A bare black box thrust stage with a 16 inch rise.
An screen/wall for projections runs along the far upstage edge of the stage.
Work lights illuminate the entire theatre space, including the house. The work lights give way to stage lighting. A small pool of light is at the center of the stage. Throughout the duration of the piece, lighting slowly transitions from zero (barely visible) to 100% (extremely bright). The audience shouldn’t sense the light change.
The audience is seated waiting for the play to begin.
The Curator enters with clipboard, pen, stop watch, and bag of fast food and drink. Her hair is up. She sits center stage to review her notes and eats a few bites of her dinner.
The Curator stands with clip board.
The Curator starts the stopwatch.
Ten people walk onto the stage. Five from stage right and five from stage left. They line up along the back edge of the stage, equal distance apart from one another.
From stage left to stage right (cast):
Person 1 – The Critic (male, suit, tie, black shoes) Samuel
Person 2 – Death (male, shorts, T-shirt, running shoes) Diego
Person 3 – Daily Life (female, sweatpants, T-shirt, bare feet) Sarah D
Person 4 – Daily Life (male, jeans, T-shirt, tennis shoes) Jackson
Person 5 – Love/Marriage (female, hair up, casual) Alyse
Person 6 – Love/Marriage (male, jeans, collared shirt, tennis shoes) Bentley
Person 7 – Love/Marriage (male, jeans/sweatpants, T-shirt, bare feet) Paul
Person 8 – Daily Life (male, jeans, T-shirt, jacket, tennis shoes) Nick
Person 9 – Daily Life (female, pajamas, robe, bare feet) Amanda
Person 10 – Love/Marriage (female, sweatpants/jeans, T-shirt, socks) Sarah A
All stand with arms to sides, expressionless.
Text begins to scroll across an overhead projection screen. It is the lines of the Stage Manager from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The letters are 20pt black Trebuchet MS font against a white background. The text runs continuously to the end of the play.
Curator moves a video screen into place center stage left.
Curator moves a small square table (waist high) into place up stage left.
Curator moves a small round table (high top) into place up stage center.
Curator moves a small microwave to the round high top table.
Curator moves a video screen into place center stage right.
Curator moves a video screen into place center stage, in front of the up stage center table.
Curator moves a box (labeled box 1) into place behind the center stage video screen.
Curator stops to contemplate the placement of each once they are in place. She takes a drink of her beverage and a bite of her food. She looks at her stopwatch.
Curator: Critical Text
Person 1 steps out of formation and moves to a position up stage right.
Curator takes a large stack of paper from the box behind the video screen and scatters paper around his feet. Person 1 is buried up to his ankles. Curator goes back to the box and collects a small stack of papers and hands them to Person 1, the critic.
He begins to read in a strong and deliberate voice. There is no emotion or intention in his reading:
Thornton Wilder does not, in the traditional way, demonstrate his attitude toward life in the process of telling a story; his attitude toward life is his story. The stance wilder has assumed is to display the essential flavor and overwhelming value in living itself. His work, From its beginnings, though it then lacked the power and the clarity of his later plays and novels, struggled with remarkable persistency to force the attention of the audience on “the savor of life,” as he puts it, through “death’s contemplation.” The development in Wilder’s work has not been so much on what he wanted to say as on finding and adequate way to say it. Ultimately, of course, his ideas were deepened and strengthened also.
When he first began writing as a child, Wilder made up plays to be acted out by himself, his friends, and his sisters. Though pretending a nd play acting are the stuff of ever childhood, they are usually put away with other childish games: Wilder, however, never stopped writing plays. While at Oberlin and then at Yale in the years 1915-1920 he had the pleasure of seeing some of his early pieces published in the undergraduate magazines and then later in S4N, one of the “little magazines” of the early twenties, edited by recent Yale graduates. He collected in 1938 seventeen of these early plays in one volume, The Angel That Troubled the Waters, which was one of the first books on the list of the newly formed publishing house of Coward-McCann, one of whose partners, Thomas R Coward, had also been at Yale with Wilder. All these plays are short, the longest being about seventeen pages, and Wilder appropriately called them Three Minute Plays. Except, perhaps, for the kind of closet performance given them in the living room of Frank Walls, who taught at the Yale Art School, they were intended only to be read, for they are, except in form, not really plays at all.
