Is Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” America’s Shakespeare?


Bet I got your attention with that headline. But the argument is not mine, but rather made by Howard Sherman over at The Guardian here.

Here’s what he says:

“It may sound fulsome but I’m prepared to take a leap and suggest that Our Town is very likely on its way to being America’s first Shakespearean play. I’m not speaking of its language or scale, but rather the likelihood that it’s going to remain in the international repertoire for more than a hundred years – and beyond.”

He continues: “Our Town has lasted as one of the most produced US plays in the global modern repertoire. This is not for its statement on the American character or as a flag-waving paean to a simpler time, but because its true concerns transcend the specifics of turn-of-the-20th-century Grover’s Corners, where the play is set. That’s quite surprising for a play with a rather slim plot and no conventional conflict, which alternates between long narrated passages and select scenes of two families in small-town New Hampshire.”

I’ve always argued that the 1938 play has been consistently underrated. Too many low-budget high school productions, too many amateur performers. Thornton Wilder was a sophisticated man, at home in Shanghai and Rome. Gertrude Stein‘s The Making of Americans (1925) and Dante‘s Pugatorio inspired his writing of the play.

More radical than people remember.

An excerpt:

“That’s because the play is about mortality, about the brevity of human life and Wilder’s charge to the audience to appreciate what they have while they have it. It’s not about stoves and walls. For a play that many remember for its sweet romantic scene with two teenagers in Act II, or for the homespun charms that clung to it for so many years, this is a play that starts talking about death in its first few paragraphs, giving way in its third act to a scene of the aftermath of a tragedy from an atypical perspective.

“I spent 18 months conducting more than 100 interviews with theatre artists for a book about the play and it felt like I’d been running an Our Town focus group. Given the conventional wisdom that the play is old hat, I was surprised to find how many of the people I interviewed, in the US and the UK, either had already fallen for its message – or, in roughly equal number, had never previously seen or read the play, yet had formed definite and typically dismissive opinions about it. However, after working on a production, everyone seemed ready to proselytise others into the fold of Our Town.

“For a play as seemingly simple and plotless, there are depths to plumb in how to approach the play. Wilder may have written explicitly about what he wanted audiences to learn but he didn’t provide a precise map of how to get there. The largest role in the play is a narrator called only the Stage Manager, who has no personal story or even identifying details of character. We see mostly minor events in the lives of a few primary people. And yet, if one looks closely, topics like the extermination of indigenous peoples and immigration from eastern Europe are fleetingly recognised in a very homogeneous town, and the march of technology is transforming people’s lives.”

Read the whole thing here. Make your rejoinders in the comments section below.


One Response to “Is Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” America’s Shakespeare?”

  1. Dana Gioia Says:

    “Our Town” has long been my choice for the finest American play. It baffles the serious critic because it is an experimental play that works with all audiences.

    Critics have no conceptual category for a generally popular” experimental” work. Experimental art is supposed to speak only to an elite coterie. Consequently, Wilder’s boldly original play has been consistently underrated. It survives not in the academic canon but in actual performances.

    There is another way in which Wilder’s play resembles Shakespeare. It works in both professional and amateur productions. It even works with a cast of children.

    If one tries to produce Ibsen or Chekhov, O’Neill or Wilson with kids, these realistic dramas collapse. Oddly, young actors doing Shakespeare or Wilder are often very effective. The action is sufficiently stylized that the kids become plausible. Young performers even adds the frisson of innocence and vulnerability.

    I have seen “Our Town” on Broadway, in regional theater, and at a middle school. The play never fails to enchant, move, and surprise the audience.

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