The birth and life of an American classic: ‘Our Town’

From The Pulitzer Prizes:

Shortly after 8 p.m. on January 22, 1938, the veteran actor Frank Craven appeared on stage at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., and began to speak. “This play is called ‘Our Town,’” he said. “It was written by Thornton Wilder.” It was the first time the character called the Stage Manager had delivered these lines before an audience, the first time Wilder’s classic play about life, love and death in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, had ever been performed publicly.

For some audience members, the show’s lack of scenery and episodic narrative may have seemed odd or puzzling. But, in time, the observations and emotional impact of “Our Town” would be felt and enjoyed by legions of theatergoers around the world. Eventually acknowledged as a classic American drama, it would win Wilder his second Pulitzer Prize, the first of two he received for playwriting. (His first prize was for the novel “The Bridge at San Luis Rey”; his third was for “The Skin of Our Teeth.”) To this day he is the only author who has won Pulitzers for both fiction and drama.

“Our Town’s” significance was not immediately obvious, nor did it have an easy birth. The play’s long journey to Princeton, and the genesis of Wilder’s mythical town, began in 1920, in Rome. Wilder, 23, was a student at the American Academy, studying Italian, Latin and, notably, archaeology.

While visiting a local dig, a first-century tomb, he was struck by the vivid juxtaposition of past and present. In a letter to his parents, cited by Penelope Fitzgerald in her biography of Wilder, he described the formative experience: “… while by candle-light we peered at famous paintings of a family called Aurelius, symbolic representations of their dear children and parents … the street-cars of today rushed by over us. We were clutching at the past to recover the loves and pieties and habits of the Aurelius family, while the same elements were passing above us.”

He quickly realized that, although separated by thousands of years, ancient and present-day people were perhaps not very different at all. That realization, his idea that human lives across centuries are universally conjoined by certain personal moments and milestone events, became a foundation of “Our Town.”

“Our Town’s” unusual form evolved gradually. Its pantomimed actions and leaps in chronology, as well as the Stage Manager who, breaking “the fourth wall,” talks to the audience, may have seemed wildly radical to audiences in 1938. But Wilder had been writing plays that experimented with untraditional and surreal stage techniques for some time, even as he published the novels that established his reputation.

In “The Long Christmas Dinner,” from 1931, a family’s life over 90 years, including its births and deaths, is portrayed in an uninterrupted series of scenes at a single table, an effect later used by Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane.” A stage manager appears in “The Long Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” whose central activity is a car trip depicted without scenery. Most significantly, “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” set on a train, again features a stage manager but also includes a mention of Grover’s Corners (this time in Ohio), and a central character who reflects on her transition from life to death. In “Our Town,” Wilder incorporated all these devices and used them to their fullest, most memorable effect.

While the play sprung completely from Wilder’s creative imagination and aesthetic beliefs, “Our Town’s” creation was aided immeasurably by the catalytic involvement of Jed Harris, a hotshot Broadway producer and director of the era. (His other career credits include the first productions of “The Front Page” and “The Crucible.”) Wilder met Harris by chance in 1927, on a train returning north from Florida; by the end of the trip he was sufficiently impressed to offer the producer his first full-length play — whenever Wilder got around to writing it.

The promise took years and miles to keep: “Our Town” was conceived in successive residencies at New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony (in Peterborough, the model for Grover’s Corners), begun in earnest in 1936, and further refined in a hotel outside Zurich. When two acts were complete, Wilder, true to his word, offered them to Harris in 1937. “I saw it as a director’s dream come true,” said Harris, who wanted the play so urgently that he sequestered Wilder in a house on Long Island until he finished writing the third act.

But as “Our Town’” moved from page to stage, the two men clashed. Harris could be unyielding and cavalier, and Wilder, perhaps uncomfortable with the collaborative nature of commercial theater, became frustrated and angry about cuts and adjustments in his script. As late as the afternoon of opening night in Princeton, a doubtful Wilder wrote and sealed a letter listing many last-minute reservations. “The following elements in the production of ‘Our Town’ are likely to harm and perhaps shipwreck its effectiveness,” he began, striving to have the last word, if only in private.

Despite his concerns, the production was solid. Frank Craven had returned from Hollywood and films to play the Stage Manager, and the cast (which included Craven’s son, John, as George Gibbs) had wept the first time they read through the script. Lighting and sound glitches marred the sold-out premiere. But if Wilder was troubled, he deferred to the audience’s reaction. In a letter to Alexander Wolcott he wrote, “A great packed house in Princeton was deeply absorbed.  Applause interrupted scene after scene. Laughter swept the house.”

First critical reaction to the play was mixed. D.X. Parreno, theater critic for The Princetonian, didn’t “know whether ‘Our Town’ was a great play,” but it was “rich, stimulating, often quite inspired.” The first national review, in Variety, was unabashedly negative and memorably wrongheaded: “It is not only disappointing but hopelessly slow,” it said. “It will probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent.” The reviewer also took a swipe at Jed Harris: “It’s hard to see what the erstwhile wonder boy of Broadway saw in this disjointed, bitter-sweet affair of small town New Hampshire life.”

Some early audiences were equally mystified. After Princeton, the troupe moved to Boston’s Wilbur Theatre for more previews. Due to poor ticket sales Harris pulled the show after five performances. Typical of some responses, Eleanor Roosevelt later said the work “moved and depressed” her “beyond words.”

Yet word of the play’s special power had reached New York ahead of its opening there. In a great risk, Jed Harris invited Brooks Atkinson, theater critic for The New York Times, to a rehearsal, hoping early exposure would give the critic extra time to savor and reflect on the play. The risk paid off. When the play opened on February 4, 1938, Atkinson’s review called it “one of the finest achievements of the current stage,” celebrating Grover’s Corners as “a green corner of the universe.” Atkinson noted that Harris had “about the best script of his career in his hands.”

The Broadway success of “Our Town” launched its trajectory as an American classic. “It’s already broken a house record,” a thrilled Wilder wrote to a friend. “Imagine that! Isn’t it astonishing, and fun, and exhausting?” The 1938 Pulitzer jury unanimously recommended it for the Drama prize, which was conferred on May 2, the first time that the prizes were announced live on the radio.

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Yet the play’s classic status was confirmed far away from Broadway. It was first licensed for amateur production in 1939. “Over the next twenty months,” writes Penelope Fitzgerald, “ ‘Our Town’ was produced in at least 658 communities across the United States and in Hawaii and Canada.”

To this day, it remains one of the most performed plays anywhere. While part of its appeal to theater companies may be economic (no costly scenery), Wilder’s plain-spoken philosophical observations about living and dying and his gently lyrical portrait of young love seem to resonate with audiences across decades, just as the Aurelius family of ancient Rome resonated with him. In its ideal of a common humanity, the play also strikes an understated nationalistic chord, suggesting that small-town America might take its place alongside other “civilizations” in history.

Link to the rest at The Pulitzer Prizes