“Another Day’s Begun” for “Our Town”

The Peterborough, New Hampshire. Town Hall. (Photo by Howard Sherman)

Wilder’s Timeless Classic Debuted at McCarter in 1938

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“The performance at Princeton was an undoubted success. The large theatre was sold out with standees,” wrote Thornton Wilder in a letter to his attorney and friend, J. Dwight Dana. The theater was McCarter; the performance was the premiere of Our Town on January 22, 1938.

Eight decades after that Princeton debut, Our Town — which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama — is undiminished in its popularity and resonance. In 2003, a year after the most recent Broadway revival opened, a new edition of the script was published. It featured an afterword by Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew and executor of his estate, who curates his literary legacy.

The play is the subject of a new book: Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century (Methuen Drama/Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2021). Author Howard Sherman says that the purpose of the book is to “show how the play remains relevant more than 83 years after that first performance. There are very few plays that have sustained in the American repertory over that time, and none more so than Our Town.”

“Another Day’s Begun” author Howard Sherman in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Note the street signs. (Reprinted with permission of Steve Marsel Studio)

Wilder in Princeton and Lawrenceville

At the time of Our Town’s premiere at McCarter, Wilder (1897-1975) knew Princeton well, having lived in the area a decade earlier. After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree at Yale University in 1920, Wilder taught French at The Lawrenceville School (from 1921-1925 and 1927-28). The school’s Stephan Archives hold a collection of Wilder materials, including pages from Our Town, which were donated by the playwright.

After his first four years at The Lawrenceville School, Wilder enrolled at Princeton University to pursue a master’s degree in French literature, which he completed in 1926. “Princeton was his home for four or five years, and I think they were very happy years,” says Tappan Wilder. “He loved the students, and he also loved being near libraries.”

While he was a graduate student Wilder completed his first novel, The Cabala (1926), much of which had been drafted when he was at Lawrenceville. “Then he wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), which was one of the great literary explosions of the 1920s,” says Tappan Wilder. For the latter novel Wilder won his first Pulitzer Prize, in 1928.

Wilder’s third novel, The Woman of Andros (1930), was also conceived during his time in New Jersey. The Wilder Society’s website observes that the novel, which is set in a fictional Greek island circa 200 BCE, anticipates Our Town in its exploration of “questions of what is precious about life and how we live, love, and die.”

Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, Martha Scott as Emily Webb, and John Craven as George Gibbs in the 1938 Broadway production of “Our Town.” All three actors were part of the cast for the premiere at McCarter Theatre. (Photo by Vandamm Studio, distributed by World Wide photo. Source: Wikipedia.)

“Our Town”

In creating Our Town Wilder drew inspiration from, among other sources, his own work — in particular, two one-act plays from 1931. Tappan Wilder notes that Pullman Car Hiawatha has a train go “through Grover’s Corners, Ohio.”

The Long Christmas Dinner depicts 90 years of a family’s life. A stage manager appears in another play, The Long Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden. Sherman observes, “You can see those techniques — the compression of time, and the paring back of storytelling just to get at the essentials — in his one-acts.”

Our Town is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Most of the action takes place from 1901 to 1913, though in the third act there is a flashback to 1899.

In the first act the Stage Manager introduces the play and its characters, describing in detail the town — and noting its cemetery. George Gibbs and Emily Webb are sent off to school by their parents. In act two (which is partly inspired by the wedding of Tappan Wilder’s parents in Moorestown), the now-grown Emily and George get married.

In the third act several of the characters have died, including Emily (who died in childbirth); the act depicts her funeral. Despite the warnings of multiple characters, Emily chooses to revisit Earth for one day, to relive her 12th birthday. She painfully realizes that people fail to treasure the simplest moments of their lives while they have them. The Stage Manager replies, “Saints and poets maybe … they do some.”

Our Town was directed by Jed Harris, with whom Wilder frequently was in conflict. Harris wanted co-author credit, which Wilder was unwilling to grant. In Thornton Wilder: A Life (Harper Perennial, 2013), biographer Penelope Niven records that the playwright “fought for the integrity of his script” and feared that Harris had a “weak sense of visual reconstruction.”

Frank Craven as the Stage Manager in the 1938 Broadway production of “Our Town.” (Photograph by Alfredo Valente. Source: Wikipedia) 

After the tense rehearsal period, Our Town opened at McCarter, “where Wilder had seen so many tryouts during his years in New Jersey,” observes Niven. The cast included Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, his son John Craven as George, Martha Scott as Emily, and Evelyn Varden as Mrs. Gibbs.

Most of the McCarter cast subsequently appeared in the Broadway production, which opened on February 4, 1938, after a tryout in Boston. Craven and Scott reprised their roles for the 1940 film, as did Doro Merande, who played Mrs. Soames.

Variety had harsh words for the McCarter premiere. “It will probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent,” the critic wrote. “Once the novelty has worn thin, the play lacks the sturdy qualities necessary to carry it on its own.”

Sherman remarks, “For a play that only a few months later won the Pulitzer Prize, that review doesn’t look like the smartest assessment ever made.” He adds, “I happen to have — through a friend of mine who worked at McCarter years ago — the box office statement from the premiere. It was sold out.”