Wilder wrote the Three Minute Plays surprisingly under the direct inspiration of a little-known book by Theodore Dreiser called Plays of the Natural and the Supernatural. Though one ordinarily thinks of Dreiser and his powerful version of naturalism and being far from Wilder’s careful style, Wilder so admired this collection of plays, a bookplate he designed for himself when he was at Oberlin, he incorporated Dreiser’s name along with his other enthusiasm of that time, which extended from the actress Elsie Ferguson to the music of Mozart. The plays in Dreiser’s strange little book are a kind of combination of symbolist and expressionist dramas and, like Wilder’s plays, were never intended for the stage. The normally unspoken thoughts of the characters are expressed simultaneously with action, Much of which is purely hallucinatory or outside the mise en scene proper. Little or no attempt is made to represent the shock and new perception of two or more particular people confronting one another. Dreiser depended instead on artificial symbols burdened with obscure meanings, and all the elements in the plays are made to cohere and are given whatever vitality they possess by the mood and expressed intention, rather than by facts and action.
As a young man Wilder naturally was attracted to writing that promised a grat depth of meaning and demanded so little payment in the coin of formal discipline. The Three Minutes Plays appear profound because their shadowy but really simple mystery is disguised by Wilder’s so exceptionally careful writing.
But not only Dreiser’s free and undemanding form attracted Wilder’s imagination; his ideas did as well. In Dreiser’s play The Spring Recital various spirits of priests, a Minister of St. Giles, Three Priests of Isis, and a Monk of the Thebaid, during an organ recital congregate in the upper reaches of a church in an American city. There they observe with contempt a passing troop of “the worst of the earth lovers,” but then they notice with envy a pair of lovers in a pew below. Reversing their earlier judgment, The Third Priest confesses, speaking for them all:
The lure of life! It has never lost its charm for me…The harmony!...How much greater is their reality than ours! And all because of their faith in it.
In Wilder’s play And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead the three characters, The Empress, Horatio Nissem, and Father Cosroe, are pictured as rising through the sea on Judgment Day. They are “slowly liberating their…mind from the prides and prejudices and trivialities of a life-time,” losing their particular characters, but the loss is painful. As each one realizes he will be reduced to his “quintessential matter,” he cries out in anguish to retain his identity: “Let me keep my particular mind, O God, my own curious mind with all I have put into it.”
Wilder adapted to his play Dreiser’s spirits with their nostalgia for material reality and their awareness at the same time of its limitations. The larger rhythm of both plays is the same, dramatizing a shift from scorn for what appear to be life’s trivialities to a bittersweet appreciation of life by those who are no longer living. The religious tone of both plays is generalized, although Dreiser perhaps insists more heavily, through the Priests of Isis and the young lovers, on the identity of religion or life with love, a notion that Wilder developed elaborately in his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
This same idea of forcing attention on life through a consideration of death was used to provide coherence and meaning to the episodic adventures of the hero in Wilder’s first novel, The Cabala, which was published two years earlier than the Three Minute Plays though, of course, it had been written later. At the conclusion the hero is sailing to his native United States after a year in Italy, when suddenly the shade of Virgil manifests itself. Like the spirits in the plays, Virgil’s shade cannot erase a longing for the world. He is caught between the inexpressible beauty of Rome and the Mediterranean and the desirability of Zion. The Cabala adds another dimension to the conflict, since the hero is caught between European history and art, all of which is alive in Rome but foreign to him, and his own identity as a new man, an American. This was simply the novelization of a major struggle in Wilder’s own writing career, and not until Heaven’s My destination – and the very title itself looks back to the conclusion of The Cabala – did he enter safely into the gates of that Zion so desired by Virgil and become a truly American writer.
Though Virgil’s credentials as a guide for the soul are the very best, Wilder’s introduction of his ghost into what is essentially a realistic novel reveals a problem of presentation that he had not yet solved and which seriously flaws a remarkable book – more remarkable, even, when one remembers that it is Wilder’s first. In The Woman of Andros Wilder tried another answer, which, though it dept within the bounds of more or less realistic storytelling, begs the question. Chrysis, the Andrian, embodies the idea of living seen from the vantage point of the dead in a myth or a parable. Wilder escaped the necessity to keep to the limits set by the novel by having the very meaning of the novel clarified not through his own story but through a story told by one of his characters. To refute the idea that life in a family is not heroic, Chrysis tells the story of a young man who returns from the dead for one day with the condition that he must be both “the participant and the onlooker.” He sees “that the living too are dead and that we can only be said to be alive when our hearts are conscious of our treasures; for our hearts are not strong enough to love every moment.”
The Woman of Andros is the last time that Wilder was uncertain in handling his material. Act III of Our Town, when Emily returns from the dead for one day, is a version of the Andreian’s myth in American dress, this time fully dramatized and integrated with the story. Like the hero, Emily is compelled by her experience to bid a somewhat reluctant but also relieved farewell to the living.
