Friday, July 1, 2016

Friday BookReview: The sneakily simple play that may be America's greatest

(first published December 5, 2014)

"Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there. Joe was awful bright -- graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin' to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France. -- All that education for nothing."                                                                                    (Stage Manager addressing the audience)


Thornton Wilder wrote 'Our Town' between the World Wars. Set in a small New Hampshire town, the play opens in the spring of 1901. (Hal Holbrook gave one of the best portrayals of the Stage Manager.)

What is it about? As Emily, one of the main characters, puts it: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? -- every, every minute?"          


Mr. Wilder, son of a diplomat (and strong Christian), grew up in China. He was an artillery corporal in the First World War; and rose to lieutenant colonel doing intelligence work in WWII.  

This 7-minute video will give you a better idea of what animates the heart of the play.

Arthur Ballet, longtime professor at the University of Minnesota, contended that 'Our Town' was suffused with elements of Greek tragedy.
(Taking his lecture course on the history of theater, I would exit each session walking on air. He regularly offered up a brief panegyric on the hidden depths of Wilder's classic.)

This short clip of the closing scene reveals why the actress Penelope Ann Miller is considered the finest interpreter of Emily.

"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."                                                                                               (Stage Manager)

   [sketches by David Tripp]


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