In our house, we get the milk delivered instead of buying it from the supermarket. It arrives every Wednesday morning accompanied by a packet of mixed-flavour yoghurts and my husband, who usually gets out of bed earlier than me, goes to get the dairy produce from the front step and places it in the fridge while I am still asleep. Fascinating, right?
Wrong. The humdrum domestic details of someone else’s life are rarely genuinely interesting. Unless, that is, they’re imbued with extra significance thanks to wider contextual information (I get the milk delivered at a point in history where most people have converted to buying it themselves and, along with it being a way of practising the sustainability principles I preach, it’s also a massively nostalgic act that reminds me of visiting my friend’s dairy farm as a kid). Or, the everyday activity is made not-everyday through some charming anecdotal addition – like the time our milk was opened and drunk by the blue tits!
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is crammed with the day-to-day details of life in Grover’s Corner, a small town in the north east of the USA. Through its meta-theatrical format – there’s a ‘stage manager’ (Laura Rogers) present throughout who acts as town tour guide – the audience learns everything from the geographical locations of churches to the relationships between its inhabitants. It’s a play that relies on context in more than one sense. Its deliberate everydayness and the implied idea that this could be any town anywhere, makes it ideal for instilling with extra meaning, or for use as a metaphor. Lyn Gardner, for example, has written movingly on how Sarah Frankcom’s production at the Royal Exchange was charged with heart-breaking significance when staged just after the Manchester Arena bombings.
There’s also the general assumption that people will relate to Our Town simply because everyone knows ‘our town’, whether or not they grew up in a parochial backwater. In presenting a microcosmic view of a society from birth until death, it has the potential to be used as an example of how a place of any size, up to and including a nation, relates to each other, its ancestors and outsiders. And finally, its status as A Classic means that any number of people will arrive at a production of Our Town with existing ideas about Why This Play Matters and What Each Bit Means.
For my part, Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was the first time I had ever seen Thornton Wilder’s play. So I came to it pretty much blind, without pre-existing ideas of its ‘worth’ or ‘status’. This meant that I, more than those who already love or feel nostalgic for it, needed convincing of why it’s seen as ripe for so many revivals. To put it simply: this is not the production to do that. Performed in normcore modern dress (a blank slate of North Face fleeces and school camp sturdy demin) against an elevated stand of plastic chairs like those lining a high school athletics track, McDougall’s is sort-of set in today’s world and sort-of set absolutely nowhere. The intention of this might have been to emphasise the versatility and inherent relate-ability of Our Town, but like a lot of theatre that attempts to crystallise how from the specific we get the universal (or from the local we get the global) by getting rid of the specific and the local, it destroys any sense of the universal and the global.
The result, in general, is simply one of boredom. It’s extremely hard to remain engaged when listening to the ins-and-outs of Grover’s Corner’s existence. There can be something truly magical about knowing a place in minute detail (like Nan Shepherd in the Cairngorms or, for many readers, Gilbert White in Selborne), but there’s also something massively tedious about fixating on how many beans Mrs so-and-so has to pickle this year or whether the cars on Main St are still travelling too fast.
More importantly, the over-riding ‘one happy, happy community’ aesthetic eliminates possibly the most interesting thing about Our Town which is that communities, especially ones in small towns, are rarely happy. Here’s another anecdote from my life: I grew up in a small town in Somerset. There was a Methodist church, a CofE church, a Baptist church, a Catholic church and a Quaker Meeting House. The milkman rattled down the street at around 5am and in the summer you could walk to the nearby village of Runnington to pick strawberries. I miss those strawberries, I miss the air and the sky and fields. But I don’t miss the town because I, like a huge number of other people who grew up in small places, couldn’t wait to get the fuck out. Small towns are festering pits of insular gossip, hotbeds of prejudice against anyone different, anyone not from around there. This is what makes my nostalgic milk-buying so inherently fucked up. For every cutesy memory of the countryside there’s ones of feeling sick, sad and stifled.
Wilder’s Our Town hints at specifically this tension. Take for example, the Stage Manager’s comment that everyone in the town gets married. They go to school, leave school and marry. Let’s unpick that. What it actually means it that everyone conforms to the same expectations to enter a version of heterosexual monogamy wherein the men run farms and earn money, and the wives raise children or, in the case of Emily Webb (Francesca Henry), die in labour before their 30th birthdays. The consequences of not following this path are never explored because, well, ‘everyone’ gets married, right?
‘Everyone thinks…’ or ‘everyone does…’ are the rallying cries of societies that rely on individuals sticking to the rules and playing their allotted roles (almost, as Wilder neatly alludes to, like taking a part in a pretty basic play). We shouldn’t see in Our Town a lovely example of community, we should see in it something much darker, a representation of much more unpleasant human tendencies. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves there’s anything uniquely American about the lifestyle Wilder depicts. It’s the islander mentality. The one that’s eventually leaves everyone crying over spilt milk.
Our Town is on at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 8th June. More info and tickets here.