Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Witnessing the Trauma of Our Town

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Witnessing the Trauma of Our Town

Article excerpt

Beyond Sentimentality

Our Town, by Thornton Wilder (first staged in 1938), has proven to be one of the most popular and enduring American plays ever performed. At the time of this writing, the licensing agency responsible for Our Town reports an incredible fifty independent upcoming productions throughout North America and Europe. (1) Interestingly, and perhaps a bit puzzlingly, the play continues to enjoy widespread success despite the fact that its underlying social model potentially conflicts with the values espoused by a modern, culturally diverse society. Especially problematic by contemporary standards is the play's implicit endorsement of "traditional" values regarding family, sexuality, religion, class, and race. Yet Our Town remains a special favorite. It is particularly popular in community theatres and schools, and it remains an undeniable staple at all levels of production.

Why is this play so popular? What might it do to and for its audiences? One possible explanation for the play's enduring status could be that, despite its problematic politics, it nevertheless expresses important universal truths. (2) The play emphasizes the seemingly common, mundane details of small town life, but it finds in them extraordinary human experiences--birth and death, love and loss, joy and despair--the intensity of which potentially exceed the play's historically determined time and place. From this perspective, Our Town nourishes its audience with a glimpse of profound, even spiritual, transcendence. Of course, another possible explanation for the play's popularity is that it presents its underlying worldview through a seemingly innocent veil of nostalgia, thus naturalizing and nurturing its latent prejudices along with those of its audience. (3) From this second perspective, the supposedly transcendent, universal message of the play appears as an ideologically motivated deception; Our Town is not popular despite its ideological shortcomings but because of them. At best it might be viewed as a kind of quaint, campy blunder, but at worst it functions as an insidious apology for intolerance. These two broad, sweeping assessments do not reflect the full array of nuanced, critical responses to the play, but they are the most plausible explanations an audience might provide itself for its possible reactions. (4) Anyone who doubts this should survey his or her friends and family, asking about their feelings regarding the play. Strong responses will invariably fall into one or the other of these two positions.

Importantly and tellingly, though these two seemingly opposing explanations differ radically in their understanding of how the play engages its audience, they agree that the play offers a central, sentimentally romantic message. Their dispute arises because the latter reads unintended irony where the former accepts innocent sincerity. This does not mean the two interpretations cancel each other out, nor does it mean that they are equally correct (or incorrect). But it does mean that, even while being demonstrably valid, neither interpretation can simply invalidate the other. Each option ensures the other is left open for the audience, if only as an abstract possibility. Thus the audience, along with the critic, is caught in a conundrum. A witness to the play cannot be certain how he or she is positioned by its sentimental message, nor can he or she fully determine the meaning of any emotional responses to it: one might always be the dupe of one's limited reading. In the end, the indeterminacy of the play itself potentially becomes a kind of paradoxically consistent message. Whether the sentimentality of the play is idealized or vilified (or both simultaneously), it is at least coherent.

However, the sentimental interpretations of the play miss something vitally important and cannot fully account for the emotional impact of the final scene. Our Town leaves its viewers with a portrayal of irremediable, abject grief. …

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