Thornton Wilder called the theater “the greatest of all the arts,” and many people have called his Our Town one of the greatest American plays of all time. 80 years after its premiere on Broadway, Our Town is still performed at least once each night somewhere in the United States, and throughout the world.
Our Town began its journey to Broadway with a one-day stop at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ on January 22, 1938. The enthusiastic audience was moved to tears.
To mark the 80th Anniversary Our Town’s world premiere, we spoke with Emily Mann, Artistic Director of McCarter Theatre Center. Though she has never directed the play, she hopes to, and considers herself among those who call Our Town one of America’s greatest plays.
What would you say is the lasting impact of Our Town?
Well, you know, what’s interesting about Our Town is that it appears to be about so many old-fashioned small town conventional American ideas, but in fact it’s a radical play. Before anyone else did, Wilder understood the power of actors on a bare stage, how to work without props and how to simply tell a story without all the scenery and high-level production values. It’s also a play that is deceptively simple and deeply moving. He made a lasting impact because modern drama so often takes those techniques and tells these tales.
Do you have a personal connection with Our Town?
Well, there is a character named Emily…! When I was growing up, I definitely felt a connection there. But I’ve never directed it. I’ve never been in it. I would LOVE to direct it. We just haven’t had the budget to do it. Otherwise I would. We should be doing it right this second for the 80th anniversary and I wish we could. Someday I will.
What was your first experience with the play?
I saw it first in a high school production.
Do you have a favorite production or an important memory of Our Town?
I think my favorite production was Gregory Mosher’s production at Lincoln Center on Broadway in 1989 with Spalding Gray—he was a genius and he played the Stage Manager. That was revelatory. And I remember how good that cast was and how beautiful the production was. And actually Gregory came to McCarter to take photographs of the back wall of our theatre, because the original Our Town set was our bare back wall. And he reproduced the McCarter back wall on Broadway.
Why do you think that it is important to continue to produce this piece of art?
It’s important to keep the dramatic cannon alive and resonant and present for those plays that last; to bring them back so that new generations can experience the power of these great works of art. And Our Town is one of the great, great American plays. It should go on forever. It deals with eternal truths and does it with humor and warmth and pathos. I was sobbing at the end of Gregory’s production. When they were in the graveyard and the umbrellas went up and it was raining, I was sobbing. I remember. I haven’t had an experience like that in the theatre since. It’s a powerful play.