Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town, with its story of fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in the years prior to World War I, was nostalgic about an America that had ceased to exist long before the play debuted on Broadway in 1938. But it wasn’t only its nostalgia that drew audiences to Our Town during the Great Depression. It was the play’s hopefulness, and this year, as the New Hampshire primary draws near, Our Town deserves a second look.
At the core of Wilder’s depiction of Grover’s Corners is the same kind of belief in the basic decency of people that we see in Frank Capra’s portrayal of Bedford Falls in his 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life. For Wilder, the values of Grover’s Corners are the values that sustain America.
Our Town is presented on a bare stage with no scenery and few props. A Stage Manager introduces the audience to Wilder’s principal characters, then lets them speak on their own. The romantic lovers in the play are George Gibbs, son of the town doctor, and Emily Webb, his high school sweetheart. But George, despite being a doctor’s son, does not leave Grover’s Corners and go off to college. He has a very different idea of success. He becomes a local farmer and marries Emily. They live a full life until Emily dies while giving birth to their second child.
At the core of Our Town is Wilder’s conviction that the ties the citizens of Grover’s Corners have with each other are the key to their happiness. These pre-political ties allow the civic institutions of Grover’s Corners to flourish, and with perspective, Wilder’s characters realize this. When Emily Gibbs returns to Grover’s Corner on a brief visit from heaven, she chooses to view her 12th birthday party rather than an exceptional event. Watching herself interact with her family, she exclaims, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Over the years the role of Stage Manager in Our Town has held widespread appeal because it allows the actor who plays the role to explain the virtues of Grover’s Corners to an audience that might think the virtues were corny. Orson Welles took the part for a 1939 radio performance of the play. Thornton Wilder himself played the Stage Manager in a 1946 radio version, and in 2002 Paul Newman starred in the role for stage productions in Westport, Connecticut and New York City.
In Our Town there are few angry moments because Wilder’s characters have such a strong sense of their obligations to each other. In the one scene in the play in which he expresses disappointment with his son, Dr. Gibbs tells George of hearing a funny sound from his office. “And what do you think it was?” he asks. “It was your mother chopping wood… I suppose she just got tired of asking you.”
The scene ends with Dr. Gibbs saying, “I knew all I had to do was call your attention to it.” Whether such an appeal to basic decency can work in today’s bitter, post-impeachment climate is much harder to know, but we need only turn to President John Kennedy’s 1956 bestseller, Profiles in Courage, his study of political courage in action, to see a modern president who believed in the communal values of Our Town.
For Kennedy these communal values were not dated nor destined to fade. In profiling eight political figures he admired for their willingness to move beyond self-interest, Kennedy emphasized the qualities he believed they share with the rest of us when we are at our best. Political courage was for Kennedy a democratic virtue. “To be courageous,” Kennedy wrote in his Wilder-like conclusion to Profiles in Courage, “requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”