People have always enjoyed debating “the Greatest” in various categories. During last year’s NFL season, especially in the run-up to and wake of the Super Bowl, scribes and fans pondered quarterback Tom Brady as the G.O.A.T., i.e., the Greatest of All Time.
I disagree, but that’s another column!
For generations, film buffs have argued about the best picture ever made, and the usual nominees are Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, and lately, Vertigo.
The Greatest American novel? Again, there have been several titles mentioned. For my money, it’s Huckleberry Finn, which would certainly win in a sub-category for Most Controversial, as it continues to be banned by ignorant (I’d say idiotic) school districts.
But when it comes to choosing The Great American Play, it’s a much easier pick: Our Town.
Any way you measure it, Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece is a logical selection. It’s probably the most produced script in the nation, with professional, amateur, and scholastic versions mounted every year. It won the Pulitzer Prize and plenty other awards. It’s influenced many other writers. It’s spawned a movie (with a different, twist ending), even satires.
And it premiered right here in New Jersey, at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, in 1938.
Our Town was revolutionary in its style and form. In competing with Hollywood, the Theatre became enamored of ever-more elaborate shows. Wilder thought this was wrong and rendered live performances “evasive.” The art that was once described as “two planks and a passion” had become bloated and emotionally distant. And though it tried, the Theatre could never match the screen for spectacle or realism.
The playwright eliminated sets and most props, relying on a few sticks of furniture and pantomime to evoke actions, forcing audiences to use their imaginations. Wilder created immediacy by making the narrator, called The Stage Manager, appear as if he was an actual employee of the very theatre where the play was being done. He ignored “the 4thWall, speaking directly to those in attendance.
Thus, the paying customers soon felt as if they too lived in the town, called Grover’s Corners.
The play’s theme is also deceptively simple, yet simultaneously profound: that Life is precious, fleeting, fragile and that even the most mundane moment can be fraught with meaning, and priceless value. These are universal principles, so the little New Hampshire berg is a stand-in for any town, during any time in history.
The spine of the plot is the love story of a local couple, the proverbial Boy and Girl Next Door. We meet them as schoolmates, see them grow, court and marry, and then in the 3rdact we watch as Death parts them, keeping the nuptial vow.
Our Town is often thought of as a sentimental, even saccharine script, when in fact it is one of the darkest: the most beautiful, promising young woman in the community dies in childbirth, devastating her survivors. And suddenly, they and the audience realize how much is wasted and taken for granted every 24 hours.
That’s not a corny message, it’s an indictment of mankind, and one that will never lose its currency.
If you’ve never seen a production, please do so. It’s a play that can change your life.