AMAC Exclusive by Herald Boas
Throughout human history for nearly every civilization, some form of the theater has served as a means of social context, understanding current events, and as a way to pass generational knowledge across the ages.
The same has been true in our own country. There have been many great American plays and playwrights, and the live theater continues to be an important part of our national cultural life — although, like so much else, it was interrupted by the pandemic and its restrictions on public assembly.
Unfortunately, so many new plays feed into and bolster our contemporary social divisions, and well before the pandemic, American theater was suffering a decline.
The Broadway theater scene prior to the pandemic was so dominated by revivals and musicals that it was easy to forget the roughly half century (about 1920 to 1970) when the theater contributed so much to our national identity, language, tastes and conversations.
Choosing a best playwright and best play in American theater is, of course, a subjective task, but my choices, admittedly not very fashionable today, are Thornton Wilder and his dramatic masterpiece “Our Town.”
Written and produced on Broadway in 1938 when the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression and beginning to realize another World War might be coming , Wilder created an innovatively staged statement of the human condition with distinctive American accents that was universal.
Audiences had never seen anything like it. There was no curtain, no scenery, and almost no props. The actors instead often mimed what would be the physical objects in the play’s action. The drama told the story, as a play-within-the play, of the fictional turn-of-the-century New England village of Grovers Corners and those who live there. The three acts span eleven years following living characters, some of whom reappear as deceased figures in Act III. It is narrated by an unnamed Stage Manager who sometimes enters the play’s action, and at other times simply narrates, occasionally interacting with the audience directly.
Our Town is about the ordinary lives of some of the persons who live in the village — their births, growing up, marriages, having children, growing old and dying — with dialogue that is often poetry, but always so simple and profound that an audience member, often bombarded with meaningless pseudo-complexities in his or her daily life, can find it shockingly real and deeply emotional.
(In fact, as critic Terry Teachout recently wrote, a 2013 revival production of Our Town at New York’s Sing Sing prison left hardened and skeptical criminals with tears in their eyes by the play’s end.)
Our Town has had numerous productions from high schools, small amateur groups, and revivals on Broadway over the past 83 years. Such acting luminaries as Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Spaulding Gray, Helen Hunt, Frank Sinatra, David Cromer, Hal Holbrook, and Orson Welles have recreated the role of Stage Manager first performed by Frank Craven in 1938.
American theater has rich traditions in American life. Perhaps the most traumatic U.S. political tragedy, the assassination of President Lincoln, took place during a play’s performance at Ford’s Theater and was perpetrated by a famous actor. In other times, the theater has entertained, provoked, and informed audiences, although U.S. plays popular in their own time are usually forgotten or rarely staged only a few decades later.
Why has this play endured?
Perhaps because, in Wilder’s own words, it is “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” Perhaps, as well, because, like ancient Greek drama and the plays of Shakespeare, Our Town offers timeless and universal insights when others offer, however cleverly, only the moment’s partisanship.
There are, of course, other great American playwrights and plays, including those by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee, to name just a few. Wilder also wrote another outstanding and innovative play, The Skin of Our Teeth. But none of these, nor others, reach the iconic universality of Our Town.
In our own time of strife and social division, the aftereffects of the pandemic, and national anxiety about the future, Americans can learn a great deal from past generations of playwrights who have articulated a profound understanding of American life and human nature. Indeed, Wilder’s play Our Town offers us the candid reassurance and inspiration we so badly need in these very difficult times.