Written by Thornton Wilder, Berkeley High, ‘15
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Main Season · Roda Theatre
September 9–October 23, 2005
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including two 15-minute intermissions
Berkeley Rep brings Our Town back to our town!
“It’s a little play with all the big subjects in it,” Thornton Wilder wrote to his friend, Gertrude Stein—and that little play proved him right by forever changing American theatre. Opening in the first years of a new century, Our Town still speaks to us about the beauty and transience of life through its bittersweet portrait of a small American town. Like life, the story moves from the carefree to the profound: characters grow up, fall in love, get married, bear children and—in the heart-rending final act—encounter untimely death. The Pulitzer Prize-winning script from one of Berkeley High’s most illustrious graduates has become so familiar that we forget how its debut revolutionized theatre.
Under the direction of Jonathan Moscone, who brought Ghosts to Berkeley Rep in 2004, our production cleaves to this revolutionary spirit. “Across the nation,” writes Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone, “we are engaged in a debate about what it means to be an American. Issues that had become dormant, rights that we had taken for granted are being argued in a public forum and polarizing our country. What better time to revisit the play that has come to symbolize the ideal of how we live among each other? And what a perfect combination of irony and logic: this script that has become an ode to patriotism was written by a Berkeley radical attempting to shake things up.”
Thornton Wilder · Playwright
Jonathan Moscone · Director
Neil Patel · Scenic Design
Lydia Tanji · Costume Design
Scott Zielinski · Lighting Design
Mark Bennett · Sound Design and Additional Music
Michael Suenkel · Production Stage Manager
Katherine Riemann · Stage Manager
MaryBeth Cavanaugh · Movement Coach
Amy Utstein · Dramaturg
Lynne Soffer · Dialect Coach
Susan Swerdlow · Choir Director
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Marissa Wolf · Assistant Director
Joy Meads · Artistic Assistant
Trevor Cheitlin · Joe Crowell, Jr. / Si Crowell
Gideon Lazarus · Joe Crowell, Jr. / Si Crowell
Jacob Cohen · Wally Webb
Alex Kaplan · Wally Webb
Julie Eccles · Mrs. Gibbs
Bill Heck · George Gibbs
Sharon Lockwood · Mrs. Soames
Jarion Monroe · Professor Willard / Constable Warren / Joe Stoddard
Paul Vincent O’Connor · Mr. Webb
Barbara Oliver · Stage Manager
Emma Roberts · Emily Webb
Charles Shaw Robinson · Dr. Gibbs
Ken Ruta · Simon Stimson
Sarah Smithton · Rebecca Gibbs
Emily Trumble · Rebecca Gibbs
T. Edward Webster · Howie Newsome / Sam Craig
Nance Williamson · Mrs. Webb
“Exceptional 14-person ensemble…A gallery of beautifully nuanced performances.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Wonderful and wholesome.”—KGO-AM
“Glows…Burns brightly moment by moment.”—San Jose Mercury News
“Brilliance…Breathes new life into American classic.”—Oakland Tribune
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Back to the roots of Our Town
We Americans have always had a need to define ourselves. Since 9/11, however, the need to articulate our political and moral views has reached both epic and epidemic proportions. No longer protected by geographic isolation, military superiority and economic well-being, in that single, transformative moment we became shockingly and permanently vulnerable. On that day, our sense of entitlement, our assumptions about our way of life, our vision of the future became clouded by fear, anger and an overall need to protect ourselves from any and all outside threats.
The volatility of our emotional reaction was immediately superseded by a chorus of voices from every sector of society defending, and in a few instances, criticizing “the American way of life.” Every citizen was suddenly involved in a debate of some kind or another about core values, about what it means to be an American, about the nature of our local and national identity. Issues that had become dormant, rights that we had taken for granted, comforts that we had packaged as part of our inalienable rights, now suddenly were being argued in a public forum that has continued to polarize our country and create an atmosphere of fierce and increasingly antagonistic vigilance around the things we hold dear.
