Tone Poem Tuesday

The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount’in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go,–doesn’t it?

-Stage Manager, Our Town (Act I) 

It seems a little strange to me that at this point in my life, as I’m six months away from turning fifty, that as ubiquitous as it is on amateur and school stages throughout the country, I have only seen the play Our Town produced exactly once.

It was in 1981 or 1982, thereabouts, when I was in fifth grade. The theater club at St. Bonaventure University, where my father was in second year of teaching, put it on, and that year my father was sharing an office with a guy who was very much involved with the theater, and who actually played the Stage Manager part in that production. I remember finding it an odd play at first: There were virtually no props, aside from the costumes. When one of the characters is supposedly in her kitchen making breakfast on May 7, 1901, she was pantomiming things like frying bacon and pouring milk from a pitcher. Later on, two high school sweethearts who live next door to one another are talking through their windows at night; this is done via two step ladders, which are placed side by side. And when the play’s final scene, set in the graveyard, rolls around, there’s just some chairs on stage. No stones, no backdrop other than the backstage curtain.

Ten-year-old me figured this was all because the college theater troupe couldn’t afford props and decided to do the play as best they could. I didn’t realize that this was quite deliberate on the part of playwright Thornton Wilder, who opens the play with the empty theater:

No curtain.

No scenery.

The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light.

Presently the STAGE MANAGER, hat on and pipe in mouth, enters and begins placing a table and three chairs downstage left, and a table and three chairs downstage right. He also places a low bench at the corner of what will be the Webb house, left.

After this, the Stage Manager begins addressing the audience in a monologue that literally introduces the play, starting: “This play is called Our Town.” He proceeds to slowly bring the audience into the scene, through Wilder’s meandering-by-design speech that creates the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Even though he’s just set up the “set” that will be the houses of the two families we primarily follow, our Stage Manager gives a description of the town itself, pointing at things as though they’re really there: Main Street, the railway station, where the Polish neighborhood is, the various churches. Only after a bit of this–which, in the hands of a good actor, is quite engrossing–do we get to seeing actual characters on stage, actually acting like they’re in a play.

But that vacancy of physical props gives the whole thing a dreamy quality, which connected with the Stage Manager’s lengthy meandering monologues about the history of Grover’s Corners and what life there is like, keeps the audience feeling like they’re not witnessing a story so much as inhabiting a few moments in this town’s long life. Wilder knew what he was doing here: all the details he chooses for his town are familiar and somehow distant. Most of us probably think of our towns as having been like this, I suspect: an old town where nothing much happens, where people keep on living, and where no one notable ever really emerges. A few times Wilder presses the Stage Manager’s constant breaking of the “fourth wall” even farther, at one point even enlisting a couple of members of the audience (who are planted actors, obviously) to ask questions about Grover’s Corners (“What kind of culture is there?” and “Is no one in Grover’s Corners aware of social injustice?”)

Now, many years later, I see that Wilder’s metatheatrical approach echoes something that has vexed playwrights not just in his time, but for all time. Even Shakespeare had to grapple with the nature of his stage versus the stories he wanted to tell within it, as we hear in the first speech of the Chorus in Henry V:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

In the end, of course, we start to get a hint of what Wilder is really driving at. Everything in our world is ultimately transitory, and all the remains is time and death. I suppose this is one thing that makes Our Town a staple of high school theater: along with being really cheap to produce, it’s got the kind of big theme that appeals to young people, its main characters actually are young people, and the whole meta-theater thing somehow feels more modern than it actually is (the play is now more than eighty years old). None of which is to suggest that Our Town should not be as common as it is…but its appeal is pretty easy to understand.

All of which brings me to the Tone Poem for today! Our Town has been filmed several times, for television and for the movies, and the 1940 film featured an Americana score by none other than Aaron Copland. Copland would later reduce his score to a ten-minute orchestral suite, which he dedicated to his friend, Leonard Bernstein. It’s a work of gentle sweetness, suggesting in its simple strains just the kind of town that Grover’s Corners is.

Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody’s setting up late and talking.–Yes, it’s clearing up. There are the stars–doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk…or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.

(He winds his watch.)

Hm…eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners.–You get a good rest, too. Good night.

–Stage Manager, Our Town, Act III

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One Response to Tone Poem Tuesday

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    Oh, wow.
    The FOCUS churches of Albany did a production of Our Town in 1984. I had never seen it before, though I've subsequently caught a few videos.
    I was Simon, the strict and often drunk choir director. It had a profound effect on my life, not so much the play but the production.

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