“They Don’t Understand, Do They?”

Our TownI’m a freak. I got Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Two Historic Productions on Two DVD. The two productions they are referring to are the 1977 production starring Hal Holbrook and the 1989 production starring Spalding Gray. I’d seen each of them before at the time they were first released. And they didn’t affect me one way or the other. I had never thought much of Our Town. Yesterday, I decided to, in one setting, watch the two productions and compare them.

I was destroyed. I cried buckets during the 1977 production, so I thought I would be well steeled for the 1989 production. Nope. I cried so much in the third act of this production, I had to change my pants; the tears were pouring off my face onto my lap.

Both productions are really good. The acting is amazing. I prefer the way the 1989 production was staged, which was traditional, as a play. The 1977 production was staged as a TV drama and uses some special effects that look dated, but wouldn’t have worked for me at time. But the biggest difference is in the performances of Holbrook and Gray as the stage manager. Frankly, Gray is a little hard to take. It isn’t that he doesn’t do a good job. However, as a performance artist, he hauls around a lot of baggage. So when, as the stage manager, he says, “Nice town, y’know what I mean?” I couldn’t help but think that he meant something entirely different from Hal Holbrook, when he said it. Gray didn’t say the line sarcastically, but I heard it that way. As a result, I spent the first act trying to figure out what his take was on the character. It was only in the second act that I realized he had no modern “take” on the part; he was doing it straight.

Another important difference in the productions is the part of Emily. In the 1977 production, Glynnis O’Connor plays the part; in 1989, it is Penelope Ann Miller. I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that Emily is dead throughout the third act. (Everyone had to read this play in high school, right?) And the part can be played tight (O’Connor) or broad (Miller). I prefer broad. If I’m going to be sobbing throughout the third act, I would prefer some company. Miller cried almost as much as I did. Check her out:

When I was young, I never really got Our Town. Despite the fact that this play is done all the time by school children[1], it really isn’t one meant for children to see. The play is very clever. It is about the inexorable march of time. It is about the time from 1901 to 1913, but told from the perspective of 1938. Children do not see the world from that perspective—they cannot. It is only old people, like me, who see the world largely in the past tense. Our Town presents us with two acts about small town life, just for the purpose of showing us a third act that tells us we can only ever appreciate the past by understanding that we didn’t appreciate it in the present. Emily asks the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” It is not an ironic question, although I wonder whether it should be; after all, the dead seem to be committing the same error.

You could do worse than spend three and a half hours watching these productions back to back. In fact, you probably will. And that seems to have been Wilder’s point. Although I think he would have suggested that whatever you do, you should do it with someone you love.[2]


[1] I don’t know if it is still true, but until about 30 years ago, Our Town had been performed somewhere in the United States every day since its premiere in 1938. This is largely because the play doesn’t need much in terms of sets or costumes. Of course, the same can be said for Six Characters in Search of an Author, a more brilliant but less affecting play.

[2] Fifteen years after Our Town, Samuel Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s work seems so different from Wilder’s, but the third act of Our Town certainly anticipates a lot of what Beckett went on to do. This is not so much true of Godot but of Endgame and Play and, perhaps most of all, Happy Days.

16 thoughts on ““They Don’t Understand, Do They?”

  1. The 1989 version was a beautiful production. I saw it on Broadway, and it seems I may have caught just the brief window after Helen Hunt took over as Emily from Penelope Ann Miller but before Spalding Gray was replaced by Don Ameche. As I recall, she Hunt played it more restrained than Miller – which actually works better for me. Anyway, like you, I was devastated … out in public, with friends, just spouting tears.
    What you say about Spalding Gray is interesting. I read that he was criticized for the exact line you mention and that for the rest of the run it made him self-conscious about his delivery of that line. I saw him, as I say, near the end of his run, and the line did not stand out in any way for me at that performance.
    I have only seen a brief clip of the 1977 production but am much more inclined to watch it now, based on your comments.

  2. @Richard – Regarding Gray, I think he discussed that in one of his later monologues. I remember him talking about a little boy throwing up on stage. It is weird to watch him do the part. It isn’t at all clear that he quite knows what he’s going for. In the end, as I said, I think he intends to do it straight. But he’s always hard to get a handle on.

