By Brant Russell
In a 1938 letter to Alexander Woollcott, Thornton Wilder wrote:
“The subject of the play I wrote is: the trivial details of human life in reference to a vast perspective of time, of social history and of religious ideas.”
Our lives are full of trivial details. Getting to work on time, what to cook for dinner, soccer practice, forgotten emails, phone data, haircuts. But if there is a more perfect time than right now to reflect upon the deep satisfaction that trivial details and brief interactions can provide, I don’t know what it is.
When our lives are circumscribed by our collective duty to each other, and when many of the trivial details that characterize “normal life” are taken away from us, we long for normalcy. When our world becomes only as large as a laptop screen, we long for the breadth of what we once considered routine. Restaurants, shopping, the theater.
Just as the global pandemic has caused us to treasure what we once regarded as trivial, so does the cosmic backdrop of Wilder’s Our Town contextualize the meaning of the trivial in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
As luck would have it, my wife’s parents live in southern New Hampshire, not far from where you would find Grover’s Corners. We visit my in-laws twice per year, sometimes more, and when I was there this past summer, I scoured the landscape for something that I could identify as quintessentially Our Town-ish. I drove the rocky countryside looking for an object or perhaps a vista that I could photograph that was, at its core, Thornton Wilder-esque. I wanted something “authentic” that I could bring back to CCM. I would hold up this rock or floorboard fragment or scrap of turn-of-the-century garment and say, “See? This is what Wilder was writing about.”
I didn’t find what I was looking for. No such object or vista exists. Why? Because Our Town has nothing to do with Grover’s Corners or New Hampshire or New England. Our Town deals in the right here, right now. Our Town is about us.
Later in his later to Woollcott, Wilder wrote:
“At the opening night here a deputation of 41 small-town people from the skirts of Mount Monadnock - from Peterboro and Jeffrey and Keene - came down and presented me with a gavel of Cherry Wood and an eternal membership in the Mt. Monadnock Association. The faces. And they’d seen a play that was about something they knew.”
The New Englanders Wilder describes in that paragraph were viewing the play in Boston in 1938. And while we are 83 years and some 827 miles removed from the original milieu of Wilder’s play, it’s my sincere hope that you’ll look at the stage tonight and see a play about something you know.