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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Essay on Performance History of Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Essay on Performance History of Our Town by Thornton Wilder

            A three-act play written in the 1930’s by playwright Thornton Wilder, Our Town continues to be one of the most popularly staged American plays. The play owes much of its popularity to its simplicity and yet seemingly accurate depiction of the everyday mundane life of ordinary people, not just in America but probably around the globe. 

            The play is set in the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire (a fictional town) initially in the year 1901. However as the play progresses, the date switches back and forth to the “narrator’s” current timeline – 1930. Although the setting of the play is depicted to be in America, many would agree on the universality of the play’s context. Due to its minimalistic stage design and the absence of any specific landmarks that would definitely pinpoint a certain location, the themes of the play may be easily applied to everyone’s situation anywhere across the globe. 

            Because the play was written during a time when “political troubles” (specifically World War II) were threatening the balance of everyday life, its theme called for people to appreciate the “normality” and the little details of everyday life. These seemingly unimportant details may later on become the most important aspect of human life because they are the most fragile part of living, as they may be shattered and lost any moment. 

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The play became especially more socially relevant at the time it was staged in 1938 due to international tension escalating rapidly and people everywhere feared the uncertainty that it brought.

Aside from reminding the audience about the importance of appreciating the simple pleasures in life, the play also reminds the audience that no community can ever be detached from the bigger picture – the outside world. As depicted in the play, the residents of the small quiet town are very much aware of the world around them. Trains come and go from neighbouring towns and at one part, a particular brand of car (from a famous car manufacturer) started to replace the horses people used for transportation, thus depicting that the outside world still very much influences the small town. On a micro-level perspective, people are reminded that they cannot really isolate themselves from other human beings. The lives of the characters within the small community are very much intertwined with one another and the play has emphasized how one person’s action, no matter how small, affects the lives of others around them.  

Performance History

            Our Town was first staged at the McCarter theatre in Princeton, New Jersey in January 1938. Although well-received by the public, it was reviewed as “disappointing” by critics. It was then opened the following month in New York where the reception was much warmer. 

            The play has had several Broadway revivals since then. Among the most noted revivals of the play was the one staged in 1969 wherein Harry Fonda starred as Stage Manager. It was also in this year that noted theatre critic Walter Kerr commented on the “universality” of the play. 

In 1976, an untraditional version of the play was staged at the Williamstown Theatre Festival where Geraldine Fitzgerald became the first woman to play the character of the Stage Manager. In 1989, the play was again staged this time with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager.

            In 1940 Sam Wood directed a film version of the play, with Frank Craven performing the role of the Stage Manager. In 1955 a musical version for television was produced, this time with Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager. In 1977, in a production at the Lincoln Center (later broadcast on public television), Hal Holbrook took on the role of the Stage Manager. 

Cited Works

Cummings, M. "Our Town: Thornton Wilder." Free Study Guides for Shakespeare and Other Authors. N.p., 2003. Web. 21 Dec. 2012. < Town>.

"Masterpiece Theatre | American Collection | Our Town | Teacher's Guide." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2012. <>.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. New York, N.Y: Coward-McCann in cooperation with S. French, 2003. Print.

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