Our Town, in case your local community theatre passed on producing it, is best known for its bare set, its plain folksy dialogue, and its simplistic lessons about life. Yet, when the dead Emily Gibbs asks the character of the Stage Manager if anyone appreciates the daily mundane aspects of life, his answer is devastating. 80 years after it debuted, it is believed that not a day goes by that Our Town is not being performed somewhere in the world. It has been adapted for film, radio and television, and in the lead role, at different times: Paul Newman, Hal Holbrook, Spalding Grey, Helen Hunt and Frank Sinatra. It has been made in to a musical three times, plus an opera and a ballet. Our Town has been translated into more than 70 languages. The 1940 film version features today’s #BornThisDay figure, William Holden.
Near the end of Our Town, the character Emily Gibbs, now dead, says:
“Goodbye world, goodbye Grover’s Corners, good-bye Mama and Papa, goodbye taste of coffee, goodbye new ironed dresses goodbye clocks ticking and hot baths, goodbye sleeping and waking. Oh life, oh life, you’re too wonderful. Why don’t we realize?”
She then turns to the stage manager and says:
“Does anybody do it? Does anybody really notice?”
The Stage Manager answers:
“Some do… Poets, saints, artists, but very few.”
I love this play so much. For no reason at all, in the summer of 2012, I took my copy of the script off the shelf and reread it in a single sitting. I cried buckets that afternoon to the alarm of my two terriers. I never really got Emily’s speech until now, in my 60s. The play moved me in ways that it never could when I was in my 20s, 40s or 50s.
Our Town even has a gay character, Simon Stimson, the church organist, who is a sort of stand-in for the author.
Thornton Niven Wilder (1897 – 1975) was an American playwright and novelist, and he gave us Our Town, which won the Pulitzer Prize. He was awarded two more Pulitzers, for the novel The Bridge Of San Luis Rey (1927) and for the play The Skin Of Our Teeth (1942).
The great theme of Wilder’s works is the lack of awareness about the daily comforts and tribulations of the short time we have on our pretty, spinning, blue orb. Put down your devices and recognize the beauty of all those tiny moments in life that are being passed by.
Wilder never publicly addressed it, but his gayness was a well-known secret in theatre circles. He was discreet and passed himself off as “a confirmed bachelor”. His longtime lover was Samuel Steward who wrote very famous and well-received gay erotica under the moniker Phil Andros. Andros’ books seem tame now, but in their time they were scandalous stuff. Wilder was introduced to Steward by their mutual friend Gertrude Stein who had a correspondence going with both men (and they were all from Oakland/Berkeley).
Wilder had the coolest friends. He hung out with Dorothy Parker, Willa Cather, Harpo Marx, Tallulah Bankhead and Montgomery Clift. Today is Wilder’s 121st birthday; I would like to have been at that party.