“Our Town”, by Thornton Wilder, written in 1938, was first performed at the McCarter theatre, New Jersey, on the 22nd of January1938. It is an example of meta theatre, and chronicles the lives of ordinary, everyday people, during their ordinary, everyday lives. The story is based in Grovers Corners, a small town in New Hampshire, set at the turn of the century.
The play involves three main acts, each focussed upon a different aspect of life.
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Set in 1901, the first act simply discusses the passing of an uneventful day in the town. We are exposed to all the characters, particularly two teenage characters, Emily Webb, and George Gibbs.
The second act focuses upon love and marriage, and takes place in 1904, the day of Emily and Georges wedding. We are exposed to all the tremulous events of marriage, yet the scene ends happily.
The final act, set in 1913 involves the funeral of Emily Webb. After her death Emily chooses to return to her past, selecting her 12th birthday. Emily is soon returns to the cemetery, finding the whole experience saddening, as she realises the waste her life has been, taking everything for granted, not cherishing the smallest of treasures. Emily accepts death.
Throughout this seemingly simple plot Wilder illustrates the relationship of the individual to the vastness of the universe, in fact, it is the simplicity of the plot that allows this topic to be addressed.
I have been offered the position of a director of this play, and will further discuss my methods, adhering carefully to those suggested by Wilder.
Thornton Wilder once referred to “Our Town” as “an effort to find the dignity in the trivial of our daily life, against those preposterous stretches which seem to rob it of any such dignity” This is an important aspect of the play, especially in todays society. Our whole idea of life is entertainment which is short, exciting, and requires no thinking. People prefer a roller coaster ride to smelling the roses.
With the main theme of “Our Town” being focussing upon the small, everyday aspects of life, and celebrating them, it is difficult to guarantee the audience is not bored. I believe the key to ensuring the audience accepts, and comprehends the ideals of the play, by advertising the play as a mental workout. If the play is promoted as deep, touching upon our place in the universe, the audience will prepared to participate, and see the deeper meanings under the apparently almost stereotypical story.
The staging of the play would once again be taken from Wilders original concept. The set would be bare of extravagant props and detail, only small, essential props being used. This would highlight the need of the audience to perceive the value in small things. The staging actually provides a channel for understanding for the audience. A bare stage, but for tables, chairs, of each of the families would allow the audience to develop their own mental set. The stage being merely a blank set with a few tables respects Wilders third fundamental condition for theatre, that theatre is “a world of pretense”.
As the play is based on a “world of pretense”, there is no need for concentration upon sets and costumes, the characters and narrative create the simple reality instead.
The play is continuously interrupted by the Stage Manager, providing background information, and commentary, this reminds us that we are watching a play. Since the audience is constantly reminded of the play, any attempts to imitate a real life situation, by set are futile. As Wilder requested there would be no backstage curtain, a literal bare stage.
The most important aspect of “Our Town” is the way the characters are portrayed, and perceived. To be effective, the characters need to display emotions, and demonstrate their characters in an almost generic manner, each displaying their “type” of person.
Wilders second fundamental condition is that “performances should be addressed to the group mind”, insinuating that audiences play an integral part in a production, acting as both spectators, and audience. The Stage manger reminds them that they are, in fact, watching a play, and by this helps them to participate completely. The Stage Manager is basically the backbone of “Our Town”.