Our Town: Everyone's Life, the Glory of Now

I expect that almost everyone reading this blog has, at one time or another, actually seen Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. It’s been revived a number of times on Broadway, staged locally in high school gymnasiums across the country, and presented in local venues around the world. Edward Albee called it “a masterpiece ... probably the finest American play written so far.”

The play’s setting is a small community in New Hampshire called Grover’s Corners. (See lead photo for original cast.) If you’ve seen it, you may remember that the stage setting is very sparse. The stage manager actually becomes a character in the play itself – functioning as commentator of the action as it unfolds before the audience. He also speaks directly to the audience, drawing the audience as a whole into the action on stage.

Recently a new book appeared, written by Howard Sherman and titled Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century. (See second photo below.) Thomas Long has just reviewed that work in a recent issue of The Christian Century, and it’s that review that inspired this blog. Long reminds us that the first two acts are really tedious and boring glimpses of everyday life in Grover’s Corners. The milkman delivering milk, family breakfasts and sending kids off to school, the predictable crush and courtship of Emily Webb and George Gibbs – the boy and girl living next door to each other, followed by their eventual marriage as young adults. Ho hum ... the boringness of everyday life.

But it’s the third act that typically reduces audiences to sobs and tears – tearing at hearts and revealing the deepest truth about our lives as we live them. Long writes:

The act begins with the funeral of Emily, who we learn has died in childbirth. It involves not only a change of setting, to the hilltop cemetery overlooking the town, but also a change of temporal and metaphysical planes as we enter the realm of the town’s dead. As her funeral procession arrives, the now dead Emily steps out from among the mourners and is greeted by the other dead in the cemetery. ... Emily – her memories of life and family still fresh – senses that she can cross back into the world of the living and be a part of her life once more. Despite the warnings of the other dead in the cemetery not to return [being weaned from their earthly existence as they travel toward Paradise], she decides to relive her 12th birthday.

She soon learns the heartbreaking truth about why the other dead in the cemetery tried to dissuade her from returning. With the eyes of one who has passed through the waters of death, she now sees everything about her life and family, once so ordinary, as luminescent and fleeting treasure. “Mama. I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything. I can’t look at everything hard enough,” she exclaims in wonder. But she realizes that she is the only one who perceives the preciousness woven into everyday life. ... ”Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you” – as she leaves to return to her grave. ... She then looks at the stage manager and tearfully asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” He answers, “No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”

Forrest Church was a leading Unitarian Universalist minister, author and theologian, serving as senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City until shortly before his death in 2009. He wrote a book titled Love and Death (see third photo below) after he was diagnosed with the cancer that finally killed him, and I have written about him and that book in other publications of mine. I pulled that book off my shelf because I remembered themes within it that I think do resonate with Thornton Wilder’s profound commentary on our everyday lives and their deepest meaning. Church writes: “Life is not a given, but a wondrous gift. That gift comes with a price attached. One day something will steal it from us. That doesn’t diminish our lives; it increases their value. Fragility and impermanence ensure life’s preciousness. We can truly love only that which we know we must one day lose ... the wonder of life and the blessings of love.” (p. 42)

The message: Open your eyes to the miracle and wonders about you. See the preciousness of what is right before you. Your cup runneth over if you only embrace the goodness of the everyday life you are given. As Mahira Kakkar, who in 2008 played the role of Emily in Wilder’s play, said recently: “Small things – you don’t realize how it’s the small things that make up a life, that make a life beautiful. We’re often running in pursuit of the big things that we think will make our life meaningful. But it’s all the small stuff that adds up.” (Long, p. 40)

Let me end this as Long ends his article.

In Our Town, Wilder laments that the treasure in the field is right beneath our feet and still hidden, that the pearl of great price is to be found at the breakfast table yet we miss it. ... When the stage manager says that only saints and poets realize the preciousness of life as they live it, Wilder is not giving into despair. He is calling us to the altar, calling us to be saints and to see like poets. It is a sermon so pointed, so skillfully crafted, so truthful that it moves the congregation to tears. It is a sermon so perfectly pitched to an age that seeks, and does not find, hope in the engines of human progress alone that it continues to move us. (Long, p. 41)

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times by Margaret Renkl titled “Thank God for the Poets,” her words add a fitting close to this celebration of the everyday in our lives and its deepest meaning. She writes “thank God for our poets, here in the mildness of [spring] and in the winter storms alike, who help us find the words our own tongues feel too swollen to speak. Thank God for the poets who teach our blinkered eyes to see these gifts the world has given us, and what we owe it in return.”

So try to see your life through poet’s eyes; practice with reading or chanting some psalms; say everyday, “I love you” to the one that you do. Open your eyes and your heart to this one glorious life that you have been given and say thanks for this day in your life – in all its uneventful smallness and glorious blessing of its gifts spread out beneath your feet as pearls of great price. And give thanks.

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Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.