This past spring, I assistant directed our high school’s production of Our Town, the classic tale of turn-of-the-century New England by Thornton Wilder.
Our Town is a love letter to the American Way of Life in small town, USA.
It was a delightful play to produce with a handful of inner-city high school students from New York City, whose daily milieu of the Bronx, Harlem, and the Lower East Side look quite different than the idyllic lanes and lush fields of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire within which Wilder sets his play.
The third act of Thornton Wilder’s play is a beautiful meditation on the simple beauties of life, and how death brings all of these into high relief. Emily, the heroine of the play, has died a tragically young death in childbirth. She is put to rest in the graveyard during her funeral, and finds that all the souls of the dead are there on stage, arranged stoically staring straight ahead. The dead do not look back at the life they left behind; they all face forward, staring straight ahead unflinchingly. Memory and remembrance are pastimes of the living. Waiting lifelessly in their chairs, the dead souls are preparing, awaiting for what comes next. They live outside of time. They have learned to let go of their memories of all the beautiful vagaries of time, because the sweet memories are almost too much for them to bear.
The final moment of the play has (spoiler alert) Emily’s true love—her kind and gentle husband George—returning to the site of her grave. There, he lies down on the green earth that covers Emily. In the stage directions, Thornton Wilder dictates that this action is represented on stage by George lying down at Emily’s feet, as she sits rigidly in her chair. He spreads himself out on the ground, reaching for Emily, reaching to touch her through the ground, wishing that he could cross space and time to reach her.
The souls of the dead react with disbelief, shock, and with the approbation: “That ain’t no way to behave!” exclaims one. But Emily, deeply touched, turns to her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs and says:
“Mother Gibbs? They don’t understand, do they?”
Finally, Mrs. Gibbs breaks her iron stare ahead, and looks Emily deep in the eyes:
“No, dear. They don’t understand.”
In this moment, these two women are united by their understanding that love can cross the boundaries of the grave. Perhaps all the simple, beautiful, incandescent joys that knit together to make up a daily life are lost to us on the other side of death. But love still endures. The love that George bears Emily will endure as time itself crumbles away.
The nuances of these final lines are not easily discerned from simply reading the page, and since most high school actors (my own students not excepted), are not adept at parsing the complexities of a dramatic text, they were in the dark about what the meaning of those final lines were for quite some time.
I distinctly remember the rehearsal that they finally grasped what those lines truly meant. They shrieked in excitement. Their faces went wide with awe. And they suddenly grasped that the entire story was preparing the audience for this moment: it was lulling the audience into the peace of small town life, waxing eloquent about the delights of a small community. It was winding slowly through the details of just an ordinary day; it was relishing the beauty of a budding love story. The stark beginning of the final act, the revealing of all the deceased onstage, is a harsh reminder that these simple joys have an inevitable expiration date. Eventually, we are forced to leave the pleasant comfort of a small town life behind. And here is where Wilder makes his statement of belief—his creed—that the strongest, most enduring stuff of life is that unbreakable, self-giving love that George and Emily share with one another.
That ordinary love that flourishes everywhere—in large cities, in unassuming families, in the quietest farmhouse—is the most powerful force in life. That ordinary love that flourishes in all the mundane and ordinary actions of self-gift and self-sacrifice, which rejoices in all the daily offerings, is at the heart of each story worth telling. George’s final action of the play is nothing more than an embodiment of the action he has been performing each day since they fell in love: he is laying down his life at her feet. That action has a power beyond the grave. Nothing can stop such a love. Not death, trial, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword.
As I watched my students’ faces, as I saw them react to the power of this message, I was reminded again of how effectively theatre can drive home this truth. Now, in a way they can probably hardly articulate, my students understand the power of self-giving love. They have lived this story out in their bodies—albeit only on a stage. But they now understand, somewhere in the deepest corner of their hearts and in their imaginations—that love never fails. The world is full of simple, sweet joys, and daily trials and tribulations, which all may pass away, but love never fails.