for their ‘scene’ – at once a purely realistic conversation and a Pirandello-esque exercise in theatrical self-awareness. Are these actors talking to their “Stage Manager” – as actors? Or is it the characters themselves talking to … the author? Us? God? The mystery resonates through the play, an unanswered question that renders Our Town strikingly, almost abrasively, modern, for all its apparent folksiness old-fashioned charm.

The Stage Manager certainly has an omniscient point of view. Telling us about Joe Crowell, the newsboy, he says:

Joe was awful bright – graduated from High School here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech – MIT. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin to be a great engineer, Joe was, but the war broke out and he died in France. Yes sir, all that education for nothing. What business he had picking a quarrel with the Germans, we can’t make out to this day, hut it all seemed pretty clear to us at the time.

He sees the future, he leads the dead Emily Gibbs briefly back into the world of the living at the climax of the third act and most of all he helps us see the long view, the great context in which these characters lives are set. It comes out in so many details, at almost every moment of the play, from the Stage Manager (marrying George and Emily in Act Two) talking about the “other witnesses” – the ancestors, “millions of them” to George’s sister Rebecca telling him about a letter her friend got from the Minister when she was sick. She says the address on the envelope read like this: “Jane Crofut, the Crofut Farm, Grover’s Corners, Sutton County; Neew Hampshire; the United states of America; continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; The Earth; The Solar System; The Universe; The Mind of God. And the postman brought it, just the same.”

In a letter to his friend Alexander Woolcott, dated January 27th, 1938, Wilder laid his intentions out clearly:

Our reviews say that it is a nostalgic unpretentious play with charm. But what I wrote was damn pretentious…The subject of the play I wrote is: the trivial details of human life in reference to a vast perspective of time, of social history, of religious ideas … if it had been written as a picture of rural manners, it would have been written differently … [Stage manager actor Frank Craven] is lovable and we’re grateful for that. But, oh, for that deep New England stoic irony that’s grasped the iron of life and shares it with the house.

In fact the play is anything but sentimental. It’s harsh, it’s brutal. It’s merciless, in a way. No one gets what they want. Emily Webb, who loves to give speeches (“It was like silk off a spool”) and thinks she’ll do it all her life, marries a farmer nowhere near as bright as she is and dies in childbirth at age thirty. Her brother Wally dies on a Boy Scout trip when he’s barely a teen-ager. Her mother-in-law, Julia Gibbs, never achieves her life-long dream of going to Paris, France (“Only it seems to me, once in your life, you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English and they don’t even want to.”) She sells a valuable piece of furniture but that money doesn’t pay for a trip abroad. It goes to buying her son a trough for the farm livestock. She does get to make her husband French toast, though. We only realize the ultimate disposition of Mrs. Gibbs’ ‘legacy’ at the end of the play when both she and her daughter-in-law are dead and sitting in the graveyard and it shouldn’t matter any more. But it still hurts. Even the fact that Emily loves the trough, with its modern automatic drain and refill, wounds us somehow. She settled for so much less than she should have had.

But still she wants to go back. The other shades advise her against it, but she insists, and the Stage Manager with an inscrutable deference, allows her to re-live her twelfth birthday. In perhaps the most moving and justly famous moment of the play, she finds it unbearable, and flees back to the grave yard. She says:

I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first; Wait! One more look! Goodbye! Goodbye, world! Goodbye, Grover’s Corners – Mama and papa – Goodbye to clocks ticking – and my butternut tree! – and mama’s sunflowers – and food and coffee – and new ironed dresses and hot baths – and sleeping and waking up! – Oh Earth, you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you. (to The Stage Manager) Do any humans ever realize life while they live it, every, every minute

And he says, “No. Saints and poets maybe. They do, some.”

Maybe the Stage Manger is right when he quotes the ‘scholars’ who believe there’s nothing living above us, among the stars, “just chalk – or fire.” But elsewhere in the play he says there’s “something eternal about every human being” and you feel that when you watch the play and you feel it in the play itself, still vivid and moving and troubling more than seventy years after it was written, thirty five years after the author’s death. Despite the harshness of life, despite its cruel twists of fate, its mean compromises and its relentless defeats, without a scrap or filament of the sentimentality for which it has so often been derided, Our Town shakes us awake for a moment or two, makes us really look at the world outside the theatre, feel the mild night air around us, take the hand of the person we love beside us, reach for that sainthood of awareness, that elusive poetry of now.

1 comment:

Joe Iriarte said...

I used to do a lot of community theater. The last show my old troupe did before its slow heat death was "Our Town." I didn't bother auditioning, and this may have been in part to the unconscious awareness I had of its reputation as empty shmaltz. (I have to admit I haven't actually read it or seen it performed myself.) You've piqued my interest--I'd like to see a production of it now.

Thanks for giving me a new perspective on this show, and on Normal Rockwell.