"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 4, 2014

‘Our Town’–Thornton Wilder’s Chilling Drama

Thornton Wilder is is often overlooked in the pantheon of great American dramatists – Williams, Miller, and O’Neill – perhaps because his plays lack their lyricism, moral severity, or melodrama; and yet they are just as compelling.  Our Town is perhaps his best. In his matter-of-fact tone and style, Wilder tells the story of a small town in New Hampshire and the life of its residents from birth to death.  Yet the story is no chronicle, but a sad, philosophical tale of the quick passage of life, our refusal to appreciate it when we live it, and the small, insignificant place any one of our lives given the perspective of time and history.

Act I of Our Town starts off innocuously enough – a description of a small town in New Hampshire:

The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there,
behind our mount'in. Well, I'd better show you how our town lies. Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station. Polish Town's across the tracks. Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street's the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there. Baptist is down in the holla' by the river. Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks. Here's the Town Hall and Post Office combined; jail's in the basement. Here's the grocery store and here's Mr. Morgan's drugstore. Most everybody in
town manages to look into those two stores once a day.

Public School's over yonder. High School's still farther over. Quarter of nine
mornings, noontimes, and three o'clock afternoons, the hull town can hear the yelling and screaming from those schoolyards. This is our doctor's house, Doc Gibbs'. This is the back door. This is Mrs. Gibbs' garden. Corn…peas...beans...hollyhocks…heliotrope… and a lot of burdock. And this is Mrs. Webb's garden. Just like Mrs. Gibbs'. Only it's got a lot of sunflowers, too.

Nice town, y'know what I mean?

There is no culture in the town, says Mr. Webb.  It is just a plain, practical, hardworking place with nothing in particular to distinguish it.

No, ma'am, there isn't much culture; but maybe this is the place to tell you that we've got a lot of pleasures of a kind here. We like the sun comin' up over the mountain in the morning and we all notice a good deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of the seasons; yes, everybody knows about them.

In his folksy, storytelling but chilling way, Wilder inserts the future of the Webbs and the Gibbses.  Although the time of Act I is 1901, the Stage Manager says:

Doc Gibbs died in 1930.  The new hospital’s named after him.  Mrs. Gibbs died first – long time ago, in fact. She went out to visit her daughter, Rebecca, who married an insurance man in Canton, Ohio, and died there – pneumonia – but her body was brought back here.  She’s up in the cemetery there now – in with a whole mess of Gibbses and Herseys – she was Julia Hersey ‘fore she married Doc Gibbs in the Congregational Church over there.

Time in Our Town is both present and future, and by his offhanded references to town history, he sets the stage for Act III which takes place in the cemetery where the dead welcome the newly deceased, and they both talk about the life they led and left.

In Act II the characters of the Webb and Gibbs family get more involved in each other. Emily and George meet each other, court and marry.  There is the first flush of romantic, adolescent love; and then the realization what a life together will mean.  She will have to leave her parents.  He will have to give up baseball, acknowledge his faults and change for her.  As the wedding day approaches they become afraid.  Everybody is pushing me, says George; and in a foreshadowing of Act III says, “Ma, I don’t want to grow old.”

Mrs. Webb, Emily’s mother feels there is something cruel about sending girls into marriage so young, and admits that she “was as blind as a bat” entering her own marriage. Everyone is supposed to be happy at the prospect of these young people’s marriage, but they are all sad.  As George has said, it is the first sign of the loss of youth and the end of their lives.

Mr. Gibbs tries to give his son advice but he is not convincing.  He, too, was young, got married before he was ready, but has ended up content.  All people in the town get married, he reflects.  They raise families, work, go to church, and lead peaceful if accommodating lives.

There is still nothing dramatic in the play, just the normal expectations, doubts, and concerns of families. We like the Webbs and the Gibbses, and we like their town.

There is nothing in Our Town like the dissatisfaction with place and circumstance there is in Chekhov. All three sisters in the play of that name are discontent.  When Vershinin comes from Moscow he brings memories of the women’s happier, earlier days.  They have suffered for eleven years in the provinces and they, especially Irina have never quit their longing for the city, its cosmopolitan life, and its romance.

Tennessee Williams was uprooted from his happy childhood in Mississippi to live in St. Louis, and many of his characters share his sense of isolation and alienation.  Amanda and Blanche always hoped that they would be able to go back to Mississippi.

                Set from Glass Menagerie

For Wilder place is not important, despite his creation of the seemingly idyllic world of Our Town. The events of the town have been repeated millions of times, and it is the tragedy of their repetition and the perpetual confinement of those who are fated to repeat them which disturbs him.  The Stage Manager says:

The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will….”

Before you know it, says Wilder, life has come and gone.  We remember only shards and fragments of “the row of stores, hitching posts and horse blocks in front of them…the grocery store…and Mr. Morgan’s drugstore.  Most everyone in town manages to look in those stores once a day.”

The comments of the Stage Manager in Act II remind us of his foretelling of the future of the Webbs and the Gibbses and prepare us for Act III.  He recounts their deaths as like small items in the local paper. 

In the beginning of Act III, speaking in the cemetery, the Stage Manager tells who’s buried there, citizens from as far back as 1670.  Now, he says, “summer people walk around there laughing at the funny words on the tombstones”, oblivious to the fact that in an instant they will be there too. Genealogists come up from Boston to try to trace lineages and are as foolish as the summer visitors.  “Wherever you come near the human race”, he says, “there’s layers and layers of nonsense”.

Wilder is far from a cynic or nihilist.  Despite this passage of time and the seeming indifference of people to it, there is hope:

Now there are some things we all know, but we don't take'm out and look at'm very often. We all know that something is eternal…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.

“Once in a thousand times [a story] is interesting” the Stage Manager says in Act II – someone has recognized the eternal.

The end of Act III is one of the most moving and powerful in modern drama.  Emily, who has just died and greeted the dead members of Our Town is reluctant to leave the living.  She begs for permission just to go back for a day.  She is warned against it, but she persists. She is unsettled to see “how troubled and how….in the dark live persons are…Look at [Father Gibbs].  I loved him so. From morning till night, that’s all they are – troubled.” But the worst part of her return is to see the past and people as they were – young, optimistic, and full of promise – but from a time when she and they are dead.

I can’t bear it.  They’re so young and beautiful.  Why did they ever have to get old?  Mama, I’m here.  I’m grown up.  I love you all, everything – I can’t look at everything hard enough.

Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally's dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's look at one another.

At the end of the Act, Emily says, “They don’t understand, do they?”; and her mother replies, “No, dear, they don’t understand”.  The Stage Manager then describes the town going to sleep.  No one can figure out the universe, he says, but one thing is sure, here on earth everybody is straining so hard to make something of themselves for sixteen hours a day, that they have to lie down and sleep.

For the last four years I have been immersed in Shakespeare and American theatre; and have read Chekhov, Ibsen, and Strindberg. After the intense drama, powerful characters, life-and-death scenarios, grand guignol, gender-bending and political intrigue, I was unprepared for the quiet, unprepossessing work of Wilder.  These playwrights, for all their genius, are shrill and unremitting compared to Wilder.  I learned far more about love, politics, power, and human nature from Shakespeare; more about human frailty and relentless courage from Williams; and more about ethics and morality as framing virtues from Miller; but I was never more moved than by the sad lament of Our Town.

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