Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

‘No curtain, no scenery’: At 85 ‘Our Town’ Endures in the Catholic imagination

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published November 30, 2023

I’ve always loved the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, particularly the week before Advent begins, the waning days of what Catholics call Ordinary Time. 

The Halloween decorations are long gone, the turkeys and pilgrims are put away, and there is an almost blank canvas until the splendor of Christmas. Though the secular world plans for the holidays months in advance, my mind enjoys a quiet respite from the fuss and tries to embrace the silent patience of Advent. 

I’ve worked in a parish for over 10 years, and I never cease to be humbled by the pageantry of life that unfolds day by ordinary day. On any given day at a parish, there are babies baptized; couples married and funeral Masses offered. Events associated with all of life, from infancy until interment, might take place over the course of one day.   

To me, this is the stunning and beautiful achievement of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “Our Town,” one of the most beloved American plays of the 20th century, and arguably the best. In its depiction of life in the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, Wilder captures the essence of the old Catholic cliché that throughout life we are to church “carried, married and buried.” 

By breaking the “Fourth Wall” between stage and audience, Wilder allows each viewer or reader of the play to impose their own town, their own experience of life, into the fictional town of Grover’s Corners.  

“Grover’s Corners is your hometown and mine. It’s everyone’s hometown (all over the world), Wilder once wrote. 

Wilder was not Catholic, but his play has long been among the most popular produced by Catholic High School drama clubs. I think that may be because the play resembles a Catholic liturgy. 

“Our Town” in many ways represents the church, or at least the liturgical aspects of the church. The play moves across time from the present, into the past and toward the future. At all moments in the play, past, present and future are apparent—much like in the liturgy. In the Mass, for example, which Thomas Merton compared to a “dance,” we memorialize the past of Christ’s passion and sacrifice, re-enact it as an offering in the present and anticipate our fulfilled participation in the divine life of the future. 

Frank Craven, Martha Scott and John Craven in the original 1938 Broadway production of ”Our Town.” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the play is not an explicitly Catholic work, nor Grover’s Corners a Catholic place—the Catholic Church is “over beyond the tracks” and only 12% of the town belong to it—it captures so much of the essence of Catholicism, particularly its understanding of time, place and the mystery inherent in the everyday. 

Consider that the Stage Manager, perhaps the most important character in the play, is like God in his omniscience. He seems to have always been and intends always to be. 

At the beginning of Act II, the Stage Manager reports that three years, or “a thousand days,” have gone by. In that time, babies have been born; couples have married; and people have lived, aged, died.  

“All that can happen in a thousand days,” says the Stage Manager, who then considers marriage, and tells us that this is what Act II will be about. “Most everybody in the world climbs into their graves married.” 

Then, in three short sentences, he essentially reveals the entire plot of the play: “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about.” 

 Knowing the eternal 

As a Catholic, I can’t help but look at the play like the Mass. I’ve read and seen and taught the play over and over. I know what will happen. Yet just like Mass, though I know by heart all the parts, I remain enthralled. 

There is an interesting moment before George Gibbs and Emily Webb are married. The Stage Manager will play the part of the minister who marries them. He says that some churches consider marriage a “Sacrament,” and reports that though he doesn’t really understand what that means, he can guess. Thus, by stepping out of his role as Stage Manager into a role as a minister, he essentially becomes like a priest through whom Christ works. As he says, closing his “sermon,” “The real hero of this scene isn’t on the stage at all, and you know who that is.” 

In the cemetery scene in Act III, the Stage Manager reports that we all know what is coming, what is certain. “We all know that something is eternal. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” The Stage Manager goes on to essentially describe what Catholics think of as Purgatory. The old world passes away, and “weaned from the world,” the dead enter a new one. 

The dead in the cemetery affirm this; they speak continually of ‘What is ahead.”   

Yet none of the dead are as eloquent as young Emily Webb, who lived and loved briefly and dies in childbirth. Ignoring the advice of the dead, she makes a kind of Dickensian visit to her childhood home, but she can’t bear what she sees. She laments, “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 and 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.” 

In my favorite exchange in the play, Emily asks the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live in it?—every, every minute?” 

“No,” the Stage Manager replies. Then he pauses. “The Saints and the poets, maybe—they do some.” 

In that statement, Wilder encapsulates one of my core beliefs about the connection between art and faith. He elaborated further upon this in one of his many statements about the play: “The response we make when we ‘believe’ a work of the imagination is that of saying: ‘This is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now in the presence of this play or novel or poem or picture or piece of music I know that I know it.’” 

The Mass is a profound comfort. So, too, is a great work of art. And so are the ordinary moments that make up a life, for as Wilder explained, “The play is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” 

“Emily learns that each life—though it appears to be a repetition among millions—can be felt to be inestimably precious. Though the realization of it is present to us seldom, briefly, and incommunicably. At that moment, there are no walls, no chairs, no tables: all is inward. Our true life is in the imagination and the memory.” 

The opening stage direction of the play states simply, “No curtain. No scenery.” Our Town remains one of my favorite literary works. I first read it in bed in the 10th grade, and I read it again in bed last night, even though I had watched the play the day before. The play works just as well whether on stage or page, and we don’t need scenery, being in eternal imagination and memory. 

The best productions of the play take this literally. My favorite staging of the play, and the one most recommended by the Thornton Wilder Society, is the 1988 production with Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager. Hal Holbrook and Paul Newman also had turns as the Stage Manager. All these productions are easy to find on YouTube or streaming services. 

“Our Town” is a remarkable achievement, and it is a work that the Catholic imagination and intellect render even more vivid. In less than two hours, Wilder gets it all in—love and death, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. And he does it in the most ordinary—and therefore extraordinary—place of all, the interior life of your own hometown.  

David A. King, Ph.D. is a professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.