Monday, November 22, 2010


Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN is one of the greatest plays ever written. I just cannot see how anybody could watch it and not be moved.

That is not to say that critics at the time of OUR TOWN's first production didn't have gripes. This is Robert Benchley's review from the February 12, 1938 issue of The New Yorker:
Jed Harris will probably kill me for calling "Our Town" conventional, for he has gone to a great deal of pains to make it unconventional, almost too great pains at times. He has produced it on a bare stage (which is almost getting to be old-hat by now) and he has eschewed such petty aids to illusion as props. He even refused to pass out programs until the last act, with the result that I got no program. Frank Craven, in the manner of the old Property Man in "The Yellow Jacket", moves what chairs and tables there are and draws the curtains, commenting during the action from the corner of the proscenium and telling us when to go home. In the minds of all concerned it was evidently considered a "departure," if not an "experiment."

But the fact remains that if it were not for Mr. Wilder's inspired words, "Our Town" would be just another of those series of episodes in small-town life of the early nineteen-hundreds dealing with the lives, loves and deaths of the average American of that day. It happens to be a poignant and affecting record, but playing it half in speech and half in dumb show, half with real chairs and half with imaginary lawn-mowers and string beans, adds nothing to its value. To me, as a matter of fact, it was an almost irritating affectation. The use of pantomime in such detailed routines as flapjack-making is a silly procedure at best, suited more for charades and other guessing games, and a serious script has a hard time standing up under the disadvantage of having the audience trying to guess what in the hell the characters are supposed to be doing with their hands. That several of Mr. Wilder's scenes emerge refulgent from all this sign language and wigwagging is a great tribute to his powers as a writer and dramatist. It is all very charming when the Chinese do it, but Mr. Wilder did not write a charming play and we are not Chinese.

That a great many people were not as bothered as I was by all this Ersatz is attested by the fact that I have found few who were not honestly affected by "Our Town." I was affected, too, some of the time by the slightly unfair use of "Blest Be the Tie That Binds" and other nostalgic hymns in the clinches (a ruse for which I am a sucker) and some of the time by the honest and sympathetic performances of the actors, especially Mr. Craven's (his whole soul was in it, you could feel that) and those of his son John and Miss Martha Scott, the latter, I imagine, the personification of the girl that every man fell in love with at least once when he was young. The scene in the graveyard on the hill, with the dead chatting about the weather bolt upright in their chairs and the living hiding their lack of understanding under wet umbrellas, is a haunting and genuinely imaginative piece of staging. Incidentally, there is no pantomime here.

There is no doubt that any season could count itself proud to bring forth "Our Town." For my part, I wish that I could have given my whole attention to it.
Benchley seems to think that the decision to make the actors pantomime is a director's choice, and not part of the script; that Wilder's words are good in spite of the staging.

I was also surprised that there was a play that preceded OUR TOWN that employed a stage manager character - according to Amazon, THE YELLOW JACKET was a Chinese play from 1913. But Benchley considers Wilder's use of "Chinese" techniques inappropriate.

Benchley does praise the play, and even mentions other people are emotionally affected by it - but I should hope so being one of the greatest plays ever written. But even so, Benchley still has complaints.

Speaking of which, I have a few complaints about HAMLET.

It always bothered me, in Act V Scene 1 the way Hamlet leaps out of hiding to fight with Laertes. It's mainly bothered me because Hamlet comes off as such a big baby and all-around jerk - the explanation he gives to Horatio in V2 is:
But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me
Into a towering passion.

But it finally dawned on me what the real problem is.

Horatio says "What a king is this!" in disapproval of the trick that Hamlet played on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in switching their names with his and sending them to be executed by the king of England, but in fact Horiatio should have said that line after Hamlet explains his behavior at Ophelia's grave.

What Hamlet did to R&G was a clever bit of business and certainly worthy of any king - after all, they colluded with Claudius to send Hamlet to his death. That Hamlet would give them stone cold payback is by-the-book royal politics.

And the contrast between tricky Hamlet and big jerk Hamlet couldn't be more obvious - Hamlet explains his graveyard behavior right after after he tells Horatio about his dirty trickster work. Obviously Hamlet CAN have self-control when he wants to. He didn't sneak a peek into the packet that R&G were carrying and then immediately attack R&G - he came up with a plan, carried it out, and until the whole pirate ship escapade happened (Act IV scene 4, Horatio gets a letter from Hamlet that describes it) had to pretend he didn't know about the conspiracy between Claudius and R&G.

Hamlet also manages to sneak back into Denmark so stealthily that only Horatio knows about it - and only because Hamlet chose to tell him. He makes a big deal about how stealthy he needs to be. So what does he do with this careful tactical advantage? He throws it completely away by leaping out of hiding in front of the entire Danish court, and not because he was beside himself over Ophelia, but rather because Laertes was a little too showy in his brotherly grief.

I might have even assumed Hamlet's huge blunder was about Ophelia if Shakespeare had just let it go without comment - but no, instead he has to actually have Hamlet provide an explanation for his stupid action that makes him sound like a petulant jerk.

If Hamlet was a serious king-type guy he would have kept his trap shut, raised an army and attacked Claudius. We already know he's loved of the distracted multitude, a fact that Claudius admits is what is keeping him from having Hamlet executed in Denmark - hence the trip to England.

And Hamlet has plenty of reasons to attack Claudius now - not only proof enough for himself, via "The Mouse Trap", that Claudius killed his father, but he discovered an actual plot against his own life. Princes have attacked reigning kings for far less than that.

So why did Shakespeare do that? Not because he wants us to think Hamlet is a lousy solidier - at the end of the play Fortinbras, who knows something about soldiering, say:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally:

No, I think Shakespeare needed to end the play in Act 5, and having Hamlet wage civil war on Claudius would not expedite matters. And he knows he is sacrificing the integrity of Hamlet's character in order to achieve a plot point, which is exactly why he DOES include that lame explanation for why he had Hamlet leap out and spill the beans. He had an attack of playwright's conscience.

This is "Fridge Logic" and the fact that it took me thirty years to notice it is a tribute to the rest of the play which is tightly plotted and entertaining and absorbing.

But OUR TOWN as far as I have yet discerned has no sneaky short-cuts like this. Which is why OUR TOWN is a better play than HAMLET. Which pretty much makes it the greatest play ever.

I can't look at an issue of any pre-1960s New Yorker without marveling at the inscrutability of its cartoons, so here's one from this "Our Town" review issue:

Now even given that during this time-period glasses were thought to make one unattractive ("men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses" Dorothy Parker wrote in those days) I don't see what the joke is here. One women doesn't want to hook-up with the less attractive guy. Yeah, OK, hardy har har.

UPDATE: Hmmm... on further scrutiny it occurs to me that maybe the joke is that they look so much alike wearing similar hats, coats etc. so that the glasses are the only significant difference. That seems plausible. Maybe. I guess I missed it because I work all week long with blueshirts and they all dress as much like each other as possible so total male sartorial conformity seems completely normal to me.

The cartoon is by Syd Hoff, better known (at least better known to me) as a children's book author and illustrator. He wrote the classic Danny the Dinosaur.