‘Our Town’ Essay, Research Paper
STAGE MANAGER: This is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. – This is the way we were. – Thornton Wilder, Our Town Compare and contrast the way in which two modern American dramatists present the past? Our Town, written by Thornton Wilder in 1938, is a patriotic tale about small-town American life before the First World War. This classic play traces the simple, wholesome lives of two families, the Gibbses and the Webbs, and represents their daily lives, marriage and death, staged without scenery, narrated by a Stage Manager. His rhetorical style of lyrical dialogue and “extended speeches full of vivid imagery or highly rhythmic phrases, sometimes approaching the intensity and musicality of verse drama”, complemented by non-naturalistic staging has influenced writers such as Tennessee Williams. While Brooks Atkinson has called this text a “hauntingly beautiful play”, others have criticised it for displaying a sentimental view of American past, perpetuating the nation’s myths about itself. Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, published in 1945, uses expressionist devices such as poetic language, undisguised verbal and physical symbols, and an operative mode of suggestion in order to present the lives of the Wingfield family in Depression era St. Louis. In determining whether Wilder and Williams present an idealised vision of an American past, it is fundamental to examine their use of realism versus expressionism and the concept of alienation within the text. One must also investigate the didactic elements of these texts in order to assess whether these are ideological texts encouraging conservatism, or radical plays promoting social change. In his preface to the play, Wilder attacks naturalistic, museum showcase drama of the 1920’s, such as Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, claiming that he “began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive… The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.” Wilder has attempted to restore realism to the theatre, and one co uld argue that this is through the utilisation of anti-illusionary devices. The concept of alienation is fundamental to the way in which we as the audience read the play. For example, if the dominant theme within these plays is that the past was positive, and that conservative values should therefore be retained, and we are encouraged to become emotionally involved in the action, we may absorb these values. If however, we are alienated from the drama by the use of anti-illusionary devices, even if the dominant theme is one of nostalgia, we may be made to regard this with cynicism. Wilder’s first form of alienation within Our Town is the use of narration throughout the play. The Stage Manager plays a fundamental role in setting the scene from the beginning: “This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder…” In much the same way that Bertolt Brecht utilises narration within plays such as Caucasian Chalk Circle, in order to create audience alienation, it could be argued that the Stage Manager serves to remind the audience that they are in an artificial setting. However, while Brecht prevents the audience from being lulled into a false sense of emotion, Wilder promotes the audience to become involved in the action: Stage Manager: Now is there anyone in the audience who would like to ask Editor Webb anything about the town? Although the audience is reminded that they are in a theatre, they are encouraged in become involved in the story, therefore losing their subjectivity. We, the audience, are seduced into the illusion that we too are townspeople. Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie also employs narration within his text through his central character, Tom, who introduces the setting of the play: Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. In this context, the audience is offered a glimpse into the life of the Wingfields while at the same time being distanced from the poignant action through Tom’s ironic narration. In his production notes to The Glass Menagerie, Williams outlines the importance of expressionism within his plays: Expressionism and all other unconventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth. When a play employs unconventional techniques, it is not, or certainly shouldn’t be, trying to escape its responsibility of dealing with reality, or interpreting experience, but is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are. This attempt to find a closer approach to truth is otlined in Tom’s opening speech: Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. Alienation is also created through the utilisation of flashbacks and time lapses within the two texts. One example of this is in the final scene of Our Town, when the deceased Emily travels back in time, reliving her childhood to discover that “it goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” Similarly, The Glass Menagerie involves the use of flashbacks; the play is narrated by Tom in the present, years after the dramatized action, and his relation to the story he is telling is paramount to the play: To begin with, I turn back time. I reverse it to that quaint period, the thirties, when the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy. Although both plays constantly refer to the past through the use of a narrator, the Stage Manager in Our Town looks back on small-town life in the provinces with nostalgia, idealising and romanticising life at the turn of