My mom’s brilliant biography of Thornton Wilder debuted in October of last year, and today marks the 75th anniversary of his most enduring work, Our Town. Here’s a little something Mom wrote up for the Wall Street Journal in honor of the play, the day, and the man himself.
Why Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ is 75 Years Young
By Penelope Niven
When Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” opened on Broadway February 4, 1938 – 75 years ago today — no one was more surprised by its success than Wilder himself. He did not foresee that the play would win the Pulitzer Prize, or that well into the 21st century, “Our Town” would survive and thrive on and off-Broadway, and in theaters across the United States and around the world. As the play went into previews, Wilder was afraid it would be a failure. In January 1938 he wrote, “OUR TOWN, opening in Boston, had such bad reviews that a second week was canceled, and the manager engaged a New York theater which was free for only a week and a half.”
But 75 years later, people are still watching the play. Ford’s Theatre in Washington is hosting the national celebration of this anniversary with an “Our Town” production that runs through February 24. There are 75th anniversary stagings around the country and abroad. “Our Town” was borne out of the American experience, yet other countries import it as their own. The play still speaks across cultures, across time zones, across languages. By some accounts it is the most produced American play ever.
I discovered “Our Town” as a teenager in Waxhaw, North Carolina, population nearly a thousand. I was positive the play was written about Waxhaw. This was 1957 in my town, not May 7, 1901 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, Thornton Wilder’s mythical town. In a 1938 preface Wilder wrote that his play “sprang from a deep admiration for those little white towns in the hills and from a deep devotion to the future. These are but the belated gropings to reconstruct what may have taken place when the play first presented itself — the life of a village against the life of the stars.”
He went on to clarify the “unremitting preoccupation which is the central theme of the play: What is the relation between the countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other?
“What is trivial and what is significant about any one person’s making a breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a ‘love scene,’ in dying?”
Wilder the dramatist was writing, he said, for and about everybody, for and about each one of us. “Since my play is about Everybody, everybody is in my play,” he reflected in later years.
He had been writing plays and acting in them since boyhood. In the fall of 1938, he briefly played the Stage Manager in “Our Town,” filling in while actor Frank Craven took time off from the very successful Broadway run that would ultimately total 366 performances in ten-and-a-half months. Wilder was nervous about memorizing the lines he had written. He “wasn’t very good,” he wrote to his sister Isabel after one performance. He got better, however. “I went through my paces without a single fluff, ‘tho’ I perhaps didn’t put quite enough umph into the prelude to Act III,” he wrote. He took the criticism in stride when reviewers assessed his performance: “I see in the paper. . . that I was no ball of fire.”
But he got mostly stellar reviews as a playwright, including a recent tribute from Edward Albee: “If I were asked to name what I consider to be the finest serious American play, I would immediately say Our Town– not for its giant Americanness but because it is a superbly written, gloriously observed, tough, and breathtaking statement of what it is to be alive, the wonder and hopeless loss of the space between birth and the grave.”
Albee’s words go to the heart of Wilder’s intentions for the play. Wilder wrote, “In the last act of ‘Our Town’ the author places upon the stage a character who – like the members of the audience – partakes of ‘the smallest events of daily life’ and is also a spectator of them.
“She [Emily] learns that each life – though it appears to be a repetition among millions – can be felt to be inestimably precious, though the realization of it is present to us seldom, briefly, and incommunicably. At that moment there are no walls, no chairs, no tables = all is inward. Our true life is in the imagination and in the memory.”
Seventy-five years ago, having poured his imagination, his memory and his heart into his play, Wilder grew more confident about the future of “Our Town.” He wrote to a friend, “At all events I do not mind from critics the charge of immaturity, confusion, and even pretentiousness.” The play was “a first sally into deep waters.” He hoped “to do many more – and better – and even more pretentious. I write as I choose; and I learn as I go; and I’m very happy when the public pays the bills.”