Opens on Broadway

The Broadway opening of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town signaled an American revolt against traditional “box set” staging that kept spectators at a distance from the play.

Summary of Event

Having achieved worldwide recognition at the early age of thirty with his second published novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Thornton Wilder, who had been fond of the theater since childhood, harbored an ambition to write plays. By the age of forty, Wilder had published two additional novels to somewhat mixed reviews and had begun to set his sights and expectations on the stage. As early as 1931, he had published a volume of collected short plays, and since then he had translated and adapted at least two European plays for performance on the Broadway stage for such recognized performers as Katharine Cornell and Ruth Gordon. Many of Wilder’s good friends, including Gordon and her then-consort Jed Harris, were Broadway theater people, and Wilder, along with most of his students at the University of Chicago, saw the theater as the most rewarding outlet (personally and professionally, if not financially) then available to creative writers. [kw]Our Town Opens on Broadway (Feb. 4, 1938)
[kw]Broadway, Our Town Opens on (Feb. 4, 1938)
Our Town (Wilder)
[g]United States;Feb. 4, 1938: Our Town Opens on Broadway[09680]
[c]Theater;Feb. 4, 1938: Our Town Opens on Broadway[09680]
Wilder, Thornton
Harris, Jed

Although not born to wealth, Wilder had acquired, with the unexpected success of his second novel, sufficient means and income not only to buy a house for his parents and siblings but also to travel wherever he pleased, with added remuneration along the way for lectures and other public appearances. While traveling in Europe, he had kept his eyes and ears open to various developments in the arts, particularly in the theater.

As a student at Yale University recently mustered out of stateside service during World War I, Wilder had been impressed by the minimalist, “theatricalist” staging of the French director Jacques Copeau, then on worldwide tour with the repertory company he had founded in 1913 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris. While traveling through Europe in the mid-1930’s, Wilder had reexperienced both French theatricalism (recently refreshed by the import of plays by Luigi Pirandello of Italy) and German expressionism; he had also discussed the elements of literary art at great length with the American expatriate poet and theorist Gertrude Stein, whom he first met when Stein came to Chicago as a visiting lecturer. Drawing eclectically from such “foreign” influences, as well as from his own earlier experiments in playwriting, Wilder in late 1936 conceived and subsequently developed what would in time be seen as the quintessential American play, which would eventually be seen and heard by a larger worldwide audience than any previous American play.

Its plotting grounded in classical and medieval literature, Our Town highlights life and death in a New England town between 1899 and 1913. Time and place, however, soon recede into the background; spectators see a bare stage that remains to be furnished by their imaginations, with only occasional help from the Stage Manager, Wilder’s one-man adaptation of the classical Greek chorus. Ladders and shelving are moved around the bare stage by the actors to simulate houses, rooms, and furniture; many props, however, are left to be imagined.

Years earlier, Wilder had accorded to his Yale and Broadway acquaintance Jed Harris the rights of refusal to his first full-length play. In fact, Wilder in 1937 had two such efforts in his briefcase: Our Town and The Merchant of Yonkers (pr. 1938), which he later reworked as The Matchmaker (pr. 1954) and which became the source of the 1964 musical comedy Hello, Dolly! Harris, already well known for his devotion to the bottom line, was quick to choose Our Town, because it offered him and his actors, yet to be chosen, an easy compromise between creative freedom and practical economy. Harris had long sought to combine art with craft and profit. Our Town, perhaps a bit exotic for the prevailing Broadway taste, nevertheless opened at the Morosco Theater on Broadway early in 1938, with future film star Martha Scott in the pivotal role of Emily Webb.

Our Town got off to a slow start, but it gained momentum as the months passed. Failing to acquire the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for which it was nominated, the play nevertheless won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, with several amateur and student groups quite literally waiting in the wings for performance rights to be released in the spring of 1939. In 1940, Our Town was successfully filmed in Hollywood from a screenplay prepared free of charge by Wilder himself, who had rejected an earlier scenario written by playwright Lillian Hellman.


A quarter century after its less-than-spectacular debut, Our Town had become perhaps the most often read and most frequently performed text in American dramatic history, known at least by name to most literate Americans and respected and performed by theater professionals in Europe. More than a few American theatergoers versed also in the European tradition yet jaded by repeated exposure to bad productions of Our Town in American high schools, where countless prom queens sought to play Emily, would first rediscover the play’s abiding virtues through the medium of European productions, not only in a foreign country but also in a foreign language. After fifty years, the place of Our Town in the worldwide dramatic repertory was even more secure, proving the wisdom and foresight implicit in Wilder’s apparently peculiar blend of foreign and domestic elements.

Unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries writing for the Broadway stage, Wilder in Our Town rejected the somber, detailed realism of plot and staging, itself a European legacy most frequently associated with the work of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, whose work Wilder had himself translated and adapted for the stage. Breaking with recently hallowed tradition, following even more recent German and French trends that harked back to the ancient Greeks, Wilder presented his archetypal town, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, as less fictional than mythical; the town is constructed and furnished through the collaboration of the play’s spectators, who contribute their imaginations in order to make the play succeed as an act of communication.

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” wonders Emily Webb Gibbs, dead in childbirth at age twenty-six. Emily is allowed by the Stage Manager to reexperience one full day in her short life, and she chooses her twelfth birthday, February 11, 1899. The Stage Manager replies to her question in the negative, adding, after a pause, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” The deceptive homespun simplicity of Wilder’s carefully crafted dialogue earmarks the play as quintessentially American, but it also misleads some observers to find in the play only nostalgia and sentimentality. What Wilder has done, however, is to place each human life against the broadest possible background—described elsewhere in the play as “The Mind of God”—highlighting both the unique and the universal elements implicit in all human experience. The American audience for which he was writing is thus “repatriated” into the world community of theater, at once giving and receiving; thus does Our Town remain in the dramatic repertory, often revived in New York and elsewhere, despite the grumblings of those who still regard the play as sentimental.

The 1940 film version of the play, notable mainly for its impact on the Hollywood career of William Holden, who starred as George Gibbs, was recirculated some forty years later on videotape. A somewhat ill-advised television musical version from the mid-1950’s, starring Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager, remains in the collective American memory primarily as a consequence of its theme song, “Love and Marriage,” performed and recorded by Sinatra. Televised productions of Our Town, without music, have continued well past Wilder’s death in 1975, as have live productions both domestic and foreign. In the meantime, the creative freedom exercised by Wilder in Our Town helped to open up the American stage to greater measures of spectator participation. By the late 1960’s, many American productions, on and off Broadway, were performed with few or no props and frequently on three-dimensional “thrust” stages, which were all but unknown to American audiences before their use for Our Town productions during the 1950’s.

Beneath the surface of Wilder’s plays, especially Our Town, lies an intelligent acquaintance with developing psychoanalytic theory. Wilder’s biographers have documented his meetings during the 1930’s with pioneer psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and Wilder’s public denunciation of the elderly, terminally ill doctor’s mistreatment by the Nazis. In retrospect, however, Wilder’s theater seems to bear an even stronger imprint from Freud’s erstwhile colleague Carl Jung’s explorations of myth and the collective unconscious. In any case, Wilder, through the contemplation of death, managed in Our Town to breathe fresh life into the mainstream of American theater, and his contribution still survives him. Our Town (Wilder)

Further Reading

  • Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. 2d ed. New York: Twayne, 1978. Second edition of a volume that was among the first full-length studies of Wilder’s work. Remains authoritative, if not definitive.
  • Cowley, Malcolm. A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking, 1973. Devotes a useful, perceptive chapter to Wilder’s “universality” and its sources.
  • Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. A reader’s guide to Wilder’s novels and plays, notable for its brevity and insights.
  • Goldstone, Richard. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975. Prepared over the course of many years, originally planned—or presented—as a work of literary criticism. Draws on previously unavailable letters and documents. Appeared in print shortly before Wilder’s death, and much against Wilder’s wishes. Wilder questioned Goldstone’s critical talents, seriously opposed biographical studies of persons still living, and in effect forced a cancellation of Goldstone’s original contract with Harper & Row, Wilder’s own longtime publisher.
  • Haberman, Donald. The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1967. Study of Wilder’s plays remains fresh and provocative, reaching back toward sources and forward toward results.
  • Harrison, Gilbert A. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983. Full-scale biography of Wilder begun after his death. Somewhat better grounded than Goldstone’s (cited above), although short on literary analysis. Authoritative on production history of Our Town.
  • Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Scholarly study places Wilder’s work within the context of American, and specifically New England, culture and literary tradition. Includes a chronology of Wilder’s works, bibliography, and index.
  • Siebold, Thomas, ed. Readings on “Our Town.” San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 2000. Collection of critical essays examines various aspects of the play, including Wilder’s experimental approach to theater. Features chronology and index.

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