For 80 years, Thornton Wilder's Our Town has awed audiences. The American playwright's delicate tale of small town American families at the turn of the 20th century is alive with humanity and poetry. Yet, there was a time when its content felt downright revolutionary.
1. OUR TOWN IS WILDER'S MOST POPULAR OF HIS MANY NOVELS AND PLAYS.
Today, Wilder is considered a titan of 20th-century American literature—and he's the only person to have won the Pulitzer Prize for both literature and drama. His 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey was a commercial success and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1928. Ten years later, Our Town won Wilder his second Pulitzer, and first in the drama category. His third Pulitzer came in 1943, when his play The Skin of Our Teeth won the drama prize.
Wilder also wrote screenplays for silent films. And because Alfred Hitchcock was such an admirer of Our Town, the iconic director hired Wilder to work on the script for his 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt.
2. OUR TOWN IS A SIMPLE STORY ABOUT EVERYDAY AMERICANS.
Set in the humble hamlet of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, the play follows the relationship of young lovers Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who meet, marry, and separate over the course of 1901 to 1913. In his 1992 book Conversations with Thornton Wilder, English professor Jackson R. Bryer wrote, "Wilder presents ordinary people who make the human race seem worth preserving and represent the universality of human existence."
3. THIS FICTIONAL TOWN IS BASED ON A REAL PLACE.
Wilder spent his summers in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and he aimed to capture its simple charms in his characterization of the fictional Grover's Corners. Years later, Peterborough would return the compliment. As part of a dual celebration of the town's 275th and the play's 75th anniversaries, Peterborough dedicated the intersection of Grove and Main streets to Our Town, erecting street signs that read "Grover's Corners."
4. WILDER WROTE OUR TOWN IN PETERBOROUGH AND ZURICH.
Wilder wrote part of Our Town as a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, an artists' retreat established in Peterborough in 1907. He also worked on the play at an isolated hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, where he was the sole guest. "I hate being alone," Wilder once lamented in a letter, "And I hate writing. But I can only write when I’m alone. So these working spells combine both my antipathies."
5. WILDER WAS ALREADY AN ACCLAIMED WRITER WHEN OUR TOWN DEBUTED.
After winning the Pulitzer for his book The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder turned his focus to Broadway, where he debuted his original play The Trumpet Will Sound. Then, ahead of Our Town, he created English-language stage adaptations for French playwright Andre Obey's The Rape of Lucretia (a.k.a. Lucrece) and Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both played on the Great White Way, in 1932 and 1937 respectively.
6. OUR TOWN BOASTED GROUNDBREAKING STAGING.
The play's directions call for it to be performed on an unadorned stage: "No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light." Simple set pieces like ladders and chairs come into play, but the actors use no props, and pantomime as needed to convey the story. The play's narrator is named after an important theatrical crew position: Stage Manager. This crucial character has the power to communicate directly to the audience, but also can interact with the characters. Each metatheatrical element is meant to draw attention to the constructs within the medium of theater.
7. WILDER HAD USED SOME OF THESE TECHNIQUES BEFORE.
His one-act plays The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden (1931) and Pullman Car Hiawatha (1932) both had Stage Manager characters. Both also called for minimalistic set designs. Happy Journey used four chairs and a low platform to stand in for a family car; Pullman Car Hiawatha employed chalk lines and chairs to create train cars. But only Pullman Car Hiawatha has the Stage Manager address the audience directly as he does in Our Town.
8. OUR TOWN WAS A RESPONSE TO WHAT WILDER FELT CONTEMPORARY THEATER LACKED.
Before writing Our Town, Wilder expressed his disappointment with the quality of American theater. He feared the opulent costumes and spectacular sets of Broadway did a disservice to the written word. "I felt that something had gone wrong," he wrote. "Finally my dissatisfaction passed into resentment. I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive; it didn't not wish to draw upon its deeper potentialities."
