the universal and the specific

In January I will be directing a university production of Our Town. Those of you who know my theatrical tastes may well be surprised to hear that I love this play. I love the theatrical device of the narrator, the lack of set, the deliberate use of stereotypes, and the simple and touching story and characters. I was pleasantly pushed to get an early start on my thinking about it by having to contribute to poster and marketing ideas. (This, by the way, is a great exercise in articulating your vision for a show – to have to talk about how to reflect that vision in a still image for the purpose of making people understand something about it that might make them want to come see it.)

I think it’s easy for directors to make a big mistake with plays like Our Town. Beginning with Brooks Atkinson’s 1938 review, people have assumed that, “taking as his material three periods in the history of a placid New Hampshire town, Mr. Wilder has transmuted the simple events of human life into universal reverie.”

In reality, he has done exactly the opposite. In so specifically setting Our Town in Grover’s Corners, a fictional yet completely typical New England turn-of-the-20th-century town, Wilder has actually transmuted universal reverie into the simple events of life. He has bound the mythological cycle of life (birth-love-marriage-death) narrative in a very specific historical and cultural container. God is in the details, as they say, and the details of Grover’s Corners are anything but universal. They are resolutely of their moment and of the people who lived it.

It is, in fact, the presence of these particularities that makes the play powerful. Because the people in the play don’t look like Every Person, don’t talk like Every Person, we are able to see the larger themes of their story as if in relief, against a perspectival backdrop that creates distance. This is why Brecht advocates historicization as a great tool in creating Verfremdungseffekt: the particularities of a person’s culture and character actually separate us from one another and from the story enough for us to see it, and them, clearly. Only in being distanced from the events and people of the play are we able to see them as a whole, to see the bigger picture, whereas when we see ourselves perfectly in the characters we tend to subsume ourselves to them. We see the whole only from our own/their limited point of view.

And this is the point of Wilder’s play after all, isn’t it? That, as Emily says, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.”

By making Grover’s Corners so theatrically specific, Wilder forces us to slow down and look at the life cycle story through someone else’s eyes. The point of telling these “universal stories,” as I see it, is not to pretend that we are all the same, because we are not, it is to find ourselves in others, even when we are nothing like them at all.

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