Home > Uncategorized > How watching a high school production of “Our Town” sent me into an existential panic

How watching a high school production of “Our Town” sent me into an existential panic

November 24, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I had a chance to watch Our Town the other day while I was back in Detroit for Thanksgiving. I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the show, ever since being involved in a production back in high school. It’s a high school kind of show. Geriatric directors in small town America love putting it on: it’s part of the national theater canon, it’s got a love story, it’s a safe choice. No one ever protested Thorton Wilder. Try doing a high school production of Angels in America. Go ahead. We’ll wait while you get lynched.

I hadn’t seen the show in about fifteen years. Well, really since that high school production I’d done. So it was something of a sense of duty that I went to see it, not really expecting any revelations. You don’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life expecting to catch something new.

But, like many people rewatching the Jimmy Stewart classic for the first time since childhood, I was caught off-guard by how damned dark the story is. The first act, sure enough, is a nice sketch of life in a northern town. Aw, they’ve got umpteen churches. Aw, their idea of ethnic diversity is Polish immigrants. How twee.

All of this is just set-up, though, like a horror movie making us comfortable before the slasher jumps out of the shadows. Like any good horror movie, there are ominous clouds darkening an otherwise sunny day: that sweet paperboy with the bum leg who graduates top of his class at MIT? He gets vaporized by an artillery shell in World War I. “All that education for nothing,” the omniscient Stage Manager declares. There’s the tortured choir leader, who’s self-medicating whatever personal hell he’s going through by being the town drunk, a situation the choir ladies are sure will “end badly.”

Sure enough, the third act consists of a chorus of ghosts of characters from the first two acts. The alcoholic choir master has killed himself, that sweet young girl Emily, the play’s ingenue, has died in childbirth, and we watch her husband weeping alone at the grave of his young wife, while the ghosts look on dispassionately.

But the real whammy comes when Emily’s ghost tries to relive a day from her past, against the advice of her fellow ghosts. Watching her mother and father go through the banal minutiae of preparing breakfast, she breaks down. Why should such a meaningless family tableau hurt? Because, as the Stage Manager says, she knows how the story ends. She knows her brother dies on a camping trip at age twelve, knows how her father dies, knows that she, too, will die. Neil Gaiman once wrote that the trick to writing a happy ending was knowing when to stop telling the story, with “everyone lived happily ever after.” The problem with real life is we see things through to the end. And you and I know how every story ends, don’t we? Yup: everybody dies.

(Follow this link for the third act from the 1989 production at the Lincoln Center, with Spalding Gray as the narrator and Penelope Ann Miller as Emily.)

Wilder, much to his credit, gives us only a glimpse of happily-ever-after before propelling us into what happens next. And here comes the real moral of the play: not only are you going to die (sorry), but looking back over your life is going to hurt you. It’s going to cause you physical pain. You and I and everyone who ever lived are condemned to go through life not knowing what we had until it’s gone.

“It goes so fast,” Emily screams at the end. “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize…all that was going on and we never noticed.” This is normally the place for the comforting bromide about how life is precious, live every moment to its fullest, carpe diem, appreciate your family while you have them, et cetera, et cetera. Wilder refuses. You’re not going to appreciate it. You’re going to glide blithely through your existence to its conclusion and then you’re going to wonder where the time went. Does anyone appreciate life, Emily asks? No, the Stage Manager tells her flatly. “Saints and poets, maybe. They do. Some.” But we’re not in that crew, guys. We’re going to end up like Emily, reliving our past, horrified at our ignorance, wanting only to detach ourselves from the world, and our passions, and our ambitions. Life may be a gift, but one we’re fated not to appreciate.

Creepy, disturbing, existential stuff, as powerful in its way as “Waiting for Godot.” The play hangs on to a sort of vague notion of an Almighty, a position at odds with its more existential elements, particularly in the third act. I attribute this to Wilder’s inability to accept the conclusions his otherwise existentialist philosophy leads him. Probably a good thing, too. The result is a play with a powerful message on transience, impermanence, and disaffection, but wrapped up in so much “Rah-rah-sis-boom-bah” Americana that you can still slide it past the cultural censors.

Sitting in the audience, I was of course thrown back to my own high school production, so many years ago. Like Emily, relived that moment from my past, and others. Realized, of course, how closed off I was, we all were, all looking anxiously toward the future, midterms, Winter Break, toward college and careers. Not being awake and alive and aware of the moment we were in, a moment that’s gone now, gone forever, like this one. And this one. And this. And, as my younger self was too busy living out his future to experience his present, I, in reliving the past, am repeating the same mistake now.

Heh. Heh heh heh.

Yeah, we keep doing this, I’m told. Forever and ever, until one day we stop.


Enjoy Thanksgiving. I mean it. Really. Enjoy it. The cranberry sauce, the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the football game and the Macy’s Day parade. It’ll be gone before we know it and we will not see it’s like again.

And if you happen to be in the New York area over the next two months, you might see this off-Broadway production. I plan to.

Gobble gobble, everyone.

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