Additionally, the Variety review seems to have been contrary to the reactions of the general audience at McCarter. In the Afterword to Perennial Classics’ 2003 edition of the play, Tappan Wilder excerpts the letter to Dana, in which the playwright reported that viewers were “swept by laughter often; astonishment; and lots of tears; long applause at the end by an audience that did not move from its seats.”

Tappan Wilder believes that his uncle’s letter to Dana is an accurate recounting of the McCarter audience’s mood. “The Variety writer wasn’t paying attention to what the audience says — he just wanted to tell readers what he thought of the play,” he remarks to this writer, adding, “You can’t have a great play without telling the juicy story about the play nearly dying on its way to Broadway! But the story is a lot more complex than is normally told.”

Page 1 of Wilder’s 1937 draft of “Our Town.” Yale Collection of American Literature. (YCAL, reprinted with permission of The Wilder Family LLC.) 

“Another Day’s Begun”

Another Day’s Begun, which derives its title from a line of the Stage Manager’s opening monologue, is the latest of several works Sherman has authored about Our Town. His essays about the play have appeared in outlets such as American Theatre and The Guardian.

In the first three chapters of Another Day’s Begun Sherman offers background information about the play’s production and adaptation history, as well as a consideration of differing attitudes toward it. Each remaining chapter is devoted to a specific 21st-century production, and most of the text consists of comments made by the actors and creative teams involved, whom Sherman interviewed. The author neither critiques the productions, nor prints comments he made during interviews.

The choice of structure and content was deliberate. “I was highly aware of my own limitations; I’d never written a book before,”
he says. Having conducted numerous interviews for outlets such as The Stage and the podcast Downstage Center, Sherman concluded that “creating new material by speaking with artists that worked on the show seemed best suited to what I knew how to do.”

Sherman admits, “I thought, ‘I can’t possibly cover 83 years!’ So the idea of just looking at productions in the 21st century narrowed it down. Still, Our Town is done thousands of times a year. So I tried to find productions that seemed to have their own story.”

Among the recent productions that have moved Sherman are David Cromer’s 2009 off-Broadway production, and a 2013 production at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. He finds Emily Webb’s experience in the third act “similar to that of the inmates at Sing Sing. They were cut off from the world. I’m happy to say that at least four of the men have been released subsequent to having done the play. So after years of having their lives very limited and isolated from the world, they are able to go back out and be in the world. That is what Emily does not have.”

Sherman points out that the play has “been done around the world in multiple languages, and it continues to be done with interpretations that allow Grover’s Corners to be much bigger and broader than it necessarily was in Wilder’s day.” He adds, “I think listening to the artists in the productions that I chose gives a sense of what the breadth and potential appeal of Our Town is, across a variety of experiences for people.”

Thornton Wilder’s Yale College graduation photo taken in 1920, a year before he started teaching at The Lawrenceville School. (YCAL, reprinted with permission of The Wilder Family LLC.)

Contemporary Relevance

On the tendency of Our Town’s critics to disdain it as timeworn or overly nostalgic and sentimental, Tappan Wilder remarks, “Like a cat clawing on a tree, detractors claw on that notion. There’s a terrific amount of sentiment in the play, but sentimentality is in the eye of the beholder.”

Tappan Wilder reports that he has been involved, along with Rosey Strub (the director of programming for The Wilder Family LLC), with “some remarkable productions of the play.” One was presented by Miami New Drama in 2017, and was “performed in three languages (English, Spanish, and Creole), all in the same show.” He adds that for him, this version let the audience see Our Town as the “great international community play that I think it is.” The production is the subject of chapter 12 of Another Day’s Begun.

Publicity poster for the premiere of “Our Town” at McCarter Theatre on January 22, 1938. (Reprinted with permission of The Wilder Family LLC.)

On May 19 the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) presented a one-night-only online reading of the play, to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In an interview with Tappan Wilder (on thorntonwilder.com), the company’s co-founder Mia Katigbak — the production’s director — explains, “I thought a reading of Our Town would be a great way to celebrate what NAATCO is devoted to — demonstrating what we have in common amongst all of our different cultures, rather than continuing to be so divisive. We had started the process of casting when anti-Asian violence escalated.”

This is not the first time the play has been juxtaposed against — or in response to — violence. The 2002 Broadway revival was a response to the events of September 11, and in England a 2017 Royal Exchange Manchester production was in response to a suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena earlier that year. A New York Times article quotes Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom as saying, “There was a real sense that people were meeting each other in simple, everyday actions … it wasn’t about looking at flowers, but about needing to be together.”

“The emotional climax of Our Town is Emily Webb realizing all of the things she’ll miss, and maybe all of the things she wasn’t paying enough attention to. She is in a place where she can no longer do that,” Sherman observes. “We have, for the most part, spent the past year or so being told we need to stay indoors. If we go out, we have to be careful and wear masks, and we can’t socialize with people. Unlike Emily, we have the chance to go back and take what we’ve learned.”

He looks forward to the opportunity to see another live production of the play, post-pandemic. “There is something deep in Our Town that can speak to people,” he reflects. “It is evocative, it is cathartic — and in some way, I think it becomes you.”

Tappan Wilder offers, “The play gets rediscovered all the time; I think that’s the definition of a very great play. Our Town is an extraordinary statement about meaning, life, and community, to which we can all identify. It’s a wonderful rallying cry from the heart for what is deeply human and unifying in all of us.”