Almost 80 Years Later, ‘Our Town’ is Still a Pillar of American Drama
In 1938, Thornton Wilder published a play that would become a hallmark of American theatre. From its first performance on stage at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., Our Town went on to become one of the most acclaimed American dramas and one of Wilder’s most frequently performed plays.
With its simple set and guileless script, Our Town does not dawdle on unnecessary distractions. In three acts, the characters, with the assistance of the play’s narrator, the omniscient “Stage Manager,” portray the life cycle of the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, focusing on the smaller, insignificant details that make up a daily life; French toast, birthday presents, the moonlight. All the while, the characters beg the eternal question that still gnaws at our souls today: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?”
Our Town helped Wilder pull in his second Pulitzer Prize, his first for Playwriting. However, Our Town did not immediately receive the praise and popularity that characterizes it today. After its run at the McCarter Theater, Our Town travelled to the Wilbur Theatre in Boston and gained the attention of Brooks Atkinson, the theater critic for The New York Times at the time. When the play finally made it to Broadway, Atkinson, having seen the show during previews, wrote a glowing review, calling the play “one of the finest achievements of the current stage,” according to an article on Pulitzer.org.
Almost 80 years later, Our Town, remains a play that has truly withstood the test of time, culture, and technology. In an age where modern theatrical works have pushed and shoved their way into critical acclaim on Broadway through their use of innovative technology and elaborate sets, there is something about the minimalism and depth of Our Town that lingers, generation to generation.
The simplicity of Our Town lends itself to being reproduced in varying forms. According to the Samuel French website, Our Town is currently playing at 67 different regional theaters, high schools, colleges (SCDS performed the play a few weeks ago), and conservatories across the world. Miami New Drama at the Colony Theater in South Beach kicked off their 2017-2018 season with a multilingual version of Our Town that featured a modified script that had characters speaking in English, Spanish, and Creole. In November, Scarlett Johansson organized a reading of Our Town with Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, and Maximiliano Hernandez to raise money to support The Hurricane Maria Community Relief & Recovery Fund.
Perhaps Donald Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, said it best in the foreword to Our Town when he wrote, “indeed the play’s success across cultural borders around the world attests to its being something much greater than an American play: it is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive.”
Like the Stage Manager says at the end of the play, there is something eternal about every human being. With the success and effervescence of Our Town almost 80 years later, Wilder’s message about the human experience still resonates with audiences across the world, eternal in every way.