the century, whereas Tom – claimed to represent Williams’ reflections of a repressed youth – is bitter about his past. The set directions of both plays serve to enhance the audience’s nostalgia. The minimalist set of Our Town, which, according to the stage directions in Act One, includes neither curtain nor sc enery, in which an audience arrives to see an empty set in half-light, further alienates the spectators, reminding them that they are in a theatre rather than witnessing escapist drama. Mime sequences, such as the newspaper delivery, complimented by narration also create alienation: “The properties are kept to a minimum: the characters pantomime eating and in every way supply an imaginative, unrealistic counterpoint to the real events of the story.” The Glass Menagerie is set in an apartment “in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower middle-class population . . .” The characters make their entrances and exits via a side alley containing a fire escape, in which Tom makes his reflective speeches, setting himself aside from the action taking place within the Wingfield home. The interiour consists of a living room downstage and a diningroom upstage, which are divided by a second proscenium with transparent faded portières. This device allows the audience to share in what may appear to be a private insight into Tom’s past, and overhear confidential conversations between the Wingfields, drawing us to share their conflicts. The play therefore removes barriers between the audience and the actors by encouraging us to become involved, both through Tom’s direct soliloquy to the audience, and through the invasive scenery. In examining the extent to which modern American dramatists present an idealised vision of an American past, one must examine the didactic content within the two plays. One may both argue that Wilder presents a radical social message within Our Town or that he encourages conservatism. The way in which the institution of marriage is dealt with is fundamental. Mr Webb’s attitude towards married life suggests that Wilder may be presenting an alternative to sexual oppression: Mr Webb: George, I was thinking the other night of some advice my father gave me when I got married. Charles, he said, Charles start out early showing who’s boss, he said. Best thing to do is to give an order, even if it don’t make sense; just so she’ll learn to obey. And he said: if anything about your wife irritates you – her conversation, or anything – just get up and leave the house. That’ll make it clear to her, he said… So I took the opposite of my father’s advice and I’ve been happy ever since. However, the patriarchal message at the beginning of Act Two is highly conservative, promoting gender role stereotypes: Stage Manager: And there’s Mrs Gibbs and Mrs Webb come down to make breakfast, just as though it were an ordinary day. I don’t have to point out to the women in my audience that those ladies they see before them, both of those ladies cooked three meals a day – one of ‘em for twenty years, the other for forty – and no summer vacation. They brought up two children a piece, washed, cleaned the house – and never a nervous breakdown. By addressing the domestic duties of the women within Our Town specifically to female members of the audience, Wilder is justifying gender role stereotypes, suggesting that women should not complain about their domestic roles within society, and such subordinate themselves to men. Wilder is encouraging conformity within society and reinforcement of traditional values through Mr Webb’s dismissive treatment of the Belligerent Man in Act One: Belligent Man: Is there no one in town aware of social injustice and industrial inequality? Mr Webb: Oh, yes, everybody is – somethin’ terrible. Seems like they spend most of their time talking about who’s rich and who’s poor. Belligerent Man: Then why don’t they do something about it? Mr Webb: Well, I dunno… I guess we’re all hunting like everybody else for a way the diligent and sensible can rise to the top and the lazy and quarrelsome can sink to the bottom. But it ain’t easy to find. Meanwhile, we do all we can to help those that can’t help themselves and those than can we leave alone – Are there any other questions? Wilder presents the man as subversive, trouble-making, the exception rather than the rule – by calling him “belligerent”, he is making him a hostile and aggressive subject of ridicule. Although smalltown life is portrayed as a harmonious entity, the character of Simon Stimpson, a dissolute drunk who eventually commits suicide, suggests that this closeknit community has its flaws. However, Wilder makes no attempt to explain Stimpson’s motives for deviation and social demise; his abnormalities are depicted as being personal, rather than a product of society. The Glass Menagerie at first glance appears to be a radical play, challenging the consumer culture of the Twenties that led to the Depression, and addressing contemporary issues such as the Spanish civil war: In Spain there was revolution. Here there was only shouting and confusion. In Spain there was Guernica. Here there were disturbances of labour, sometimes pretty violent, in otherwise peaceful cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Saint Louis. . . This is the social background of the play. However, the predominant conflict within this play is an internal one between Tom and his domineering mother, Amanda, rather than a social critique of American society. Although Tom as narrator constantly