9. OUR TOWN WON INSTANT ACCLAIM.
The show made its Broadway debut to positive reviews. Some critics were puzzled, however, by its deceptive minimalism. "Sometimes, as it skips through the lives in a small New Hampshire town, it soars; but again it is earthbound by its folksy attention to humdrum detail. However it may add up, it is an intelligent and rewarding theatrical experiment," wrote John Chapman in the New York Daily News.
The New York Times theatre critic Brooks Atkinson was more effusive in his praise. "Our Town is, in this column's opinion, one of the finest achievements of the current stage," he wrote.
Our Town's success transformed Wilder from a lauded writer to a critical darling. "He was now not merely a successful writer but a sage, a spokesman—a role that he seems to have relished, or at least tolerated," Robert Gottlieb wrote in The New Yorker in 2013.
10. A POSTWAR PRODUCTION OF OUR TOWN IN GERMANY WAS SHUT DOWN.
The Christian Science Monitor reported in its February 13, 1946 issue that the Soviet Union had put a stop to a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of Berlin. The play was canceled "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave," the magazine stated.
Wilder's sister Isabel later offered an alternate explanation. "[Our Town] was the first foreign play to be done in Berlin shortly after the occupation. The Russian authorities stopped it in three days. Rumor gave the reason that it was 'unsuitable for the Germans so soon—too democratic.'"
11. THE PLAY'S GENRE IS HARD TO PIN DOWN.
In theater, comedies often end in weddings, while dramas frequently end in death. Our Town offered a bit of both and in an introspective manner that celebrates the grace and frustrations common to the human experience. In 1956, theater historian Arthur Ballet and playwright George Stephens had an academic debate about whether the play was a tragedy. Ballet declared it a "great American drama" because the Stage Manager is born from the Greek chorus tradition. But Stephens rejected this categorization, calling it “gentle nostalgia or, to put it another way, sentimental romanticism."
12. WILDER BRIEFLY APPEARED IN OUR TOWN.
For two weeks in its original 1938 run on Broadway, Wilder himself played the role of the Stage Manager, though Frank Craven originated the role in its debut production. The actor of stage and screen appeared in a long list of movies, including the Will Rogers drama State Fair (1933), the Howard Hawks-helmed adventure Barbary Coast (1935), and the horror movie Son of Dracula (1943). However, Craven is best remembered for his portrayal as Our Town's Stage Manager, a role he reprised in the 1940 film adaptation.
13. OUR TOWN CONTINUED TO WIN AWARDS.
Broadway revivals were mounted in 1944, 1969, 1988, and 2002. The 1988 revival starring Eric Stoltz and Penelope Anne Miller as George and Emily garnered the most acclaim. It earned five Tony nominations, including those for Best Featured Actor (Stoltz), Featured Actress in a Play (Miller), Costume Design, Direction of a Play, and Revival, as well as four Drama Desk nods for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play (Stoltz), Featured Actress in a Play (Miller), Lighting Design, and Revival. This production won the Tony and Drama Desk awards in the Best Revival category.
14. OUR TOWN GOT A HAPPY ENDING WHEN IT WENT HOLLYWOOD.
The play's first film adaptation hit theaters in the spring of 1940. Martha Scott, who made her Broadway debut originating the role of Emily Webb, reprised the part in this movie. Major changes were made in the film version, like the inclusion of sets and props—but most noticeably, Emily lives, turning the play's third act into a dream sequence. Perhaps surprisingly, Wilder argued for the change.
He wrote to Sol Lesser, the film's producer, "Emily should live … in a movie you see the people so close 'to' that a different relation is established. In the theatre, they are halfway abstractions in an allegory, in the movie they are very concrete … It is disproportionately cruel that she die. Let her live."
15. ITS SIMPLE STAGING HAS HELPED MAKE OUR TOWN A VERY POPULAR REVIVAL.
Thanks to the play's minimal stage design requirements, community theaters and high school drama clubs can take on this American classic with meager budgets. And they often have. "Our Town goes on and on and on and on. Is there a high school in America that hasn’t staged it?" Gottlieb wondered in The New Yorker. Its accessibility, along with the play's universal themes about love and mortality, have made Wilder's contemplative classic a staple for new generations of theater lovers.