    I do recommend seeing the 1977 version. It is very good. In in sense Holbrook will always be the stage manager. I think he is exactly what Thornton Wilder had in mind.

    BTW: I love this kind of DVD collection: it is art, technique, and history all at the same time.

  3. Never seen either production, a live version, or read the play. It isn’t something seen often in my area at high schools any more sadly.

    • It’s a curious play. It’s definitely part of the theatrical revolution along with plays like Six Characters in Search of an Author. At the same time, it is so homey. It’s hard for me to know what Thornton Wilder was really going for. I think he wasn’t certain himself. Ultimately, I think he was an old softy. But Our Town is a play that is very much aware of WWI, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism in Europe. And it is ultimately a highly cynical play. It says that we can only appreciate life in retrospect. I recommend seeing either of those productions, but most especially the 1989 version.

      • Wilder was also gay and closeted. So part of the point of the play is “don’t wait for tomorrow to have your life, live it now if you can.” Willa Cather is much the same.

        I can’t bear “Our Town.” It’s too sad. Up to a point, I like material which is challenging. Past that point, and holy shit does Wilder go past it in that third act, my response is “I know consciousness sucks ass! Stop already!”

        Amazing work, though. It’s like “The Scream” filtered through “Little House On The Prairie.”

        • Ha! Good description. Although in truth, the play is depressing from beginning to end. It starts by talking about the paper boy and how he would graduate at the top of his class at MIT. He was going to be a great engineer. And then he was killed in WWI. “All that education, for nothing.” It really is the most self-conscious of plays. That’s a good description of the theme of the play, “All that [whatever], for nothing.” It’s like the Woody Allen line, “The trombones play in a minor key to suggest that soon the refreshments will run out and everybody will be dead.” Wilder doesn’t let you ever forget everyone is going to die. But to be honest, watching it last night, I found myself confused. A great deal of the time the living really do understand how precious life is. Look at how many people are transfixed by the moon and for how long. And then the dead squabble among themselves. I really don’t think that Wilder knew what he was on about. Ultimately, Waiting for Godot is a far more uplifting play about the same existential issues.

          • Yeah, but not knowing what you’re exactly trying for and hitting on structure gold is better than most of us will ever accomplish. I mean, you can criticize Dickens, and I do — I can’t stand him — but “A Christmas Carol” is far more emotionally effective than anything in the Bible. Wilder nailed it.

            • I agree. I think it is critical for a writer to not be completely clear what they are doing. I certainly don’t think that the greatest works are about anything in particular. That’s why they continue to please. Our Town is different for me every time I see it. And saying that it is not as good as Godot is not saying much, because it might well be the greatest play ever written.

          • If someone hands you one so they can count them later, yes. Of course you might be so stubborn you insist on using your sleeves.

  4. I saw a production several years ago at the Barrow St. theatre in Greenwich Village, with Michael Shannon as the SM. Fairly typical bare staging, although they substituted chairs on top of tables for the ladders, and the space was set up with audience 3/4 round and many seats on the floor right next to the acting space (Mrs. Gibbs was preparing breakfast practically in my lap). Mostly pretty conventional… until Act 3, when Emily returns to her house, at which point they pulled back the curtains on an upstage area to reveal a completely naturalistic turn-of-the-century kitchen scene, with working stove — the audience could hear the bacon sizzle and then smell it cooking moments later. Extraordinarily effective.

    • What a great idea! I was afraid you were going to say that they did the 1940 filmed ending.

      I don’t think the bare sets are really that important to the play. What’s most effective is the SM interrupting scenes just as they are heating up, “Okay, we’ve seen enough; thank you.” But I do think that sets are overdone generally. That’s one of the reasons I have no interest in Broadway productions. In a world of film, theater shouldn’t try to compete on the same level. Of course, from looking at regional theater, I would have to say that theater is more vibrant than it has ever been. Off-Broadway is an interesting hybrid where they have enough money to do interesting things at the same time they aren’t so beholden to investors that they won’t dare do anything interesting.

      Speaking of bacon sizzling, I’m not sure how I feel about the brilliant sound effects in the 1989 production. It’s incredibly effective. But necessary? I don’t know.

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