“Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante’s Purgatory). It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.”
So wrote Thornton Wilder about his play that forever altered American theatre. Sparse and simple, eschewing dramatic staging or props, Our Town captured what Walker Percy would call “the holiness of the ordinary.” This year marks the Pulitzer Prize winning classic’s 75th anniversary and it is being staged at regional theatres throughout the country.
As serious Catholics try to sort through the dramatic cultural changes occurring in our nation today, it is worth returning briefly to Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, the lower middle class New England town Wilder created generations ago. His three acts, titled “Daily Life,” “Marriage,” and “Death” see the “mind of God” at work in each.
Set prior to World War I, the play follows the courtship, proposal and wedding of young neighbors Emily Webb and George Gibbs (as well as Emily’s eventual death). A “Stage Manager” narrates and interacts with the characters throughout. The stage manager’s dialogue is spoken in a folksy and unpretentious small town style. Although Wilder was not Catholic, many of the stage manager’s lines offer an intimately Catholic understanding of marriage, tying the institution to centuries of tradition and raising it to more than a matter between two mere individuals alone. He ponders before the second act’s wedding begins:
Y’see, some churches say that marriage is a sacrament. I don’t quite know what that means, but I can guess. Like Mrs. Gibbs said a few minutes ago. People were made to live two-by-two….
The real hero of this scene isn’t on the stage at all, and you know who that is….
And don’t forget all the other witnesses at this wedding—the ancestors. Millions of them. Most of them set out to live two-by-two, also. Millions of them.
When George Gibbs tells his future father-in-law, “I wish a fellow could get married without all that marching up and down” the father-in law replies:
Every man that’s ever lived has felt that way about it, George; but it hasn’t been any use. It’s the women folk who’ve built up weddings, my boy. For a while now the women have it all their own. A man looks pretty small at a wedding, George. All those good women standing shoulder to shoulder making sure that the knot’s tied in a mighty public way.
Who out there today hasn’t known a woman who secretly pines for that public wedding, all the while losing critical childbearing years and the chance to find authentic love by accepting co-habitation instead? Even the way George Gibbs woos Emily, through the old-fashioned date at an ice cream parlor, speaks to a quiet adoration that women no longer receive and men no longer know, or are sure they have the right, to offer.
Wilder wrote the play just as war and chaos were about to engulf the world. Communism and fascism were spreading across the globe. Many in America were agitating for communist ideas at home. In his play, Wilder charmingly and amusingly eschews all such utopian or leftist pretensions. He understood a certain working class common sense that stubbornly persisted in America.
When a belligerent audience member in the back of the stage’s imaginary “auditorium” asks “Is there no one in town aware of social injustice and industrial inequality” and demands “why don’t they do something about it,” Emily’s father, Mr. Webb, replies:
Well, I dunno…. I guess we’re all hunting like everybody for a way the diligent and sensible can rise to the top and the lazy and quarrelsome can sink to the bottom. But it ain’t easy to find. Meanwhile, we do all we can to help those that can’t help themselves and those that can we leave alone. —Are there any other questions?
We heard this sensibility in our grandparents and great aunts and uncles decades ago. Many did not have the opportunity for college education, but they spoke with a natural good judgment rooted in the virtues.
Sadly, if a contemporary Wilder were to try to write an “Our Town” today, he could no longer set it in a lower middle class American town. As Charles Murray has so tragically chronicled in Coming Apart, the modern-day Emily Webb is more likely to choose to become a mother out-of-wedlock rather than wait hopelessly for a responsible man in her town to adore her, establish himself and accept the adult commitment of marriage. (The idea that a man ought to even adore a woman is itself passé or offensive.) A contemporary Emily might not have the strong and loving presence of a father like Mr. Webb in her life to look to as a model.
Yet this America does still exist in some form. Marriage continues to survive among middle class individuals with a college degree. Countless Americans strive for a culture of life, which is ultimately an embrace of adult responsibility and of love. A fierce tension exists right now in the fight for America’s soul. The fact that there is a fight at all is cause for hope.
We must believe in the possibilities of Grover’s Corners, that its values still exist in enough American hearts and that the truths it expresses can once again triumph regardless of class.
Editor’s note: The lead image above depicts Thornton Wilder as narrator in a 1959 production of Our Town. (Photo credit: William Tague.) The second image is a poster from the 1940 film adaptation.