Whose Town?

When Joanne Woodward was picking shows to produce this summer, Our Town was an easy choice. Thornton Wilder's play about life and death in turn-of-the-century Grover's Corners, N.H., is one of the most popular works in American theater. What's more, Woodward's husband wanted to play the central, narrating role of the Stage Manager -- no small consideration when he's Paul Newman. Most importantly, Wilder's play seemed uniquely relevant. "The September 11 tragedy forced us all to look at the world in a different way," Woodward stated this spring. It "reminds us all of the importance of living every moment." After a standing-room-only run at Woodward's Westport Country Theater in Connecticut, the production opened Dec. 4 on Broadway, where it has nearly sold out again.

The carpe-diem message of Our Town is indeed timely in these uncertain days, but it's hardly new to find it so. When the play premiered in 1938, a New York critic cited its appeal in "our present turmoil." Its relevance has been extolled during and after every crisis since. It's easy to imagine, centuries hence, some artistic director solemnly declaring Our Town timely again because the Alpha Centaurians are on the warpath.

Wilder's play doesn't just leave audiences with a renewed sense of what he called "Significance in the trivial Acts of Life," however. Our Town isn't, after all, the blandly life-affirming Tuesdays with Morrie; it generates another response in audiences -- a sensation keenly felt and frequently noted though rarely considered at length. In this reaction lies the true relevance of Wilder's play today.

Though Grover's Corners is grounded in the way New England towns worked at the turn of the century (and, to a certain extent, when Wilder was writing in the late 1930s), it is more mythical than historical. The play shows townsfolk proceeding through their daily routines, their marriages and their afterlives without ever becoming fully drawn individuals. Even the leading characters, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, are types: They remain indistinct enough in their courtship and during her premature death -- the play's central story -- to be almost anyone. For all the textbook information Wilder supplies about the town -- longitude and latitude, population, names of noteworthy residents -- we never get a complete picture of it. Donald Haberman's scholarly study of Wilder's work quotes the author as saying the play "ceased to be parochial by dint of using a dramatic method -- the absence of scenery which intimates the universe."

This mix of history and myth, truth and ideal, gives Wilder's play its emotional punch. It also makes us feel no small affection for the town. Audiences invariably leave the play awash in nostalgia for Grover's Corners and the lives lived there. Critics who like the play praise Wilder for vividly evoking a bygone way of life. (Because he set the play almost 40 years before it opened, this has been true since its premiere.) Willa Cather told Wilder that Our Town made her expatriate friends "weep with homesickness."

There's plenty to like about Grover's Corners -- its safety, its sense of community. Look more closely, however, and the nostalgia begins to seem misplaced. No matter how friendly and folksy the Stage Manager may sound, the town he describes is distasteful.

Most of the people in the story come from old families: The Stage Manager says the oldest graves in the cemetery bear the same names as the people living there now. Eighty-five percent of the town is Protestant. "Polish Town" and the Catholic Church are on the other side of the tracks.

The town is parochial: Mr. Gibbs is afraid that if he sees Europe he'll be discontented with Grover's Corners, and Professor Willard says the town is on some of the oldest land in the world, which makes them "very proud." They take a chilly attitude toward the intellect. After Joe Crowell goes to college only to die in World War I, the Stage Manager says, "All that education for nothing." George's mother bans books from her table -- apparently she'd rather her children be healthy than well-read. They keep jobs in the family: George inherits his uncle's farm, and Si Crowell takes over his brother's paper route. "On the whole," says the Stage Manager, "things don't change much around here."

All the women are housewives. A girl says her favorite thing is money. There is little art or culture. There's one truly troubled person in the town, and he hangs himself, alone.

Why should any American feel nostalgic about this?

Thornton Wilder didn't intend to write a brief on behalf of this lifestyle. In fact, though he was more interested in existential than social commentary, he does offer a critique of the town. In Act 3, the story moves to the town cemetery, where departed characters reflect on life. Simon Stimson, the suicide and town drunk, angrily declares that to live in Grover's Corners was "to move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those ... of those about you." At the play's climax, Emily Webb has an epiphany that makes a somewhat milder critique.

"Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you," she says. If everyone felt this way, the spiritual lives of the townsfolk would presumably improve; the town's grievous social flaws would remain.

Over the years, Simon and Emily's complaints have done little to dampen audience affection for Grover's Corners. When Newman and company take the Broadway stage, nostalgia may reach an all-time high. Considering what New York has been through lately, what Broadway theatergoer doesn't pine for someplace like Grover's Corners? As Woodward said, the play recalls "a simpler, more innocent time." It's that reaction, not the play's gospel, that makes Our Town so relevant now.

When the desire to wax nostalgic about Grover's Corners is strongest, it is most important that we resist it. The town may be semi-mythical, but affection for the retrograde values it embodies can have real, adverse consequences on our public policy and our way of life. Not everyone would see them as adverse, of course. Conservatives and people in what Trent Lott calls the "meat of the country" are more sanguine about bending society to look like Grover's Corners than liberals and assorted renegades in the "bread." If you happen to be among the latter, you might draw the contrast another way.

Unlike the people of Grover's Corners, Americans do not live today in a closed or homogeneous society; despite the dangers this raises, post-9-11, most would not have it otherwise. By and large, this is not a society of old families with old money -- at least not yet. The opposition to Bush's regressive tax cuts and abhorrent repeal of the estate tax suggests many would like to prevent it from becoming one. Today nepotism looks like no way to run a town, let alone a government, which is why the administration draws fire for its staffing policy, the one area where it encourages family planning. These positions are derived from principles of equality and tolerance upon which the country was founded -- principles noticeably absent from life in Grover's Corners.

"Yes, I'm crazy about America," Wilder wrote to Gertrude Stein, a close friend and important influence, a few years before Our Town premiered. Its new Broadway revival is welcome not least because it allows us to reassert the ways in which our society has advanced beyond the one depicted in the play. In so doing, we may supply evidence for something else Wilder told Stein: "I live in the best country on Earth."