This play is called Our Town: 75 years in Grover’s Corners (part I of III)

Jan 27, 2013   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook


Thornton Wilder as the Stage Manager in Our Town, 1938.

Thornton Wilder as the Stage Manager in Our Town, 1938.

Once upon a time in October 1937, Thornton Wilder wrote to his dear friend, Gertrude Stein, “I can no longer conceal from you that I’m writing the most beautiful little play you can imagine… It’s a little play with all the big subjects in it; and it’s a big play with all the little things of life lovingly impressed into it … its third act is based on your ideas, as on great pillars, and whether you know it or not, until further notice, you’re in a deep-knit collaboration already.”

Is he sassy to you?

The collaboration on Our Town went south pretty quickly, as soon as producer and director Jed Harris got involved; Wilder wrote to Stein, “There have been some white-hot flaring fights.”

“As you predicted Jed got the notion that he had written the play and was still writing it.  As long as his suggestions for alterations are on the structure they are often very good; but once they apply to the words they are always bad and sometimes atrocious … The theatre’s a furnace. It’s been one long fight to preserve me [i.e. my] text from the interpolations of Jed Harris, and I’ve only won 50% of the time.”  Referring to the Stage Manager’s interruption of the action to talk to Professor Willard “to sketch in a few details of our past history here,” Wilder laments to Alexander Woollcott, “Jed says those things interrupt the affectionate interest in the family lives before us … But that’s the central intention of the play.”

This tetchy director / playwright collaboration eventually moved Wilder to strip all of Harris’ suggestions from future print editions and to counsel Ernest Hemingway against any ongoing collaboration with the talented but deeply temperamental Harris: “one play at a time.”

The play opened badly in Boston.  Variety described the production as “disappointing… hopelessly slow.  This production will probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent.”  Playbill archivist Louis Botto says, “The original production had a very peculiar history. First of all, it played in Boston and Boston did not like it. They were not accustomed to seeing a play without scenery and a lot of theatregoers walked out on it.”

A few days before the Broadway opening, Wilder asked a colleague if he had disgraced himself by writing it, whether the emotions were “too outspoken and common.”

The play, under Harris’ direction, opened on Broadway on February 4, 1938, and has been almost continually in production ever since.  Wilder won the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes for writing it.

It’s no secret that playwrights and directors sometimes clash or that the clashes can feel personal as well as professional.  It’s no secret that despite our gamest faces, bad reviews can fill us with self-doubt.  But I share this story of Our Town’s uncertain and unhappy beginnings because its ensuing success has obscured this poignant aspect of its history. While we often take Our Town very much for granted, the original audiences in Boston didn’t know how to process what they were seeing because it was so foreign to their experience as theatregoers.  As a member of a community which strives to illuminate and to honor playwrights’ work, I also found it telling that the playwright felt tremendously misunderstood by the first director to approach his work; Harris thought the play was about the Webbs and the Gibbs more than it was about the larger ideas embedded within the text.  Finally, it’s just curious and wonderful that the contentious development process worked; what had failed to grow in Princeton or Boston began to flourish when it landed in New York.

As Our Town’s 75th anniversary nears (just imagine the parade that Editor Webb might organize in Grover’s Corners for the occasion), and as I begin rehearsals for my own production of the play at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, I have spoken with several directors about their indirect and hopefully less contentious collaborations with Thornton Wilder, their production experiences, understanding of the play and why we cannot seem to stop staging it.

I will share those conversations in part II and part III of this post.

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