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.
That's what the Stage Manager says in Our Town. However, the Stage Manager is not really a stage manager but rather the main character of Thorton Wilder's play, written and produced in 1938, and regarded now to be perhaps the greatest American play ever written.
I know the play, personally, as I was privileged to have played the role of Stage Manager. In full disclosure, I must tell you I was a sophomore in high school when I played this role of a lifetime. Many notables wise in years and experience far beyond my sophomoric musings have been cast as the Stage Manager, including Frank Sinatra, Henry Fonda, and Paul Newman. After the production opened the doors to include females, actresses such as Helen Hunt have added to the reflective, deep role of Stage Manager.
So what is the play, Our Town, about and why should it be of any significance for us, almost 100 years after it was published? Thornton chose as a setting a small fictional town, Grover's Corner, New Hampshire, sometime between 1901-1913. And the reason it might be of interest to us is because the play opens up life's profound themes not only of death and life itself but also of goodness and badness, hope and despair, the exciting urgings of youth and the deeper pathos of age, love and loss. We are privileged to see these emotions passing through the lives of individuals like you and me, awakening us once more to what has been and what might've been if only ... .
Consider the characters. There is, of course, the Stage Manager who observes the people of Grover's Corner as they pass across the stage, revealing the daily affairs of life in their small town where everybody knows everybody, where gossip reveals the good things and the bad. There are scenes in the play where the Stage Manager stops the action, reveals more about he characters and even asks the audience to describe what they are seeing. Of course, all the actions, the conversations, and the reflections on what is taking place—all of this leads us deeper into the hearts and minds not only of the people of Grover's Corner, but within us as well.
In other words, Grover's Corner exists not only in Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning play but also in the archetypal depths of our existence. I mean by archetypal depths those universal experiences of thought, emotion, and action rooted in the very depths of our being. Across all boundaries of culture, race, religion, and gender, each us exists within the worlds of work, play, community, and spirituality of some kind. Think about the movies you have seen, art you have reflected on, music you have heard, people and places you have visited, moments when you felt suspended in awe. Without those moments, life would be banal, meaningless, maybe unendurable.
However, these archetypal moments in work, or play, social life or spirituality—each of these moments hold the potential for comedy or tragedy. The people in Our Town reveal our "ups and down," "ins and outs," "loves and losses." This was Thornton Wilder's genius bringing to life these dear heroic, sad and funny characters in which we see ourselves.
Consider the tragedy, for example, of Simon Stimson, the choir director and town drunk in Grover's Corner. Everyone knows Simon and gossips about him but does nothing to help the poor man. Maybe he is simply too repulsive. His attitude does not help matters when he says,
That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up
and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste
time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one's
self-centered passion or another.
Where would you locate Simon's tragedy in the four quadrants of work, play, community and spirituality? Was it his work? Was it an early traumatic experience in which someone hurt him deeply, so deeply he never recovered? Life eventually becomes too hard for him, only "ignorance and blindness," and he hangs himself in his attic.
Simon's life left him with a wound so different from the life of Emily Webb. Her father publishes Grover's Corner's Sentinel, appears to be well-informed, and supports Mrs. Webb as they make plans for Emily's wedding to George Gibbs, the high school star basketball player who gives up going to play for the local state agricultural college. He seems genuinely to love Emily and looks forward to their future life where they will rear their children in Grover's Corner.
As the play progresses, we find that George and Emily do indeed marry but she dies young in childbirth. Then in one of the most moving scenes, Emily returns in her state as one of the dead who wishes to visit her old home. She chooses the non-material form of her 12th birthday and is surprised to observe both the familiarity of her old home but also at the same time to learn of all that has happened since she died. More moving and meaningful, however, is her awareness of how precious, fleeting, and important human existence is. Unlike Simon for whom life is a tragedy, Emily claims life as a transient treasure to be affirmed and lived fully. She says:
Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen
years have gone by. I'm dead. You're a grandmother, Mama! Wally's dead, too.
His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible
about it—don't you remember? But, just for a moment now we're all together.
Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's really look at one another!...I can't.
I can't go on. It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't
realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back -- up the
hill -- to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye to clocks ticking....
and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot
baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for
anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live
it -- every, every minute?
I will pause here with Emily's question: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"