Our Town is one of the most performed and best-known plays in American theater; it is a truism in the theater business that every night, somewhere in America, a theater audience is watching Our Town. The play is especially popular in amateur productions, put on by schools or community groups. In fact, in the first two years that amateur companies were legally allowed to perform the play, Our Town was produced eight hundred times(Tappan Wilder, 2003). Because the play is so inexpensive to stage-after all, it famously calls for "no costumes, no scenery"-and so popular with audiences, it has become a standby of sorts for theater hobbyists who simply want to put on a show. Accordingly, many people first encounter Our Town in one of two ways: either by seeing it in an often mediocre school or community theater production, or by reading the play in high school English class as an accessible example of "experimental" theater. But Our Town, when looked at seriously and with sensitivity, is greater than its reputation might suggest.
Thornton Wilder began writing Our Town in 1936, splitting its composition between a stint at the MacDowell writing colony and a stay in Europe. Unlike most first-time playwrights, Wilder did not have to worry about pitching his play or struggling to get it produced - he was already famous for the novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and the famous director and producer Jed Harris had already asked for the rights to Wilder's first theatrical script, whatever it happened to be. A famous anecdote attends Harris' role in getting the play finished: Wilder returned from Europe in 1937 without having finished the play and with rehearsals due to start in only a few weeks; Harris virtually imprisoned the writer in a Long Island house until the acting script was complete. (One contemporary headline read: "Wilder Locked Up Till He Finishes That Play of His.")
The first performance - which took place on January 1938 in Princeton, New Jersey - drew scathingly negative reviews. The show business magazine Variety contended, "It will probably go down as the season's most extravagant waste of fine talent." Harris attempted to "fix" the play with a two-week run in Boston; poor attendance and unenthusiastic reviews ensured that the Boston run only lasted a single week. And more forebodings clouded the play prior to its official opening: for instance, Harris's partner, distraught over her failure to receive a role in the play, committed suicide. Despite these setbacks, Harris brought the play to New York, where he secured popular character actor Frank Craven to play the Stage Manager.
New York audiences are not Boston audiences, and Our Town's Broadway opening was a resounding success. "Almost everybody's got some reservations against it (including myself)," wrote Wilder in a letter to a friend out of town, "but everybody's discussing it and going to see it." The notices themselves were initially mixed, with some critics seeing a beautiful, heartbreaking elegy and others a chintzy, sentimental stunt. But the man that really mattered, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, called the play "hauntingly beautiful," "a fragment of the immortal truth," and all subsequent reviews fell in line with Atkinson.
Things started to go well for Our Town - its success was helped by Wilder winning the Pulitzer Prize four months into the run. In addition, Wilder rejuvenated the production when attendance began to slacken by performing the role of the Stage Manager for two sold-out weeks. After ten months on Broadway, Harris closed Our Town for a national tour that ended prematurely in financial conflict; but a few months later Our Town began its second - more influential - life on the amateur stage when Samuel French released the play's stock rights.
Besides uncountable non-professional productions around the world, there have been four Broadway revivals of Our Town, most recently starring Spalding Gray in 1988 and Paul Newman in 2002. Several adaptations for radio and television have also appeared through the years, along with a 1940 Hollywood film (in which, typical for Hollywood, Emily was allowed to live). Wilder went on to write several more commercially successful plays, including The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker, the latter of which was musicalized as Hello, Dolly!, but he is now remembered primarily for Our Town. Like a handful of other American masterpieces - Huckleberry Finn, Walden - Our Town is typically force-fed to ninth or tenth graders. However, the play is perhaps best appreciated well later, in middle age, when its autumnal character rings truer.