Last night at Hillsdale College, I was profoundly moved by the play “Our Town,” written by Thornton Wilder. Set in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, around 1900, the play depicts typical life in small-town America through three acts: daily life, love and marriage, and the meaning of life and death. Though billed as a nostalgic look at rural life in America, the play is deeper than nostalgia. Similar to the poetry of fellow New Englander Robert Frost, Wilder uses the details of rural life to make a profound statement about the vanity of life, in even its most happiest moments.
Hints of this profound side are dropped even at the beginning of the play, when the narrator–a charming, though mysterious character–lets us know that Mr. Gibbs survived his wife by many years, even though we are witnessing Mrs. Gibbs hurry on with breakfast, in an effort to get her children out the door for school. It is this detached sense, this sense of impending death, that sets all the talk about the weather on one hand, and urgency on the other, in a larger, though subtle context. Yes, there is the humor of everyday life, the embarrassment of mishaps, and even the disappointments of not ever going on vacation, as Mrs. Gibbs relates her frustrated dreams to her neighbor, Mrs. Webb. There is also the beginnings of young love, as George Gibbs seeks help in algebra from Emily Webb. Charming. There is even the recurrent mention of small details, such as the sunrise and the butternut tree in Emily’s front yard. Amidst it all, however, stands the march of time, incessantly mentioned by the narrator.
The second act is entirely consumed with George and Emily, how they first knew they were in love with each other, and then the wedding day itself. The awkwardness of first love and the nervousness of one’s wedding are portrayed so well that a husband and wife will likely be led to reminisce themselves about those early days. Again, charming. The act ends, however, in a foreboding way, as the narrator (acting as the preacher) recounts having done two hundred weddings or so, but then wonders why. The story is the same: children, then the first rheumatism; grandchildren, then the second rheumatism; then death, and the reading of the will, to which he adds, “only one in a thousand is interesting.” All the while, a young lady in the back is crying over the (supposed) beauty of the wedding, and the scene ends with her calling out after the bride Emily, “Happiness. That is all that matters.”
At this point, Wilder has thrown down the gauntlet. Is a wedding, or any significant happy moment, the highest meaning of life? From the careful review of details in the first act, Wilder at first seems to be saying that it is the small things in life that make it worthwhile. Do not overlook the sunrise and sunset, the birds and the trees in your yard, or even the interesting people around you every day. In other words, why overemphasize the few “big” days at the expense of so many “small” days?
This re-emphasis on the small things in life may be one message of Wilder’s, but not in the way we may first assume. The third act makes it clear that Wilder is more interested in emphasizing the small things because they are not such a great loss at death. Whether it be the cynicism of the town drunk, who took his life because he perhaps overemphasized this life, or the disappointment of Mrs. Gibbs, who after death realizes she and her husband had the money for a vacation and never took it, the final act uses death to de-emphasize the big things of life. Why should we place so much weight on the big things to make us happy, when they too are doomed to cease when life is over, leaving us with a greater feel of disappointment?
It was at this point that I felt like preaching to the audience. The whole play screams at us, “What is the point of this life?” Like Ecclesiastes, Wilder rightly points out the vanity of life–all of life. Whether we were wise or foolish, happy or sad in this life, it all must end. Death is the great equalizer. And then what? That is where the play monumentally fails. Having set the audience up for such a question, the best Wilder can offer is a false conceit that all is at rest beyond the grave, waiting for a nebulous better future, but certainly better off than the blind people who scurry about in the town, thinking mistakenly that their acts and words have anything significant about them. But on what basis can Wilder give such a hope?
We need eyewitness testimony, not poetic speculation. In space and in time, in the land of Palestine and in the days of Caesar Tiberius, Jesus Christ “abolished death, and…brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10), of which I have been appointed a herald to our town of Hudson, Michigan. The play “Our Town” may be the most popular play in American history, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only true answer to the meaning of life and the vanity that Wilder so rightly perceived. May the Lord use the play to drive despairing sinners to the Light of the Glory of Christ!