Certain places in the first complete manuscript of Our Town suggest that Wilder fretted over whether the audience would understand what he had so carefully arranged. He tended to speak in his own voice, rather than to dramatize what he knew. Near the end of the third act is a short bit of dialogue deleted from the final version. The dead of Grover’s Corners are sitting glumly waiting when Emily returns from her day in the past.
Emily: Mr Stimson, did you go back?
Simon Stimson (harshly): No. There was nothing I wanted to go back to.
Emily: Then you have forgotten it. You are ready for…what comes next?
Simon Stimson (to the stage manager): You tell her.
Stage Manager: Simon Stimson wants me to tell you that he is as much bound to the earth by hate as you ay be bound to it by love.
Here the Stage Manager, vastly oversimplifying, flatly and didactically states what Wilder later showed the audience: the idea that living itself without any sort of moral commitment to the difference between right and wrong, in this case love or hate, possesses the greatest value for man. In the final version Emily has just returned from her “day.”
Simon Stimson (with mounting violence; bitingly): Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those…of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know – that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.
Mrs. Gibbs: Simon Stimson, that ain’t the whole truth and you know it.
Simon Stimson’s unkind words to Emily, especially with the powerful pause after “the feelings of those,” coming directly after the painful experience of her twelfth birthday, present to the audience not only the very behavior his words condemn but also through his indignation his refusal to sink into indifference to a world that very possibly merits it. Simon Stimson’s outburst, like the anger of a satirist, demonstrates a sharp awareness of unrealized, perhaps, but nonetheless genuine human possibilities in living. Just as Achilles in Book XI of the Odyssey, when he says that he would rather be a living slave than a dead king, commits himself to living rather than any idea or view of it, so Wilder in Our Town finally succeeded in dramatizing living – simple, daily living – rather than any conceptualized version of it.
In a letter to Mrs. George Pierce Baker, Wilder explained why he chose to portray living from the position of the dead, and at the same time he measured indirectly just how far he had developed from the Three Minute Plays and the influence of Dreiser.
I had in mind especially the valley of the repentant Kings in about the 8th Canto of the Purgatorio. Same patience, waiting; same muted pain; same oblique side-glances back to earth. Dante has an angel descend mightily and after slaying a serpent who tries to the [sic] enter the Valley every evening, stands guard the rest of the night. Most commentators agree that the allegory means: from now on the Dead must be guarded from memories of their earthly existence and from irruptions of the old human nature associations.
Person 4 picks up from here after the “shift” even though Person 1 has likely already read this section and then some.
Wilder means by “human nature” something like identity with time and place. It is not unfeeling of Emily when she says to Mrs. Gibbs of George’s mourning: “They don’t understand, do they?,” or as in the typescript of the first full version: “They don’t listen to what they’re [sic] heart tells them.” Emily is simply saying that the living do not understand the dead, who are removed from the obfuscating details of life, and that the living should continue to do their very best with life while they still have it. The dead appreciate life painfully well; fortunately they are forgetting.
In the Andrian’s story the hero is required to return “with a mind divided into two persons, -- the participant and the onlooker.” Emily also returns with a mind divided. The Stage Manager says, “You not only live it; but you watch yourself living it.” Emily participates, and Emily also feels the anguish of her own and her family’s inadequacy to life. This double vision acquires additional strength from having the audience witness it. It is more moving to watch Emily than it could possibly be to hear Chrysis tell about the hero, for Chrysis’ story remains abstract and distant, whereas Emily’s plight is arranged not only so that it happens before our eyes but also so that it might be that of each one of us.
Curator brings four more boxes on stage and sets them center stage, slightly left.
Curator brings three chairs on stage. Two tall chairs (or bar stools) are placed at the table up stage center. One chair is placed left of the stage right video screen.
Person 4 moves to sit on the edge of the front of the stage, stage right. He pulls a cell phone or blackberry from his pocket. He begins texting. He texts constantly and through to the end of the play.
Curator brings a single mattress to center stage left.
Curator consults her clipboard and stopwatch several times throughout the remainder of the show.
Curator pulls bedding out of box 2 and places it on the mattress.
Curator leaves the stage and returns with a blue comforter that she places next to the mattress.
Curator pulls a small ashtray from box 2 and places it next to the mattress.
Curator brings on a beanbag chair and pillow and places the beanbag chair downstage center and the pillow next to the mattress.
Curator takes three extension cords and three power strips out of box 1. She hooks up each of the video monitors to power, using zip cords as needed.
