It was on 22nd January, 1938 that Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town was premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. The play has a fairly simple theme, but it became immensely popular and is now considered an American classic with universal appeal.
Our Town is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners and it is the story of the relationship between two young people, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, whose childhood friendship blossoms into romance, and then culminates in marriage.
Emily dies in child birth. She is then given the opportunity to go back and relive any one day of her life. She decides to revisit her 12th birthday, a day that stands in her memory as the happiest day of her life.
Emily comes back to life just for that one day and she finds herself experiencing every moment with an intensity and joy that he had never felt when she was actually alive and she regrets that she hadn’t lived as well as she could have.
“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” she says as she takes her place among the dead.
Our Town was revolutionary for its time because Wilder decided not to use any scenery and almost no props. He thought that they got in the way of seeing the play as truly universal, and he wanted his play to be more like the great Greek tragedies.
So he got rid of the excess visuals and he added the group of the dead people of Grover’s Corners, who commented on the goings on, much like a Greek chorus.
The play opened in Princeton and then it moved to Boston, where it was a flop. The Boston critics gave it poor reviews, it played to half-empty houses, and some audience members even walked out, including the wife of the governor of Massachusetts.
But two New York theater critics, Brooks Atkinson and Alexander Wolcott, convinced the director and producer to give it another try and bring the show to New York.
It did much better there, although people were divided in the way they felt about it. Some found it inspiring and others depressing.
Our Town won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it is now estimated that on average, it is performed at least once every night somewhere in the world.