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Wilder's Preface for Our Town

Thornton Wilder’s opening stage direction nimbly sets out his manifesto for Our Town: it was to require the audience to participate on a journey into imagination.

QT Our Town photo Pia Johnson 029

"No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light."

Thornton Wilder’s opening stage direction nimbly sets out his manifesto for Our Town: it was to require the audience to participate on a journey into imagination.

In the late 1930s, when the play was written and first staged, an audience arriving to see an empty stage might be perturbed, presuming they’d come on the wrong night, or at the wrong time. Even with America in the grip of the Great Depression, its theatrical productions - although diminished in number - remained, for the most part, married to realistic three-walled box sets, stages crammed with props, and actors draped in opulent costumes: in short, spectacle.

Wilder knew that the audiences of 2500 years before, in Ancient Greece, would not expect such trappings; nor would those crammed into Shakespeare’s Globe, 350 years before, be used to seeing more than the players on a bare stage. And if he could see into the future, he would have seen that audiences 80 years hence would likewise have no qualms about such experimentation. But Wilder was determined to challenge the conventions of the time.

In The New York Times in 1938, Wilder explained his reasons for inviting theatregoers to create the town of Grover’s Corners in their minds: “I tried to restore significance to the small details of life by removing scenery,” he wrote. “The spectator through lending his imagination to the action restages it inside his own head. In its healthiest ages the theatre has always exhibited the least scenery … When the theatre pretends to give the real thing in canvas and wood and metal it loses something of the realer thing, which is its true business.”

Loading a stage with anything beyond a ladder or a chair was a millstone around the neck of the truth, for Wilder. An elaborate, realistic set anchored the story too firmly to a particular time and place for his liking. With his austere stage directions for Our Town, he wanted to let the audience’s awareness of artifice fade away. He wanted to show that while the play, on the page, appears to be about a few decades in the life of the people of Grover’s Corners, it’s really about all of us, right here, right now, and the timelessness of what it means to be human — living, loving, grieving and celebrating together.