Our Town: A History
Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind -- not in things, not in "scenery." Molière said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.
-- Thornton Wilder
Written in part at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a town many believe to be Wilder's chief model for Grover's Corners, Our Town had its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton (NJ) in January 1938. Although well-received by the audience, Variety called the play "disappointing... hopelessly slow." Produced and directed by Jed Harris, Our Town opened in New York the next month with Frank Craven as the Stage Manager. This time the reception was much warmer. Willa Cather wrote to Wilder that the play was "the loveliest thing that has been produced in this country in a long, long time." Lillian Gish called it "the greatest play of our century."
There have been several Broadway revivals since, including one in 1969 starring Henry Fonda as the Stage Manager, and in 1989, with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager, Eric Stoltz as George, and Penelope Ann Miller as Emily (Helen Hunt later took over the role). An unorthodox version of the play was presented at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1976, when Geraldine Fitzgerald became the first woman to play the Stage Manager.
The 1940 film version was directed by Sam Wood, with Aaron Copland composing the score and Frank Craven, William Holden, and Martha Scott reprising their performances as the Stage Manager, George, and Emily respectively. The most striking change from stage to film involved United Artists' request that a happy ending -- letting Emily live -- be substituted. Wilder agreed:
In a movie you see people so close to [you] that a different relation is established. In the theatre they are halfway abstractions in an allegory; in the movie they are very concrete...Let her live. The idea will have been imparted anyway.
Paul Newman first appeared in Our Town in 1955, when he starred as George in a musical version for television, along with Eva Marie Saint as Emily and Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager (warbling the song "Love and Marriage," later the theme song for the Married with Children television series). In 1977 Hal Holbrook played the Stage Manager in a production at Lincoln Center, later broadcast on public television.
Some elements struck theatregoers as unconventional, if not radical, when the play first premiered -- the absence of scenery, the direct address to the audience by the Stage Manager, and the kaleidoscopic use of time. Nevertheless, Our Town has long been considered a classic American play. It is performed today in countless regional and community theaters here and abroad, as well as in high schools and middle schools around the country. In 1969 theater critic Walter Kerr commented on the timeless appeal of Our Town:
We bring a curious intensity to our visits to Our Town these days, going to each successive revival in a strangely mixed hope and fear that the work will at last seem tarnished. I think we hope it will tarnish so that it will stop affecting us; it does affect us; it does make us cry, and we dislike being thought subject to such emotional impress....At the same time we are fearful it will turn up tarnished because it is one of our remembered pleasures.
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