Friday, Jan. 22, 2016
It was on this day in 1938 that Thornton Wilder’s (books by this author) play Our Town was premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Our Town is about the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. In the first act, Emily Webb and George Gibbs are children together; in the second act, they marry; in the third, Emily has died in childbirth, and is looking back from beyond the grave with other dead citizens of Grover’s Corners, and she decides to revisit the happiest day of her life, her 12th birthday.
Wilder had trouble writing the third act, but when he finally found inspiration, it came fast. He was in Zurich, entertaining a friend (and probably lover) named Samuel Steward. Steward wrote later: “He insisted we stay up until dawn to hear the bells of Zurich, as Max Beerbohm has described them. That was in my drinking days and I kept going into every café we passed. My feet were getting so wet and so was I, and I kept hollering for an umbrella. When daylight came I went home to dry out and fell into bed and slept all day, but Thornton went to his hotel and wrote the last act of Our Town, which begins with the graveyard scene with the umbrellas. He confessed later that he had ‘struck a match on me,’ and that the graveyard umbrella scene came from my complaining about my walk in the wet.”
Our Town was revolutionary for its time because Wilder decided not to use any scenery and almost no props. He thought that they got in the way of seeing the play as truly universal, and he wanted his play to be more like the great Greek tragedies. So he got rid of the excess visuals and he added the group of the dead people of Grover’s Corners, who commented much like a Greek chorus.
From Princeton, the play moved to Boston, where it was a flop. The Boston critics gave it poor reviews, it played to half-empty houses, and some audience members walked out, including the wife of the governor of Massachusetts. But two New York theater critics, Brooks Atkinson and Alexander Woollcott, convinced the director and producer to give it another try and bring the show to New York. It did much better there, although some people found it inspiring and others depressing. But Our Town won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it is now estimated that, on average, Our Town is performed at least once every night somewhere in the world.