Salient: An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 12, No. 3, April 6th, 1949.
Here is something altogether astonishing—the actors of Unity Theatre have offered an exciting evening of real theatre, with a performance of "Our Town" which, although it had faults, was yet full of charm, sincerity and an ordinary freshness. The playwright, Thornton Wilder, on the other hand has written a play about Grover's Corner in a way which sometimes does its best to destroy the atmosphere the cast have built up. He has played on all our most easily aroused emotions: he has shown us children at school, their falling in love, their marriage and then the death in childbirth of the young girl we have watched growing up.
His final curtain comes down on a scene calculated to make the most hard boiled of us feel compassion and at least a temporary kindliness. George Gibbs falls weeping to the ground on his wife's grave, while she watches him from among the "dead." This is as unrelieved as the Greek tragedies he draws from, but Wilder commits the unforgivable sin of arousing strong feelings and sentimentalizing on them. He treats memory in as artificial a way as the Victorians treated their souvenirs. Alas, those happy days; Alas the fragility of all earthly joys! For the living just 'don't understand:' 'does any human being ever realize life to the full while living?' pleads another. And the device of having a bevy of "dead people' to comment on the living who are attending the funeral is easy but ineffective moralizing. For most of us know that it takes an extreme situation to allow any person (unless he is exceptional) to realize the possibilities of life—routing dulls us all and it is the place of many things (theatre included) to heighten our sense of reality and to help us to appreciate fully the possibilities of any situation. What Thornton Wilder has done, where he does not care to let events speak for themselves, is to achieve a somewhat similar banality and mediocrity to Sutton Vane's once famous play "Outward Bound." Here was a novel theme, but with not a thought in it.
"Our Town" as the programme says, may be interpreted as grandly or simply as we like. The city born youth is quite entitled to snort at Grover's Corner and flee to his fun parlour and pounding juke box. And equally entitled to snort is the man who has lived all his life in Master-ton or Nelson and had, for his lot, unimaginable pettiness and boredom. For Wilder's town is happier than most. Here we see the peculiar subtleties of such a life and its variations on the commonplace. Personal relations matter a great deal, and a difficult situation, such as the drinking of the Methodist organist, is got over by ignoring it. Most of the people here accept the world surrounding them, so that Philosophy and Psychology would be no longer the handmaidens of God as they are with us. They are primarily doers and not thinkers. William Shakespeare is as remote a public charge as our statue of Queen Victoria. Although there was no scenery, Grover's Corner became as real as Willis Street, and it would have been an easy thing to have strolled on stage with the groups of townsfolk and lazily enjoyed the afternoon sun, when the day "was running down like a tired clock."
It is the third act which does the damage. The stagecraft may be very fine, but I had throughout an uncomfortable evangelical feeling as if I would find myself at any moment on a street corner beating a tambourine.
I hasten to add that the overall excellence of the acting, production and the satisfying nature of most of the play, are the more permanent impressions. The miming was occasionally scampered through, and from upstairs the stage looked definitely underlit. Wilder's technical innovations ranged from the supremely successful to the ordinary and ineffective. Nat Bcatus, who played the Stage Manager, very soon had the audience with him, but this was endangered by the heckling of the Woman in the circle, the man in the stalls, and the lady of culture. The fault was not Unity's but Wilder's. Somehow, on Wednesday, the wedding scene was not as good as it could have been; partly because the players were feeling their way, but more because the soliloquies misfired.
Wilder is a humanist, and though misty and sentimental, has his own values. I suppose he still means what he wrote at the end of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" .
"there is a land of the living and of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."
The whole play (produced, by the way, by Nola Millar) is one of the finest things we have had these last few years.