Thornton Wilder’s Our Town Bugs Me

Cora Koop and I attended the production of Our Town at Northern Stage in White River Junction, Vermont this week. Excellent production; top tier directing and acting. If at all possible, see it before its final performance, October 31, 2015. Someday you may be proud to say you saw the first production in the new theater building.

This was the third time I have seen this play since high school and I can see why it is the most produced play in America. In many ways it resembles It’s a Wonderful Life, particularly in the sense that is looks at the whole arc of life and says there is more to life than our day to day activity. But while Our Town surpasses Wonderful Life in literary quality and artistry, I find it oddly disappointing. The Third Act has both touching insight and deplorable blindness.

First, a quick overview. He uses the character of Stage Manager, who breaks the Fourth Wall, to narrate, make commentary, and draw us into the life of Grover’s Corner. In the title, Our Town, Wilder intends for us to include ourselves in the ordinary events. We too grew up as a child, in time created our own home, and live in the shadow of our death to come. Thornton Wilder’s writing simply dazzles me. Honestly, I was captivated from the first word to the last. No wonder this play won the Pulitzer. You must see this play!

But every time I see the third act I come away feeling Wilder didn’t quite get it right. Mind you, by the end my face is wet with tears; I don’t deny it. It is his portrayal of death after life that bugs me.

So, Act 3 features a character who has died. She takes her place in the cemetery, stark rows of folding chairs in which several people sit quietly, like the tombstones they resemble. She is new and is still full of thoughts of her life at home, but for them the fires of life have banked down; their voices have lost all passion. They are detached from earthly life and existing in some kind of suspended time, waiting interminably for something never mentioned. I suppose that is how a cemetery strikes us. After the woman goes back to visit an ordinary day of life, she grieves at how little humans appreciate life as they live it, and disgusted with herself she returns to the hillside resigned to leave behind earthly life.

Now, I do appreciate Wilder’s insights. He has her say,

“It goes by so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”

“Live people don’t understand, do they?….They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?”

Woman: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? –every, every minute?”

Stage Manager: “No.” (Pause) “The saints and the poets maybe, they do some.”

Seriously, it would be madness to be hyper-aware of “every, every minute”. We are out our absolute best when we are self-forgetful in our living and giving, as was George Bailey doing a simple kindness to Violet, whose kiss leaves a mark on his cheek. But Wilder’s point of living with joy and appreciation is well taken.

No, what irritates me is how he portrays the move from life to death. Their growing indifference to life–what is that about? Within a Christian context–the dead are waiting in the cemetery for the resurrection of the body–he portrays a wholly unChristian concept.

If death is such as he portrays it, what point is there to life? Has he given his audience a reason to live better or to have joy in ordinary moments? By this stark death there is no hope, and no meaning to life. It is little better than the existentialist’s “take control of your life and live it to the fullest because it has no meaning otherwise,” and there are no truly joyful disciples of that school. Without hope for something to come, something that makes sense of our lifestory, life is ultimately meaningless. “Enjoy every moment” sounds good, but without hope it can’t be sustained.

Wilder talks around the huge Presence in the room. The good news (gospel) is that Christ burst the wall between life and heaven, so that those who come through Him, the door, continue to live but now fully alive. In Wonderful Life George sees the effect his life has on the community and though it is not a vision of eternity, even that is enough to give him joy and gratitude and with it vitality for the rest of the road. The Christian has even more, for she knows her life began through her Creator, continues through His sovereign over-sight, and will end with her Savior who is her door into eternal life. Christ makes the difference between empty-life-empty-death and a life lived in a meaningful trajectory that goes beyond death into eternal life.

I love this play and I would see it again this week if I could. Wilder tells us we are going to die so all we can do is appreciate life while we can. The gospel of Christ tells us our present life is a dress rehearsal for the next so play it with joy and look forward to our entry into the life that is played out forever.

About lettersfromheartscontent

Mother of six, homeschool teacher, tutor with Classical Conversations, wife to a forester and educator. I tend a perennial garden with a riot of blossoms, ride my bicycle in and out of the watershed, play ocarina and a boom-chick accompaniment when my kids feel like playing contradance music. I love being home, but I love an open road and adventure, too. Classical Conversations' Writers Circle carries my article on some aspect of classical education once a month.
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2 Responses to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town Bugs Me

  1. godsbooklover says:

    Excellent articulation of why this play has always bothered me as well. It IS a beautiful piece of literature (even if a bit dated now), and it does always make me cry…and feel rather let down. It is not a show I have any interest in producing. I am always surprised by the Christians in theater who say it is their favorite play. You really nailed the problem, Ruth. Thanks!

  2. That means a lot coming from you.

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