Sunday, October 5, 2008

Our Town: A Play in Three Acts

Our Town: A Play in Three Acts by Thornton Wilder (1938; republished by Longman, Green & Co. , 1956) 129 pp.

I picked up an old volume of this play at the Victoria College Book Sale, an annual event that I have come to enjoy since having started working at the university. The university has four annual sales at four different colleges: Victoria, University, Trinity and St. Michael's Colleges - Trinity being the best I think.

I love this volume published in 1956: faded green cloth hard bound covers and yellowed, slightly brittle pages with that old book smell.

I didn't know much about the play aside from the fact that it is the American play most often produced (for the first time in 1938) and I really didn't know what to expect but I was pleasantly surprised by the modernist structure of the play.

The audience is directly addressed by the "Stage Manager" who serves almost as a Greek chorus to the events that take place effectively smashing the fourth wall. The stage is minimal, the scenery almost non-existent - one must imagine all that is described to you. The Stage Manager is akin to a "homespun philosopher" or perhaps one of Shakespeare's fools - commenting on the plot's development.

Each of the three acts describes different phases in the life of the Wells and the Gibbs families, in 1901 in the sleepy little town of Grover's Corners in New Hampshire. It briefly chronicles the lives of Emily Wells and George Gibbs from youth until the death of one of the partners: youth, marriage, death, in three acts.

The play appears to have been written by Wilder in response to over elaborate stagings of drama produced in the 1930s according to the introduction of the play. Let the characters and the story tell you what the story is about not the costumes and the set ... Wilder rejects the "picture frame" stage as the introduction describes it.

Act One opens in a small town in New Hampshire at the turn of the 19th c. The town is comprised of simple folk: WASPy, down home, simple, in the best sense of the word. Milk is delivered by horse and cart, the town drunkard whom no one chastises plays the organ at the Congregationalist church, doors are left unlocked, everyone knows everyone else including all their flaws and problems. Sometimes the small town witticisms rankle this city girl's cynical ears but we are meant to see these people as uncomplicated and disarming.

The Stage Manager introduces the Gibbs and the Wells families. George Gibbs and Emily Wells are very young and you see the sparks of their future relationship here. She is the brightest girl in her class; he wants to work on his uncle's farm after attending agricultural college.

The sets are exceedingly simple: two ladders represent George and Emily in their respective rooms doing homework, a row of chairs representing the church sequence, etc ...

In Act Two, the two young people fall in love and marry. The scenes are honestly portrayed. The parents have misgivings as do the bride and groom who have cold feet at the altar. Emily wears only a veil as a symbol of the wedding ceremony. There are frequent flashbacks which provide a back story for the characters' growing attachment prior to their engagement.

In Act Three, the action takes a dramatic and unusual turn away from the realistic. Nine years later, Emily has died in childbirth after the birth of her second child. As the scene opens we are confronted with a row of chairs holding the dead who survey and comment on Emily's funeral. And they are vocal. And dismissive about the living and their "blindness" to the afterlife.

George's mother is there as is Simon Stimson, the town drunkard, and Mrs. Soames, a lady who attended Emily and George's funeral. Emily soon joins this group, somewhat dazed, as if she has not quite navigated the trip from the living to the dead. She watches her husband and family at the ceremony and begs to return for one more day.

The dead discourage her by telling her that she will regret it because she will always carry the knowledge of her death with her into the past life. Despite their warnings, Emily insists and returns for a day - for a specific moment - the morning of her 12th birthday, a day of great joy for her. But it is too painful. It is painful for the reader as well as.

Emily retreats to the world of the dead, consoled by the others and now accepting her new existence. It is an intriguing mix of realsitic drama with the fantastic and an utter surprise for me, a novice to this genre.

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