Our Town

Thornton Wilder wrote the play Our Town in 1938 and it won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

One distinguishing feature of the play is the minimal use of scenery and props. Only a couple of tables and ladders appear on stage at certain points. Actors mime cooking, eating, etc. According to Wikipedia, Wilder said, “I tried to restore significance to the small details of life by removing the scenery. The spectator through lending his imagination to the action restages it inside his own head.”

Another distinguishing feature is the Stage Manager. He’s the main character in the play and directs the action of everything else, but also speaks directly to the audience. He calls in a couple of experts for information and explains some of the things going on. He also plays a couple of parts, like the preacher officiating at a wedding.

The play takes place in the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, in 1901. The newspaper editor says it’s a “Very ordinary town if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller. But our young people here seem to like it well enough. Ninety per cent of ’em graduating from high school settle right here to live.”

The story is told in three acts: Act I, Daily Life, introduces the characters and feel of the town. The two main families are the Webbs and the Gibbs. Emily Webb and George Gibbs are neighboring teens who are just starting to notice each other.

Act II, Love and Marriage, takes place three years later on George and Emily’s wedding day.

The title of the final act, Death and Eternity, gives you a hint what happens there nine years later. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that one of the main characters dies. She wants to go back and spend one day of her past life. The other dead advise her not to, but she insists. As she looks at everything with new eyes, she wants everyone to slow down and savor it. “Oh earth,” she says, “you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She asks the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize this life while they live it?—every, every minute?” He answers, “No . . . The saints and poets maybe. They do some” (p. 108).

The ending would almost seem a little depressing, except for the implied message that life goes too fast and we should savor time with loved ones while we have it.

A few observations that particularly stood out to me:

In Act I, the Stage Manager discusses all that the town is putting into a time capsule. He wants to put in a copy of the play because:

Y’know—Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of kings and some copies of wheat contracts . . . and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney,—same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and comedies they wrote for the theatre back then. So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone . . . so—people a thousand years from now . . .This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying (p. 33).

Of the two mothers in the main characters:

I don’t have to point out to the women in my audience that those ladies they see before them, both of those ladies cooked three meals a day—one of ’em for twenty years, the other for forty—and no summer vacation. They brought up two children a piece, washed, cleaned the house,—and never a nervous breakdown (p. 49).

Before the wedding, encouraging people to remember their twenties, the Stage Manager says:

You know how it is: you’re twenty-one or twenty-two and you make some decisions, then whisssh! you’re seventy: you’ve been a lawyer for fifty years, and that white-haired lady at your side has eaten over fifty thousand meals with you. How do such things begin? (p. 62).

Ironically, one of the dead says of the living, “They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?” (p. 96).

At the cemetery:

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . .everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being (pp. 87-88).

Reminds me of Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NKJV): “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”

I’ve never seen the play. I read the library book rather than listening to a performance because I wanted to read the stage directions. The play has been filmed a number of times, and some versions are on YouTube. Here’s a scene from a 1977 production with Robby Benson as George:

Have you ever read or seen Our Town? What did you think?

I counting this book for the classic play category of the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

King Lear

Shakespeare’s King Lear has decided he’s old enough to “shake all cares and business from our age, Conferring them on younger strengths, while we Unburdened crawl toward death.” Retirement was not prevalent in those days, though—especially not for kings. And though Lear speaks of crawling towards death, he’s still vigorous enough to want to retain his title, a certain amount of power and authority, and 100 knights. So his first mistake in the play is trying to slough off responsibilities he should have maintained.

Lear’s second mistake is pitting his daughters against one another to appeal to his vanity. He wants to hear how much they love him, and he’ll divide up his kingdom proportionately according to their answers. Daughters Regan and Goneril lay the flattery on pretty thickly. But Cordelia, his youngest and favorite, refuses to play along though she loves him (and will later prove to be the only one of his children who truly does).

So Lear banishes Cordelia. Kent, one of his most trusted advisors, tries to talk sense into the king and is banished as well.

Regan and Goneril then scheme with their husbands to crowd Lear and and take over fully.

A subplot involves Gloucester, a lord with one legitimate and one illegitimate son. Not only is Gloucester immoral, he makes lecherous jokes about his illegitimate son’s mother right in front of the son. The illegitimate one, Edmund, resents his position and treatment and makes up a story that his brother, Edgar, is plotting against their father. Gloucester shows a lack of wisdom and discernment by believing Edmund outright without checking on the facts.

So there are parallels in both families with good kids vs. bad kids, power struggles, old men acting foolishly, younger people acting treacherously.

King Lear is a tragedy, so most of the characters do not fare well by the end. Some exhibit unspeakable cruelty. But a few—Cordelia, Kent, Edgar, a couple of servants—show kindness and compassion even though they are the most wronged.

One of the play’s themes is seeing clearly. When Kent stands up to Lear, he encourages him to “See better, Lear.” Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out in what many consider one of the most violent scenes in play history. It’s only after losing his physical sight that he begins to see the truth about himself and his sons. It’s only after Lear is turned out that he begins to understand he was foolish.

There are a number of other themes throughout the play: power, generational conflicts, loyalty, forgiveness, justice.

I listened to an audiobook version called SmartPass Plus Audio Education Study Guide to King Lear. It seems to be geared for high school students. A Passmaster gives an introduction, takes a “student” back to Shakespeare day and discusses aspects about him, the times, the Globe Theatre. Then the Passmaster provides commentary and explanation all throughout the play. I admit it got a bit tedious having the dialogue interrupted every few lines. But I am so glad I listened to this version. The acting was excellent. I got much more from hearing the tones and inflections than I would have just from reading. And the commentary did provide valuable insight. Not only did the Passmaster explain what was going on in the play, she couched some of the activity and dialogue in the times, explained the difference between what words meant then vs. now, etc.

In some ways the introductory material in the audio version gave me more than I needed to know to understand the play. But I did enjoy the information about the Globe Theatre. It appeared round and had a thatched roof around the outside. The middle was open to the sky, and the cheaper tickets allowed people to stand in the middle, under the open roof. More expensive seats were in tiers under the thatch roof.

A classic play was one of the categories for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge. After considering a couple of options, I decided to listen to King Lear. My alma mater used to put on one or two Shakespeare plays a year, and Lear was one of my favorites. So I really enjoyed hearing it again.

I knew that Shakespeare could be bawdy in places. My school had sanitized their productions, but this version does not. I wouldn’t have caught some of crudity without the Passmaster explaining what some terms meant then.

But overall, this was an excellent production of a great play. It has so many layers, I am still thinking about them days later.

Have you read or seen or listened to King Lear? What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)