Written by Zhiyun Zhao
Photography by Noah Laroia-Nguyen
This fall, University Theatre brought Our Town back to the playwright Thornton Wilder’s hometown. As a cast member of this production, I was interested in the audience’s reaction to this play. What stood out to me the most was that some people, especially those who haven’t seen this play before, told me that they were a little bit disappointed because they expected to see more dramatic conflicts like those in the other plays. Instead, all they saw were women feeding chicken and stringing beans or families eating breakfast. It’s too boring, they said.
However, the seemingly boring plot did not stop the play from becoming a classic and one of the most performed plays today. Thornton Wilder also expressed his ambition for this play through the role of Stage Manager: this is a play for “people a thousand years from now.” So what is the content in this play that gave him the confidence that his play would still be worth reading in a thousand years? Or, why did he think this play would be as eternal as “the Bible, the Constitution of the United States and William Shakespeare’s plays?”
It has been weeks since we closed this show, but when I look back, I realized that the search for an answer to these questions has accompanied me since my audition. Unlike most auditions, which require actors to do monologues, this audition also asked us to tell a memorable moment in our lives. During the preparation, I searched for all the important events that had happened in my life, hoping that the significance of these events would impress the director or show my acting skills. It wasn’t until I read the play multiple times that I realized I was overthinking it. I was actually making the same decision as Emily in the last act, who has a chance to go back to the livings after her death and initially hopes to relive a happy and important day. But Mrs. Gibbs, who is dead in this act suggests that “Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough”.
As living people, we all make the same mistake. We all think it is the “important” moments that makes our lives memorable. Unlike Emily and I, the playwright himself did not bother to choose the great moments in a great figure’s life to make his play more “eternal.” On the contrary, he created a mundane town consisting of mundane people. For example, the lines of my character, Mrs. Somas, are mostly about gossiping and expressing how much she loves weddings.
What makes this play seem even more “boring” is the repetition of the mundane events in this mundane town. Three acts in this play show three different days. Everyday the audience sees a milkman delivering milk, a newspaper boy delivering paper and mothers making breakfast. However, for the first two times, Emily and the audience do not realize that they should appreciate these events, or simply think they are normal and ordinary. It isn’t until the third time when Emily has become an observer, like the audience, instead of a participant of these “boring” events that she realizes the ability to do mundane things is the privilege of a living person.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” “No. The saints and poets maybe – they do some.” I think this is one of the most beautiful yet heartbreaking dialogues in this play. Indeed, life is mundane and transient. But as living people, we are so used to the regular things happening around us that we stop paying attention to them. Not just events, but also people, especially people who are close to us. Gradually we take them for granted and do not realize how important they are to us until death takes them away. But fortunately, we have “saints and poets” like Wilder, who constantly remind us to appreciate the beauty of mundaneness, to live in the moment and to live every moment memorably.