Some time ago, in the midst of this cacophonous discourse, Jon Moscone and I began discussing the possibility of producing Our Town. I was instantly attracted to the idea. Perhaps no other play in our culture has come to symbolize the ideal of how we live among each other, about the very nature of community. While the play has been performed many times since its controversial premiere in 1938, as time has progressed it has been celebrated more for its powerful description of existential values and the cycles of our lives than for its historical relevance. It has increasingly been relegated to the province of earnest high school productions appealing to a sentimental yearning for small-town America. Forgotten was the play’s historicity: Wilder’s critique of American society and the limitations of that ineffable and controversial value we call freedom.
With the recent attack on our country and on Western democracy and capitalism, the legacy of Grover’s Corners comes into new relief. By producing this play we choose to examine an America that in many ways no longer exists, but which we still rely upon to individually and collectively sustain us. The play still retains its beautiful emotional architecture, chronicling the cycles of life and death in a bittersweet ode to all of existence. But in this new era of global conflict we understand with a stronger sense of urgency that Wilder’s parable of Grover’s Corners is a story that does not exist outside of time.
Fueling our interest is the strange and amazing fact that Thornton Wilder attended Berkeley High! What a perfect combination of irony and logic: that a play which has become an ode to patriotism should be written by a Berkeley radical attempting to shake things up.
We proudly bring Our Town back to our town, in the spirit of inquiry with which it was written.
Whose town is Our Town?
By Amy Utstein
Our Town has been described as an idealized representation of a lost America. There couldn’t be a play that more appropriately reflects “traditional family values” than Our Town. In the homogenous community of Grover’s Corners, certain aspects of complex modern life are unmistakably absent. In Grover’s Corners there are no people of color, no homosexuals, no Jews, no drugs; the biggest problem in town is the town drunk whom, as Mrs. Gibbs recommends, should simply be ignored. In this play, the children—who wouldn’t dream of sassing their parents—marry straight out of high school, mothers stay at home tending to the family’s needs and fathers bring home the bacon and help enforce discipline in the home.
This play is about America—or perhaps we should say—an America. But, what America do we find in it now? We desire a myth of America that makes sense, but in our post-9/11 world, there is a fracture at our core—a crisis in our culture—that can be seen as a battle for the heart and soul of our country. Some people see this as a polarized battle between right and left—between conservatives and progressives.
George Lakoff, linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, interestingly enough uses the metaphor of the family to help explain this polarization. In his essay “Metaphor, Morality, and Politics,” he writes that the conservative worldview can be understood as the Strict Father Model. In this familial structure, the father is responsible for “setting overall family policy” and for protecting his family from internal and external evils. Raising children to be self-disciplined and self-reliant is a primary goal and only through discipline can children become successful adults. Disciplined people will be successful—undisciplined people will not.
The progressive worldview, on the other hand, he describes as the Nurturant Parent Model, which is characterized by parents who believe that their primary responsibility is to protect innocent children from external dangers such as smoking, pollution, drugs, crime, etc. Empathy is an important part of this model’s value system and is used both to motivate children to become their best selves as well as a means of self-discipline. As he notes, “children have commitments and responsibilities that grow out of empathy for others.” This model also stresses the responsibility that each individual owes to the wider community.
If our current political situation can be understood in this context, then what kind of families do we have in Grover’s Corners? Clearly there is much in Our Town that follows the Strict Father model. But for every element of Our Town which falls into this paternalistic system, there are things which subvert it. When looked at closely, Thornton Wilder’s play isn’t a sentimental injunction to “bring back old-fashioned American values”—it is, in fact, quite radical. It speaks of the futility of boys going off to die in foreign wars, questions the readiness of young people for marriage and especially sympathizes with the plight of young women. It specifically negates the idea of husband as boss and recommends mutual respect and communication between spouses. Beyond the family, it exposes the failure of the community to help a member who is suffering and promotes empathy within and outside of the familial structure.
