Monday, January 25, 2010

* Our Cemetery

Our Town by Thornton Wilder is the most performed play in the history of the American theatre. It is also the most sentimentalized play in the history of the American theatre.

The play is actually a macabre little treatise on life.

Almost everyone on stage at the beginning of the play is dead by the end of it when they appear in the cemetery scene, having popped up from their undergound caverns like little jack-in-the boxes: Emily is dead of childbirth; her younger brother from appendicitis; the paper-boy Joe Crowell, is senselessly slaughtered in "the war"; Emily's mother-in-law dies of pneumonia on a trip; the Church organist, Simon Stimson, an alcoholic,commits suicide; Mrs. Soames, who chattered about the "lovely" wedding is as dead as Scrooge's talking-doornail; and, on and on and on. (One biographer says that for Wilder himself, "death is just another heartbeat".)

Nonetheless there are more dead on stage at the end of Our Town than at the end of Hamlet.

How is it then that half a million high school productions and hundreds of professional productions can ignore all this death and focus on Emily's little homily about "life being too wonderful" for anyone to appreciate while they are alive?

That fact, the amnesiac approach to the death in Our Town, is usually presented as Wilder's triumph: He makes something so sad (death) so beautiful.


It is exactly the opposite.

By forcing us to face our amazing propensity to ignore death (and he has certainly rubbed death in our face here) Wilder simultaneously forces us to confront in ourselves (by our decision as an audience to saccharinize the lugubrious events transpiring on stage in front of our very noses, a lugubriousness which Wilder admonishes actors not to indulge in his stage directions);Wilder forces us to confront in our very audience seats what life actually is: the ongoing history of the human being's greatest faculty----Denial.

Deny that!

(Heartbeat or no heartbeat.)

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