Curator takes a DVD (Our Town 1940) out of box 2 and puts it into the center stage left monitor. She starts the movie from the beginning.
Curator makes the bed, placing the pillow on the bed.
Person 8 moves next to the mattress stage left. He is tired. He removes his jacket. He empties his pockets of keys, change, wallet, and receipts, placing them in the ashtray next to his bed. He removes his watch, his shoes, his socks, his pants, and his shirt. He crawls into bed. He sleeps. He wakes. He sits at the edge of his bed. He stands. He stretches. He grabs his shirt, puts it on. He puts on his socks, his pants, his shoes, and his watch. He puts on his jacket. He collects his pocket contents from the ashtray. He repeats the routine over and over.
Curator moves box #3 to the upstage left table.
Curator moves box #4 to downstage left space, slightly right of the mattress, but left of center. She pulls a white bath towel from the box and lays it out. She looks at several different toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste, finally deciding on one toothbrush and one tube of toothpaste. She sets it on the towel. She pulls a large white bowl from the box and places it on the towel. She pulls two hand towels from the box and places them on the large white towel. She pulls two bottles of water from the box and places them on the towel.
Curator: Morning Ritual
Curator removes box #4 from the stage.
Person 3 moves to the towel downstage and kneels on the towel. She opens the toothpaste. She squeezes toothpaste onto the toothbrush. She brushes her teeth.
Person 2 moves to the chair next to the stage right monitor, picking up box 5 on his way. He sets the box down next to the chair. He sits. He opens the box. He takes several magazines and some newspapers from the box. He selects a Wall Street Journal from the selections. He begins to read.
Curator moves to the up stage left table and opens box 3. She removes from the box and places the following on the table: a large white plastic bowl, a small white plastic bowl, two cartons of eggs, a whisk, two wooden spoons, a carton of ‘milk’, baking powder, and a bag of flour. (some items may need to be set upon the floor, depending on room.)
Curator removes box 3 from the stage.
Person 9 moves to the up stage left table. She yawns. She cracks eggs. She pours milk. She pours flour. She stirs. She whisks. She does not repeat the progression. She continually whisks, staring into the egg mixture. She yawns periodically.
Curator: True Love
Person 7 and Person 10 move to the bean bag chair near center stage. Person 7 grabs a newspaper from Person 2’s pile of newspapers. Person 7 sits in the bean bag chair. Person 10 sits on the floor next to the beanbag chair with her head resting on his leg or lap. He hands her a section from the newspaper. They share stories from the paper with each other. They laugh, smile, and are sometime caught up in each of their own reading.
Curator takes the bag of receipts, the box of microwave popcorn, and the white bowl out of box 2 and places it in the middle of the table up stage center.
Person 5 and Person 6 move to the chairs at the table up stage center. They sit. They stare at the bag. They are uncomfortable. She breaks their collective silence by making popcorn. They wait for the popcorn to finish popping. He takes the calculator and checkbook from the bag. Once the popcorn is done, she takes it from the microwave and empties it into the bowl. They eat. After a while, she takes a receipt from the bag. She looks at it. She hands it to him. He looks at it. He hands it back to her. He dumps the bag of receipts onto the table. Receipts are everywhere. They fall from the table. They begin a process of her reading the receipt and he enters it into the checkbook.
Curator dumps the contents (10-15 black compact umbrellas) of box 5 at the feet of Person 2.
Curator takes from box 2 a DVD. Curator puts a DVD (Our Town 1977) into the center stage monitor. Starts playing it from Act II.
Curator removes box 5 from the stage.
Curator takes from box 2 a second DVD. Curator puts a DVD (Our Town 1989) into the stage right monitor. Starts playing it from Act III.
Curator returns and removes the other boxes from the stage.
Curator steps off the stage to view the stage from house left vom. She walks slowly around the stage, viewing it from all sides. She stops periodically to watch. She reviews her clipboard every so often. She sits on the steps house right.
All of the performers freeze. Person 1 and the couples stop talking if they happen to be doing that in the moment.
Curator surveys the stage. She resets the videos to begin running at the start of their respective acts.
She walks around the stage, taking a drink every so often. Perhaps a bite of her dinner if it’s still good.
The performers pick up where they left off, continuing their scenes.
The performers take their pace only slightly slower. The pace change is almost imperceptible, but the Curator is pleased. She makes a note on her clipboard.
