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Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN is America’s answer to Shakespeare

Originally published on January 20, 2021 by Howard Sherman in The Guardian

The Pulitzer-winning drama, set in the small town of Grover’s Corners, has a beating heart that will resonate through the years

Patrick Elue and Norah Lopez Holden in Our Town at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2017. Photograph: Stephen King/Royal Exchange theatre

It is frequently called the quintessential American play, but if productions of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer prize winner Our Town focus on its “American-ness”, they’re missing the point.

Much as the Russian-set, Jewish-themed Fiddler on the Roof became an international hit in numerous languages, Our Town has lasted as one of the most produced US plays in the global modern repertoire. This is not for its statement on the American character or as a flag-waving paean to a simpler time, but because its true concerns transcend the specifics of turn-of-the-20th-century Grover’s Corners, where the play is set. That’s quite surprising for a play with a rather slim plot and no conventional conflict, which alternates between long narrated passages and select scenes of two families in small-town New Hampshire.

Paul Newman (the Stage Manager, centre) with Maggie Lacey and Ben Fox in the 2002 production of Our Town at the Booth theatre in New York. Photograph: Getty Images

There are some things that place the play in a precise location and period but odds are that such references as the Philo System of raising chickens were pretty obscure even when the play was new. With its dictate of no scenery save for a couple of tables, a few chairs and two ladders, as well as segments with extended miming of activities, the play demands that audiences fill in the world portrayed, rather than show them any particular one.

That’s because the play is about mortality, about the brevity of human life and Wilder’s charge to the audience to appreciate what they have while they have it. It’s not about stoves and walls. For a play that many remember for its sweet romantic scene with two teenagers in Act II, or for the homespun charms that clung to it for so many years, this is a play that starts talking about death in its first few paragraphs, giving way in its third act to a scene of the aftermath of a tragedy from an atypical perspective.

I spent 18 months conducting more than 100 interviews with theatre artists for a book about the play and it felt like I’d been running an Our Town focus group. Given the conventional wisdom that the play is old hat, I was surprised to find how many of the people I interviewed, in the US and the UK, either had already fallen for its message – or, in roughly equal number, had never previously seen or read the play, yet had formed definite and typically dismissive opinions about it. However, after working on a production, everyone seemed ready to proselytise others into the fold of Our Town.

For a play as seemingly simple and plotless, there are depths to plumb in how to approach the play. Wilder may have written explicitly about what he wanted audiences to learn but he didn’t provide a precise map of how to get there. The largest role in the play is a narrator called only the Stage Manager, who has no personal story or even identifying details of character. We see mostly minor events in the lives of a few primary people. And yet, if one looks closely, topics like the extermination of indigenous peoples and immigration from eastern Europe are fleetingly recognised in a very homogeneous town, and the march of technology is transforming people’s lives.

Playwright Thornton Wilder, pictured in 1949. Photograph: Ray Fisher/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

It’s a testament to this seeming war horse from an earlier era that it still calls to theatre artists today. England has seen three major productions in the last decade: at the Almeida in 2014, at the Royal Exchange in 2017, and at the Open Air theatre in Regent’s Park in 2019. A new production is opening the 2021 season at the Queensland theatre in Brisbane, Australia, this month.

It may sound fulsome but I’m prepared to take a leap and suggest that Our Town is very likely on its way to being America’s first Shakespearean play. I’m not speaking of its language or scale, but rather the likelihood that it’s going to remain in the international repertoire for more than a hundred years – and beyond.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with obscure references that may have been topical in their day. But the core themes were never about current events. Shakespeare’s plays ask eternal questions about human character and purpose. Even when taken out of their original time, place and style of production, Shakespeare’s plays’ beating hearts resonate through the years.

That is the case with Our Town as well, as Grover’s Corners and its people transform in each city, in each country where it plays, in each era, without a word changed. Our Town has proved that instead of being only a play of the moment when it was first seen, it is a play of every moment. People just need to take the time, to paraphrase Wilder, to realise it.

Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century by Howard Sherman will be published by Methuen Drama on 28 January.

Feature Image: HVSF’s 2016 Community Production of OUR TOWN.