Theatre yesterday and today



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This is a repeat of a column, written on this date last year, and updated to honor the marking of the 80th anniversary of one of my favorite American plays.

On February 4, 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town opened on Broadway and middle schools and high schools across America haven’t been the same ever since.

I don’t say that to be funny, but even without statistics to back it up, at one time or another in the ensuing eighty years, surely most every school has done this play. It’s an attractive property, not only due to many of its roles being age-appropriate, but also for its not needing any scenery or little in the way of costumes. Hopefully, the drama teachers that choose it recognize that those reasons are all secondary to the strength of the play and what it has to say about the human condition. Consider that it was written when the world was nearing the brink of what was then an unthinkable second world war only twenty years after the first one ended, and it’s clear that the foreboding is all there in the writing. Directors and casts actively mining all of that for generations is what has made the play, over these many years, one for the ages.

John Craven and Martha Scott, the first George and Emily of Our Town (1938).

And considering that Our Town is set in the bucolic past, productions should ideally be about informing our present. Wilder was a complicated soul, and those who are of mind that Our Town is an uncomplicated piece that reflects only small town Americana are sadly mistaken. The complexity of ideas at its core are responsible for why this deceptively simple play has never grown old. It’s the Peter Pan of American Dramas.

Thornton Wilder (occasionally an actor) as Mr. Antrobus in his own The Skin of Our Teeth.

Opening night critics in 1938 recognized right away that this was no ordinary work. Brooks Atkinson, already 13 years into his tenure of what eventually made him the dean of New York theatre critics, wrote in the New York Times: “Under the leisurely monotone of the production, there is a fragment of the immortal truth. Our Town is a microcosm. It is also a hauntingly beautiful play.”

I love reading old reviews that get it just right. There was no way Atkinson could have been prepared for something new, dressed up as something old. A seemingly gentle play like Our Town is not as easy to spot as a play opening with the fury and force of something like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which had the critics standing up in unison taking notice. But to be able to see past what was on the surface, and recognize Our Town for its depth, as well as its beauty, was a bulls-eye that was struck not only by Atkinson, but by all the critics in its day.

The original Our Town had what was then considered a long run (a year and a half), and its successful film version in 1940 managed six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Score (sadly, the classical composer Aaron Copland lost to Disney’s Pinocchio). Frank Craven, who created the role of the laconic Stage Manager, the plays’ narrator, repeated the part on film. It’s a very sly performance, and not an easy one from which to transition from stage to screen. Martha Scott, as Emily, the play’s ingenue, was brought to Hollywood for her film debut, which garnered her a Best Actress nomination. The role of George, the young man who falls hopelessly in love with Emily, was played by twenty-two year old William Holden, in one of the first half-dozen films in which he ever appeared. If you can catch Our Town on Turner Classic Movies sometime (it was on this week), you will see how it is clearly old-fashioned and new-fashioned at the same time — its cinematographer was Bert Glennon, whose many credits included such classics as John Ford’s Stagecoach.

As previously mentioned, the play has a narrator (not a new idea; it goes back to the Greeks), but it was not representative of everyday fare in the theatre of the 1930s. Also, the curtain was already up when the audience first filed into the theatre — a revolutionary concept for Broadway back then. And for another bit of theatre history, it should be noted that Our Town was staged by the most acclaimed (and some would say feared) theatre animal of his time, Jed Harris. Not only a director, but a producer with a keen eye for plays, Harris was responsible for producing George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s The Royal Family and Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s The Front Page, as well as directing the original productions of Henry James’s The Heiress (adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz) and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

It has been said that Laurence Olivier based his makeup (and evil personality) on Harris, with whom he had a run-in back in the 1930s before he was a famous U.S. theatre and film star. And Walt Disney cartoonists often claimed that the Big Bad W