All of the performers stop what they are doing. Person 4 and Person 1 switch roles. Person 2 and Person 8 switch roles. Person 10 moves to the upstage center table to sit in the seat occupied by Person 6. Person 7 gets up from the beanbag chair as Person 6 moves to sit in the beanbag chair. Person 7 sits on the floor picking up the newspaper and lays his head on Person 6’s lap/leg. Person 9 switches roles with Person 3. A moment passes as each acclimates to his/her new roles. They are similar but slightly different in their execution and tone.
Person 2 is much slower in his dressing and undressing and sleeps longer than Person 8.
Person 8 reads quickly and seems to be more interested in his immediate environment than person 2.
Persons 6 and 7 are less talkative than the Persons 7 and 10 combination, but generally as happy.
Persons 5 and 10 are more expeditious in their receipt handling than the Persons 5 and 6 couple.
Person 9 brushes her teeth more thoroughly than person 3.
Person 3 seems lost in the kitchen and begins adding more ingredients, each in very small amounts. She begins cracking more eggs from which red liquid emerges instead of eggs.
Person 8 begins to take a greater interest in the umbrellas and begins opening each, making room for them in his space.
Person 8 takes an umbrella to each person in the following order, as they receive the umbrella they stop their action and stare forward in the position they are in:
Person 2 Diego
Person 10 Sarah A
Person 5 Alyse
Person 9 Amanda
Person 6 Bently
Person 7 Paul
Person 3 Sarah D
Person 1 Samuel
Person 4 Jackson
Person 8 stands holding an umbrella. He moves to Person 5 and takes her umbrella.
Persons 1-10 stop what they are doing and listen, but do not turn their focus to watch the lines delivered…
EMILY (PERSON 5): I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
Person 8 moves to Person 1 and takes his umbrella.
SIMON STIMSON (PERSON 1): Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those…of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know—that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.
Person 8 moves to Person 6 and takes his umbrella.
A MAN FROM AMONG THE DEAD (PERSON 6): And my boy, Joel, who knew the stars—he used to say it took millions of years for that speck o’ light to git to the earth. Don’t seem like a body could believe it, but that’s what he used to say—millions of years.
Persons 1-10 freeze.
Curator throws her clipboard down. She goes off stage to retrieve box 5. She collects all of the umbrellas, one by one and puts them back in the box and takes the box offstage.
She returns to the stage and picks up her clipboard. Makes a note.
Person 4 starts reading the following the resumed actions of all Persons.
It was probably best stated by Michael Feingold, “One reason I have no faith in the avant-garde as a phenomenon—I have faith in artists, some of whom are considered avant-garde, but that’s different—is that it has a history. Latterly, it’s even been proud to have one: You find people speaking of “the tradition of the avant-garde”—a contradiction in terms. An avant-garde can’t have a tradition; it has to go where the army as a whole hasn’t gone yet; the tradition of the avant-garde is its absorption into the mainstream, to become part of the everyday melee.
That some works or modes of art never get absorbed in this way doesn’t make them avant-garde forefathers; it simply means they were moving in a direction the public wouldn’t or couldn’t follow, leaving them not forefathers but outsiders. This is no condemnation, especially for a time like ours that has enshrined “outsider art” as a concert. It simply means that their advance scouting didn’t lead anywhere useful, though their risk-taking courage is embodied in the results they left us, like memorials on an overgrown path. Compare, say, Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata—an imperishable work that will never become common theatrical currency—to an avant-garde work as universally accepted as…Our Town.
Calling Thornton Wilder’s most familiar play avant-garde may seem odd; it’s hard to imagine a writer who, at least in America, is more centrally located in the average person’s sensibility. Wilder’s subject is normality; his three famous Broadway successes are tributes to the common sense and stability of marriage and family. Ibsen and Chekhov subverted the happy home right along with the well-made play it cherished; Shaw and Brecht dismantled it and displayed its elements as specimens of society’s economic structure. By the time Wilder began to write plays, the middle-class home that had been the dominant social unit of Western life for over two centuries was in shreds, aesthetically speaking.
Wilder seized this as his opportunity to reshape the theater. He made it his mission to return to square one, rebuilding the family unit as the substance of a new, open-form drama that could test society’s familial assumptions instead of taking them for granted—a notion as radical in its own way as Brecht’s. Wilder, you might say, anticipated contemporary corporate ethics by making transparency of artifice his aesthetic principle. Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth show how effectively he made the mainstream accept his terms. If nobody blinks at a thousand things done on Broadway today that the pre-Wilder theater would have called avant-garde, Wilder’s success is one of the principal causes, so much so that worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned.” …worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…worshippers of the avant-garde “tradition” scoff at him as old-fashioned…
Persons 1-10 resume their activities…
This script was developed as an outline form of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, including a number of available critical writings about the play.