The Dead On Stage

Our TownIn Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, first performed in 1938 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize that year, a literary undertaker appears who is contrary to the early twentieth century stereotype. But Joe Stoddard, depicted as running a family business and on good terms with the townspeople, plays a relatively minor role. It is the dead themselves that steal the show.

Our Town appeared in the midst of post-depression New Deal politics at home and the rise of fascism abroad, just before the onset of World War II. According the Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, the initial response to the play was fairly negative, partly because of the experimental staging and modernist tempo, and partly because of its content. However some reviewers raved about its atmosphere when it opened in New York, calling it haunting, evocative, and moving, and had nothing but praise for the unconventional nature of the production. Reviews continued to be mixed, but still it won the Pulitzer and went on to become one of the most-performed plays in America. What gives Our Town its lasting cultural power is its originality and profundity, and to a large extent its third act.

The act begins with the actors sitting in chairs set up in rows on the stage. The chairs are supposed to represent graves in the local cemetery. The actors are supposed to be the dead, who have returned to have conversations with a new arrival, Emily, who has died in childbirth. Wilder’s stage direction for the dead is very specific, as Laderman quotes: “The dead do not turn their heads or their eyes to right or left, but they sit in a quiet without stiffness. When they speak their tone is matter-of-fact, without sentimentality, and, above all, without lugubriousness.”

The third act follows upon two acts each of which depict a single day in the life of Grover’s Corners.

The first depicts May 7, 1901, a day which is meant to represent a time which was less stressful and complicated. The second act focuses on July 7, 1904, and is called “Love and Marriage” by the Stage Manager, who is the narrator throughout the play. The third and final act takes place in the summer of 1913, and it completes a dramatic meditation on everyday life, relations between family and community, and larger truths at work in a mysterious universe.

The reality of death is at the core of the play. Even before the reader gets to Act Three, at the beginning of Act One, the Stage Manager speaks of the characters who appear and interact from a perspective of thirty years later, when many of them have died. The very first character to speak, Joe Crowell, Jr., is discussed immediately after his appearance; the Stage Manager says he graduated top of his class but then the war broke out and he died in France.

The presence of the dead is thus invoked at the beginning of the play before any of them have actually died. Wilder feels that when everyday life is examined, universal truths are revealed, and one of these truths is that you can’t separate death from life or the quest for meaning in life. The third act uses the dead and the centrality of death in life to make a larger point, a religious point about human time and eternity. Laderman quotes:

“Yes, an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down up here. People just wild with grief have brought their relatives up to this hill. We all know how it is… and then time… and sunny days……and rainy days… ‘n snow…We’re all glad they’re in a beautiful place and we’re coming up here ourselves when our fit’s over. Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t the houses and it ain’t the names, and it ain’t the earth, and it ain’t even the stars… everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal bout every human being.”

The undertaker appears and plays a marginal role in the act; he is presented as sympathetic, and his proximity to the dead is not satirized or derided, but in the context in which he appears, he is a comforting presence, a humane mediator between the living and the dead. The dead as he presents them are supposed to bring about a meditation on the mysteries of the universe; it was this content that brought about mixed reviews and a Pulitzer Prize.

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