Wilder certainly didn’t intend to write a paean to traditional values. In his introduction to the 1958 publication of Our Town in Three Plays by Thornton Wilder he writes of the then-current state of theatre:
I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive; it did not wish to draw upon its deeper potentialities. I found the word for it: it aimed to be soothing. The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.
One must remember that when the play was written in 1937, Wilder was considered a radical playwright. He played with form and content and, when the play premiered in 1938, it turned the theatre world on its ear. Our Town calls for no scenery, time in the play doesn’t stay constant, actors mime their stage business, scenes begin and end by the will of a “stage manager” who both narrates and participates in the action, characters are both living and dead—and this was during a time when melodramas and light comedies were the staple fare on Broadway.
Playwright Donald Margulies wrote in 2003, “Wilder exploded the accepted notions of character and story…he did for the stage what Picasso and Braque’s experiments in cubism did for painting and Joyce’s stream of consciousness did for the novel.”
Perhaps playwright Lanford Wilson said it best when he wrote in 1987, “Where the hell did [Wilder] get the reputation for being soft? Let’s agree never to say that again. Let’s not be blinded by the homey cute surface from the fact that Our Town is a deadly cynical and acidly accurate play.”
But few people currently think of Our Town as a radically subversive play. It is more often considered an intimate portrayal of the lost sweetness at the soul of small-town America. Perhaps because of our distance from the world in which Our Town was created, audiences have been drawn to the more universal themes of the play that transcend time and culture—our births, our growing up, our loves and our deaths. But, this production is particularly interested in specifically grappling with the cultural and historical distance we have to this play and the inherent friction therein. We have chosen to restore the specific historicity of the play to acknowledge its relationship to the time in which it was created. This, in turn, allows us to see our own selves and society in relation to it. What parts of Grover’s Corners do we crave and what do we reject?
The cultural context has certainly changed; we’ve grown far away from Grover’s Corners and 1938 America. Our relationship to this play is anything but simple—and requires that we explore and explode notions of nation, society, family and community. It doesn’t fit into a nice neat package—clearly delineated and simple to understand—just like America…
Local boy makes good!
Thornton Wilder, winner of three pulitzer prizes, graduated from Berkeley High School—class of 1915. (Okay, there’s a bit more to the story…)
The Berkeley years
Few people today would confuse Berkeley with Grover’s Corners, but for several years during Thornton Wilder’s childhood, Berkeley was “Our Town” to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright. Born in 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin, Thornton was the second son of Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Niven Wilder. Amos Wilder was a newspaper editor who, in 1906, was appointed American Consul General in Hong Kong. While the Wilder family at first accompanied the diplomat to China, they stayed only six months, and then Isabella Wilder returned to the United States with her children. In 1911, when Mr. Wilder was transferred to Shanghai, the family briefly rejoined him, but eventually returned to settle in Berkeley.
Thornton Wilder attended Emerson Grammar School in the Elmwood District, and began high school at the exclusive Thacher School in Ojai. He found boarding school to be a lonely and isolating place. In 1913 he transferred to Berkeley High for his junior and senior years, so that he could live at home with his mother and sisters.
Amos Wilder was a stern Congregationalist who expected his son to be a scholar-athlete and a Christian. Isabella Wilder was artistic and worldly, and she made certain that she and her children took full advantage of the benefits of living in a university town. “In Berkeley,” writes Malcolm Goldstein, “she found opportunities to study informally by attending lectures at the University of California and by participating in foreign-language discussion groups. She was fully aware that her husband, were he present, would not approve, but she encouraged her children, nevertheless, in their independent, extracurricular search for knowledge.” Isabella saw to it that the children were given walk-on parts in plays presented in the Greek Theatre, and even sewed their costumes for them.
