Sunday, March 08, 2009

Back in a Place like Grover’s Corners...

According to Frank Rich in his New York Times Sunday’s Op-Ed piece entitled ”Some Things Don’t Change in Grover’ Corners”, there has been a spike in the number of recent productions of Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town”.

Rich writes:

You can see why there’s a spike in the “Our Town” market. Once again its astringent distillation of life and death in the fictional early-20th-century town of Grover’s Corners, N.H., is desperately needed to help strip away “layers and layers of nonsense” so Americans can remember who we are — and how lost we got in the boom before our bust.

PAROCHIALISM PATRONIZED OR COMMONALITY RE-BRANDED.

The Author grew up in a place interchangeable with Grover’s Corners. A small town in a ubiquitous out-of-the way corner of America. A well-stocked graveyard where only the dates and the first names changed. A park named after a Revolutionary War veteran. Flags and nativism. Shuffling old men and jostling kids sharing the same small Main Street. And churches full of some kind of faithful notions.

Rich continues:

the Stage Manager comes upon the graves of Civil War veterans in the town cemetery. “New Hampshire boys,” he says, “had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they’d never seen more than 50 miles of it themselves. All they knew was the name, friends — the United States of America. The United States of America. And they went and died about it.”

Wilder was not a nostalgic, sentimental or jingoistic writer. Grover’s Corners isn’t populated by saints but by regular people, some frivolous and some ignorant and at least one suicidal. But when the narrator evokes a common national good and purpose — unfurling our country’s full name in the rhetorical manner also favored by our current president — you feel the graveyard’s chill wind. It’s a trace memory of an American faith we soiled and buried with all our own nonsense in the first decade of our new century.


STAGE MANAGERS NOT YET VARNISHED WITH THE “LAYERS AND LAYERS OF NONSENSE.

As kids we saw the nonsense, understood some of it, and felt free from all of it. And hoped that whatever future lay before us, Grover’s Corners was behind us.

“Our Town” took place in the first decade of the 20th Century. We are now a hundred years away from those folks. Shellacked with even more layers of nonsense.

A hundred years away from Grover’s Corners, the country faces another depression. The second time in less than one hundred years. As kids in Grover’s Corner we listened to our grandparents spin tales of hard times. Bank failures. Collapse in confidence.

Kids don’t listen. But they do have confidence. And what faith they have is faith in growing up smarter and avoiding a fate worse than death, the fate of their town.

WHEN DID THEIR TOWN BECOME OUR TOWN?

“Our Town” debuted in the hard times of 1938. Nine years after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

In the 71 years since, Wilder’s drama has become a permanent yet often dormant fixture in our culture, like the breakfront that’s been in the dining room so long you stopped noticing its contents. Requiring no scenery and many players, “Our Town” is the perennial go-to “High School Play.” But according to A. Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew and literary executor, professional productions have doubled since 2005, including two separate hit revivals newly opened in Chicago and New York.

Just as “Our Town” has become a cultural fixture, the “Their Town” has perhaps inexorably, become the Author’s Town.

But with Wilder’s Grover’s Corners “Our Town” came a faith, a faith in commonality of purpose. An iconic place that can exist, that hope can create when the present has been debased and prostituted.

But even if the play has become a cultural fixture, can the national faith of “Our Town” be revised, re-branded, or at least revisited?

The Author, and his childhood friends, long ago picked “Their Town”. Their cloth was cut early, their chains girded later. Their faith long subsumed by a reality of mean psychic subsistence.

CAN OUR TOWN RETURN?

Some face this national economic challenge with hope and resolve. Some with despair and resignation. Some, like the Author and his friends from Grover’s Corners, left their faith on Main Street and the school yard. But not their intellect and that small place that remains unlayered in nonsense.

Is the country in a place where whatever faith may be gleaned from “Our Town”, or whatever was missed by a reading of “Their Town”, be made common again? Or is the best we can do a nostalgic re-release of a 71-year old play that first showed when hardship reigned and recovery had yet to dawn.

THE AUTHOR HAS PLAYED THE ROLE OF THE STAGE MANAGER IN THE DESERT OF THE REAL!

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