Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is set in 1901. In that year there were 150 documented lynchings of black Americans. President McKinley was assassinated. Geronimo was three years away from being put on exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Eleven years earlier, nearly 250 Lakota Sioux—men, women and children—were shot by U.S. agents as they danced the Ghost Dance, a ritual that Indians believed would bring back the dead and restore the land.
Our Town takes place in Grover’s Corners, an archetypal New England town of about 2,000 (plus two, counting the birth of twins over in Polish Town). The address is: Grover’s Corners, Something County, New Hampshire, the United States, the Western Hemisphere, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God. The trajectory extends, as you can see, from Grover’s Corners out.
Few people ever leave Grover’s Corners: 90 percent of the young people settle down right there.
“The graveyard has the same names that are here now,” the play’s stage manager tells the audience. That graveyard will really fill up in 17 years, when 20 million people worldwide die from the flu.
We tend to think of Our Town as a heartening, poignant glimpse of an innocent era, a Norman Rockwell soda-fountain time when moonlight was more golden, the heliotropes smelled sweeter, and crickets after choir practice were the dominant sound. We must have gotten that from our high school experiences of the play, when Our Town was staged by the senior class because the lines weren’t too difficult, the set was easy, and the town parents loved it because it reminded them of those wonderful bygone days when their hearts were young and gay during—wait a minute—World War II? The Great Depression? The Dust Bowl?
Our Town was first staged in 1938 when it won the Pulitzer Prize. (That year saw the signing of the Munich Pact, which gave Hitler Czechoslovakia.) Thornton Wilder appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1953. (That year the Korean War ended, the United States helped overthrow Iran’s Premier Mussadegh, and Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.) Our Town is meant to show how life is actually experienced by most of us—not in the big events, the important dates, but in the daily rising and setting of the sun, the turning of the planet. And we feel tempted to embrace those days as being so much better than they are now. The play entices us toward a great nostalgia for a time that never was.
There’s a darkness to the complacency in Wilder’s characters, who hold firm to a world order in which “the sensible and diligent rise to the top, the lazy and quarrelsome sink to the bottom.” They’re moonstruck, but have just enough unease and self-consciousness to wonder if maybe such a huge and beautiful moon might not be a tad unnatural. Maybe it’s getting closer. No... “If the moon were getting nearer,” young George Gibbs says to his sister, “they’d tell us about it.”
This is a world where even grownups still trust in the benevolent “they.” But there are also those who harbor secret dreams of breaking out. Mrs. Gibbs, the wife and mother of one of the two families whose daily lives the stage manager shows us, has a private fantasy of someday going to Paris (“where they don’t talk in English and don’t even want to”). The closest she’ll get to that experience, we know, is making French toast.
Mrs. Gibbs tends to her family like a servant who isn’t liked very much—so her husband admonishes their son George, who has neglected his chores. George is remorseful and Mr. Gibbs, after first making fun of his wife’s participation in the women’s church choir, goes back to his newspaper. His derision creates a bond of sorts between father and son, easing the scolding.
Wilder’s portrayal of the down side to Grover’s Corner is subtle and acute. But is Mrs. Gibbs “chattel,” the favorite media phrase of late for women of the Muslim world, living in all those Grover’s Corners whose addresses end with “the mind of Allah?” (Incidentally, in 1901 American women were still two decades away from voting.) Perhaps, but women’s rights are not chief among Wilder’s themes any more than the death of George’s new wife Emily in childbirth, in the last act, is a statement about women’s health in the early l900s. More profoundly, Wilder gives us “the infinite in the immediate,” as The New York Times put it, shortly before Wilder’s death in 1975. He reminds us that the mind of God resides in what’s for breakfast.
Which is not the same as saying that the insular innocence of Grover’s Corners represents reality. And that we just have to get back to reality, somehow, and all will be OK. It doesn’t mean that Grover’s Corners necessarily brings God into being, instead of the other way around. Forget the good old days.
We should be suspicious of any characterizations of Our Town that call it heartwarming. Maybe if Wilder had allowed a few more eccentrics into his play, borrowed some characters from Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood, perhaps, to keep Simon the drunk choirmaster company, his viewers over the years might be less inclined to embrace this play as a loving picture of Our American Life.
In this production, appropriately, the actors wait on chairs like the already dead. They’re not quite zombies in their faux off-stage; they fidget a bit, somebody sneezes. But they are all in a state of waiting, the chairs arranged in a kind of queue. If Wilder shows us that there is profundity in our smallest acts, we also see that these acts are part of a pattern of life and death that is 90 percent out of our hands. Life in this view has a kind of beauty to it and a kind of terror. When we’re dead, we’re dead. That’s what Emily discovers. And when we’re alive, we’re less on a stage than on a carousel, turn, turn, turning.