refers to the Wall Street Crash and the warfare in Europe, it is always as events outside the play and separated from it; the focus within the text is so internal that Jim, the gentleman caller is called “an emissary from a world of reality that we were somehow set apart from.” The focal point is the interaction between the three principal characters, Amanda, Tom, and his invalid sister Laura, all of whom are presented as individuals who are unable to function in the outside world. The past is a fundamental aspect within Our Town; the graveyard sequence describes the graves of puritan settlers and civil war Unionists: Stage Manager: And genealogists come up from Boston – get paid by city people for looking up their ancestors. They want to make sure they’re Daughters of the American Revolution and of the Mayflower…Over there are some Civil War veterans… Wilder is perpetuating America’s ideological myths about itself, displaying a sentimental and nostalgic view of an idealised past, in which White Anglo Saxon Protestant settlers established a harmonious community, which they were prepared to unanimously sacrifice their lives for, although the soldiers had never seen the “America” that they had been fighting for. However, these geneologists and patriotic ancestor-hunters are presented as objects of mild ridicule. The past plays an equally fundamental role within The Glass Menagerie. Amanda is constantly referring to an idyllic period during her youth, when she was the object of male attention, and she is perpetually reliving the part of the “Southern belle”: My callers were gentlemen – all! Among my callers were some of the most prominent young planters of the Mississippi Delta – planters and sons of planters! There was young Champ Laughlin who later became vice-president of the Delta Planters Bank. Hadley Stevenson who was drowned in Moon Lake and left his widow one hundred and fifty thousand in Government bonds. There were the Cutrere brothers, Wesley and Bates. Bates was one of my bright particular beaux! He got in a quarrel with that wild Wainwright boy. They shot it out on the floor of Moon Lake Casino. Bates was shot through the stomach. Died in the ambulance on his way to Memphis. His widow was also well-provided for, came into eight or ten acres, that’s all. She married him on the rebound – never loved her – carried my picture on him the night he died! Amanda Wingfield’s constant referral to the past displays nostalgia, a longing to relive her past through her past through her daughter, Laura, whom she wishes to find a “gentleman caller”. However, although both texts involve a nostalgia for the past, this theme is presented very differently; whereas Wilder’s illylic vision of an American past is presented as a positive, patriotic artifact, Williams’ treats Amanda’s character with ridicule; we are encouraged to identify with the cynical Tom rather than his fanciful mother. The South that Williams envisions is disintegrating, out of place with the modern world: Nostalgia is the first condition of the play. But this is a nostalgia for a past which never actually existed. Like Willy Loman’s Death of a Salesman, Williams’ characters find themselves stranded in a void of time and space, in which they cannot relate neither to their setting nor to the times in which they live. This results in “distorted memories of the past, or wistful dreams of a redemptive future.” Although it is impossible to generalise about modern American drama on the basis of two texts, one can observe that the past plays an important role. Both plays share defining characteristics of alienation, created through narration and flashbacks. However, while Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is a highly sentimental text, encouraging conformity and conservatism through its idealised vision of an American past, Tennessee Williams treats the past as a source of mild ridicule. Despite Wilder’s utilisation of controversial and radical alienation effects such as minimalist scenery, narration, time-lapses and mime sequences, unlike Bertolt Brecht, he does not serve to challenge society or encourage objectivity. Rather than reminding the audience that they are in an artificial setting, he is drawing them into the action, encouraging them to use their imagination through the Stage Manager’s vivid descriptions (”You can see range on range of hills – awful blue they are – up there by Lake Sunapee and Lake Winnepesaukee…”) and get more rather than less involved in the story. Tom’s cynical narrative sequences to the audience in The Glass Menagerie, delivered from the fire escape, serve to alienate the audience from the dramatic interractions between the Wingfields inside the house. However, the invasive set construction, which allows us to observe action in the back of the house through the use of a transparent proscenium, encourages us to become more involved. Gender differences in Our Town are portrayed as being essential to the community, and any advocater of social change is treated with scorn and is ridiculed, such as the Belligerent Man. Similarly, any problems experienced by characters in The Glass Menagerie are dealt with in a personal, rather than a social basis, so that any polemic element is neglected. By having the Stage Manager o f Our Town announce at the beginning of the play that “This is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century”, Wilder is demonstrating that he is presenting an idealised vision of a nostalgic past rather than an historical phenomenon.