Last night, I had a very strange dream about finding out that I hadn’t heard from a very good friend of mine (whom I sometimes refer to as my “sister,” incidentally, because reasons) for so many years because she had died in childbirth. I’m not sure why, nor am I sure why it immediately reminded me of the play “Our Town,” but it gave me the idea to expand on two criticisms that I have of that theatrical travesty.
When I first read the play almost twenty years ago, I summed up my thoughts about it as such: no-one [in Grover’s Corners] ever really died, because no-one ever really lived. Of course, the plot of the play is only part of the problem, so I’ll stick a pin in that and come back to it later. For now, I’d like to rip apart the setting, or rather, lack thereof. The premise of the play is that there are no props and no setting, so as “not to distract from the character interactions,” which I would argue only shows just how shallow and boring said character interactions are, but I digress. For me personally, I find the lack of setting and props has the opposite effect, breaking any sense of immersion, and combined with the fact that the stage manager is the main character in the play, albeit one who doesn’t interact with the rest of the cast, merely exacerbates that problem. The fact that characters pretend to interact with objects that aren’t there is even more jarring, to the point where I was tempted to scream “oh, for fuck’s sake, give her a real basket and some goddamned string beans!”
I don’t think that I need to elaborate on my criticisms of the play. I am not enough of a pompous windbag to be able to stretch out what I’ve already said into a thousand words (the typical length of an undergraduate level essay assignment) without simply levelling a litany of insults at it. On the opposite side of that very same coin, I am not the type of person who simply complains. I’m an engineer, so when I see a problem, I want to fix it. Since I’ve also gotten a lot better at storytelling, and writing in general, since I was twelve, I’m going to attempt to outline a story with the same basic plot as “Our Town,” but in such a way as to make it into a coherent and engaging story, rather than the shortest, cheapest and most infuriating insomnia cure ever written (either that, or a deliberately shoddy propaganda piece intended to make people hate small-town America… you can probably tell where my mind has been lately).
First of all, the setting needs to be rich, rather than absent. For starters, the fictional town of Grover’s Corners is the most boring place on earth, where nothing happens. Either change the town’s backstory, or set the story in a real town, because any real town, no matter how small, has a far richer history than Grover’s Corners. Second, rather than a dry introduction by a series of disinterested narrators, open with a slideshow or something like that, a timelapse through the centuries, perhaps, that depicts how the town got to the way it was. In other words, show, don’t tell. A picture is worth a thousand words, but then, I already summed up the entire play in only a hundred. Third, if the intent for the play was a “slice of life” type of narrative, then realistically, it would include some sort of conflict, gossip, or banter between the characters. What we see instead are shallow, vapid, perfectly polite one-dimensional conversations between unfeeling automatons pretending to be human.
It’s hard to say where the introduction ends and act one truly begins. After all, the writing is poor and disjointed; Thornton Wilder is hardly on the same level as Karel Čapek or William Shakespeare, and I will continue to get my cathartic digs in as I try to offer constructive criticism (this play really is awful). Since acts two and three focus primarily on George and Emily, then the introductory narration can end as soon as those two are introduced, following a montage of all the other main characters. Speaking of main characters, the stage manager is getting written out of my version – he (or she) can stay off the stage and out of sight, unless, of course, the stage manager can lay on some thick sarcasm, like so:
Our story takes place in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, 40 degrees north, 70 degrees west, which is actually in Massachusetts, but hey, details. It should stand to reason that this fictional town be impossible, because nowhere in even New England is as insufferably boring as Grover’s Corners, a place so polite and dull that all the children act like middle-aged men who have resigned themselves to being whipping boys for their fat and psychopathic wives [cue the snickering from the handful of Pink Floyd fans who understood that reference].
Now then, whose voice would be most appropriate for that delivery: the snooty judge from Futurama, Peter Griffin, or Ben Stein? Seriously, at this point we have two options: defile the solemnity of the original play by turning it into the verbal equivalent of slapstick, or keep the boring story, but dress it up and make it more immersive. I could write this critique in the “choose your own adventure” format, but I think it would be better if I just re-wrote the entire play twice. Of course, it is important to note that Wilder wrote “Our Town” almost purely out of spite, since American theatre was in quite a sorry state in the 1930s, for obvious reasons. Then again, if this is the greatest American play ever written, then I doubt American theatre was ever any good – but maybe that’s just my Shakespearean bias becoming self-aware and soliloquising.
Since act one is basically one long character sketch with no plot whatsoever, I think it pertinent to move the flashback from act two to the end of act one, and maybe elaborate on it. As I said, unless the stage manager is going to make things interesting, he shouldn’t be in the damn play, and the main characters should be George and Emily.
Act two is the most infuriating to me. I’ve never been involved in a romantic relationship, but even I know that people who are madly in love do not even attempt to rationalise their actions, much less actually behave rationally. If George and Emily are in love, they would not both get cold feet at the same time. If they aren’t in love, both believe they aren’t ready for marriage, but decide to get married anyway, what’s the reason? All I can think of is the pressure by “society” to do so, and there is no dissenting voice, nothing at all to dissuade them. Perhaps George could have an elderly relative, or better yet, the jaded church organist, Simon, plant the idea in his head: “listen Georgie, what you call ‘love’ is just a chemical reaction that compels animals to breed; it hits hard, and then slowly fades, leaving you stranded in a failing marriage. I did it, your parents are going to do it, break the cycle Georgie, rise above, forget the farm and go back to school; get out of this one-horse town and never look back.” Alright, alright, maybe not a total ripoff of Rick Sanchez, but at least you can see where I’m going with this. Of course, we already have two characters that are sceptical of marriage, the Crowell brothers, but they aren’t exactly the “wise but cynical old man” types.
Act three has a surreal premise, and a tremendous amount of potential – by which I mean that death has the greatest potential for character development, all of which is wasted in the actual play. The dead are nothing more than transparent versions of their living selves, which should not be. Simon is still a bitter, nihilistic drunk (ok, not really, but wouldn’t it be tremendously entertaining if he were drinking from a whiskey bottle at Emily’s funeral, and all the living onlookers simply see a bottle floating in midair?), and everyone else still has unfinished business, but unable to finish it and find peace… no wonder even the Soviets found this play “too depressing” to be shown in East Berlin. Speaking of the total absence of character development, the rest of the final act is devoted to Emily revisiting her twelfth birthday… WHY?! What’s the point of these pointless flashbacks, other than to illustrate that all of these characters are sentimental children? Again, this I think can be fixed with a little dark humour. The blasé line of “how’d she die? Oh, had a bit of trouble bringing a babe into the world” (“a bit of trouble,” understatement of the year) gives me an idea: ghost Emily holds up a ghost baby and hisses: “you killed me, you ungrateful brat” in the same style as Markus Meechan telling his pug “you ruined my life.” Maybe you don’t find this funny, but always remember my favourite Stalin quote: “dark humour is like food, not everyone gets it.” Since act three is all about death, the possibilities are endless to make it both entertaining and insightful.
I have no idea where I’m going with this. My own thoughts are becoming a bit disjointed trying to critique this disjointed non-story. Maybe I’ll revisit this idea at some point. For now, I have my own fiction writing to return to.