70 Years Later, 'Our Town' Remains Timeless
By Lori Wright, Media Relations
January 16, 2008
In January 1938, the play "Our Town" made its debut in New Jersey.
Seventy years later, the play by Thornton Wilder set in the fictional New
Hampshire town of Grover's Corners remains one of the most frequently produced
and most beloved plays in American theatrical history.
According to UNH theater historian David Richman, the lasting popularity
of "Our Town" – a summertime favorite among New England
theatre groups – can be attributed to Wilder's use of minimal scenery
and props, the appeal of its ensemble cast and because it deals, at least
in part, with nostalgia.
"Wilder is dealing with the timeless. The great ideas and emotions
-- love, wonder, the response to death -- are always with us. The play's
final tableau, with a grief-stricken George prostrate at the feet of the
Emily who is even now moving on beyond him, is as heartbreaking in 2008
as it was when it was first staged in 1938," says Richman, a professor
of theatre and dance.
The three-act play is set in a town modeled after several New Hampshire
towns in the Monadnock region, including Jaffrey, Peterborough, and Dublin.
"His play sets out to capture and appreciate the small, seemingly
insignificant but actually wondrous moments of life, placing them against
those immensities of space, time, and eternity. However, it is hard to
know the extent to which Wilder -- the most erudite and cosmopolitan of
writers -- embraces, rather than probes, the simple verities that the denizens
of Grover's Corners, most of them Republicans and Protestants, cling to," Richman
"The play praises small-town virtues, but it suggests a near-tragic
counterpoint. Emily, as she takes her place among the dead, comes to realize
how much of life she failed properly to appreciate as her moments rushed
rapidly past," he says. "Would her living abilities have been
larger had she grown up in a town whose sense of beauty went beyond the
occasional hymn and Handel's Largo?"
Although an accomplished playwright and novelist, Wilder did not achieve
critical recognition as a playwright until the production of "Our
Town," for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. The play debuted Jan.
22, 1938, and ran for nearly 350 performances on Broadway.
"It was an enormous hit. Whether audiences plumbed the play's depths,
or whether they simply soaked in the nostalgic view of turn-of-the-century
American small-town life is another matter. Wilder did capture the simple
goodness and common sense of the Grover's Corners denizens, and audiences
responded," Richman says. "But, as Jeremy McCarter writes in
a splendid appreciation in the New York Times, 'Grover's Corners is, in
retrospect, an unbearable place: quite content to be homogeneous, conformist,
anti-intellectual and lacking 'any culture or love of beauty.' When staged
properly, the play doesn't let us merely feel simple nostalgia. We ought
to weep at Emily's famous line, not because she finds earth wonderful,
but because she was unable to find it so during her close-minded life in
her close-minded town -- which is, of course, our town.' "
According to Richman, what sets "Our Town" apart from plays
of the early 20th century and today is its treatment of the great metaphysical
"In an intensely political time (1938), it refuses to be political.
Paradoxically, it has something in common with a play that would seem entirely
different – Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." Though
Kushner's play is intensely political and though Kushner's characters would
be hounded out of Grover's Corners, the two plays deal, in their different
ways, with time, love, and death," Richman says.
"The great plays –- past and present – enrich the heart
and spirit, and they raise the uncomfortable questions. Though Wilder doesn't
raise the difficult political questions as much as some critics wish he
would, he does force us to contemplate the even more difficult philosophical
questions," according to Richman.
So is there still a bit of Grover's Corners, NH, in the Granite State? "I
suspect so," Richman says, "both for better and for worse."