Thornton Wilder began writing stories and plays while a student at the Thacher School, and continued at Berkeley High. Theatre became his passion, and he spent hours in UC Berkeley’s Doe Library reading European newspapers to learn more about the modern expressionist movement. “The way other kids would follow baseball scores,” his nephew related, “Thornton’s hobby was reading German newspapers so he could read up on German theatre and great German directors like Max Reinhardt.”
In 1915, Wilder graduated from Berkeley High and enrolled in Oberlin College, where he studied the Greek and Roman classics. When the family moved to New Haven, Connecticut, two years later, Wilder followed, enrolling in Yale University. His first full-length play, The Trumpet Shall Sound, appeared in the 1920 Yale Literary Magazine, but was not produced until 1926. Turned down by the other services due to his poor eyesight, Wilder left school for eight months to serve as a corporal in the Coast Artillery Corps in World War I. He returned to complete his BA in 1920, and then proceeded to Rome, where he studied archaeology at the American Academy. Wilder received his final degree, a master’s in French literature from Princeton University in 1926, but retained his intellectual curiosity throughout his life, reading widely in English, French and German and conversing in Italian and Spanish. He went on to teach French at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, lecture on comparative literature at the University of Chicago, serve as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii and teach poetry at Harvard University. Even after he’d achieved publishing success, Wilder considered himself a teacher first and a writer second.
Wilder’s breakthrough novel was The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), an examination of the fate of five travelers who fall to their deaths from a bridge in 18th-century Peru. The book earned Wilder his first Pulitzer Prize.
While living in Chicago, Wilder became close friends with fellow lecturer Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas. In fact, Stein’s novel The Making of Americans (1925) is said to have inspired Wilder’s Our Town (1938). A huge success on Broadway, Our Town earned Wilder his second Pulitzer, making him the only American author to win Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and drama. In 1988, the play’s 50th anniversary revival on Broadway earned the Tony Award for Best Revival; the 2003 Westport Country Playhouse revival would earn a Tony nomination for the same award.
Before heading off to war, Wilder turned his dramatic attentions from stage to cinema, working on Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and a play based on Franz Kafka’s works, The Emporium. During World War II, Wilder enlisted in the army, rising to lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and earning the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. After his discharge, Wilder completed The Ides of March (1948), a historical novel about Julius Caesar that was his most experimental work.
Inspired (some critics said too closely) by James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth (1943) depicted 5,000 years in the lives of George and Maggie Antrobus, a suburban New Jersey couple, who with their children and maid Sabina struggle through flood, famine, ice and war only to begin again. Premiering in 1942 with Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March and Florence Eldridge in the central roles, the play was Wilder’s critical response to the American entry into World War II. Although many famously exited the theatre after the first act, the play earned Wilder his third Pulitzer.
In the 1950s, Wilder wrote the plays The Wreck of the 5:25 (1957), Bernice (1957) and Alcestiad, based on Euripides’s Alcestis. He revised his Merchant of Yonkers (1938) under the new title The Matchmaker (1954), which was made into a film with Shirley Booth, Anthony Perkins and Shirley MacLaine in 1958. In 1964, the play was turned into the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing. A critical and popular success, the musical went on to win ten Tony Awards and ensured Wilder’s financial security for life.
In addition to Pulitzers and Tonys, Wilder received many literary awards for his work, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction (1952), the first National Medal for Literature (1962), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963) and the National Book Committee’s Medal for Literature (1965). His last two novels were The Eighth Day (1967), which won the National Book Award, and Theophilus North (1973), which is considered autobiographical.
Wilder is believed to have had one or two affairs with younger men, but he never publicly addressed his sexuality and the subject of sexuality was largely absent from his work. Instead, renowned for his sociability and energy, he focused on his countless friends, including Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and Montgomery Clift. On December 7, 1975, Wilder died at the age of 78 in Hamden, Connecticut, where he had lived for many years with his devoted sister Isabel.
The Berkeley years: Reprint courtesy of “Gay Bears: the Hidden History of the Berkeley Campus.”
Beyond Berkeley: Reprint courtesy of Masterpiece Theatre Online.