Listening to the Dead

Our Town (1938)
by Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)

“I am interested in the drives that operate in society and in every man. Pride, avarice, and envy are in every home. I am not interested in the ephemeral—such subjects as the adulteries of dentists. I am interested in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of millions.”

This essay was inspired by the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The play, which opened on Broadway in 1938, contains several universal themes that address the struggle of humanity to attain Self-realization.  It is one of our favorite plays because it illustrates a critically important human insight. The insight is that art—whatever the medium—is often prophetic in demonstrating the principles that will guide humanity to the attainment of an increasing awareness of the nature of reality. For humanity to remain in its present somnambulistic state is to continue to create the unfolding disaster that we are all too familiar with. We cannot see reality much less deal with it if we remain asleep.

Our Town was written during the depression and the critics took Wilder to task for not engaging in an expose of small town hypocrisy, as Sherwood Anderson did in Winesberg, Ohio, a depression era novel. Or he could have exposed the injustices of the capitalistic system as did Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, a novel about the meatpacking industry. Wilder had something much more profound in mind.

We are not saying that the playwright was aware of or intending to address these profound themes consciously—but that the creative process by its very nature will reveal transcendent truths beyond the conscious awareness of the creator. Wilder, however, seems to have been a mystic in that he was more aware of many of the deeper aspects of Simple Reality than is typical today. He seems to have experienced what it means to be human with several penetrating insights. Indeed, we see Our Town as something of a meditation. As one critic put it: “It is, rather, a contemplative work concerning the human experience.”

If we take what many critics identify as important themes in Our Town we find several important characteristics of both the old (P-B) and new paradigm (P-A). “The transience [impermanence] of human life; the importance of companionship [sangha or community of like-minded individuals]; and the artificiality [illusion] of the theater [life itself].” As one critic observed, “Even the play’s title—using the collective pronoun “our”—underscores the human desire for community.”

Regarding being attached to people and “things” that are impermanent, the character George Gibbs epitomizes the human tragedy of caring too much about things which he could not change, e.g. the death of Emily his wife. The members of both the Webb and Gibbs families deny the principle of impermanence and “like most human beings, maintain the faulty assumption that they have an indefinite amount of time on the Earth.”

Another distinction to be made which involves a key principle in the emerging new paradigm is that between feelings and emotions. To experience “feeling” one must be in the present moment. We can speak of the heart as the “seat” of feelings. So feelings are a direct experience of a higher order of reality and are the result of not reacting to affliction or pain. Emotions, on the other hand are always painful and involve not being in the present moment. They are a product of the mind, the thinking process in reaction, which is preoccupied with the anxiety and stresses of the material, illusionary world.

Toward the end of the play Wilder staged the Grover’s Corners’ cemetery scenes with the dead seated in chairs with the ability to talk to each other and to hear the words of the living who visit their grave sites. “When George prostrates himself on Emily’s grave at the end of the play, the dead react as if the time for emotion [reaction] has passed.” Wilder is saying that something deeper than emotion and sentimentality is possible for human beings, a higher response, which is what we label “feelings.”

Another fundamental change necessary in order for humanity to shift to a more sustainable worldview is the simplification of life.  “Wilder still finds humanity and power in the simplicity of this small town.” We need not go back in time to discover our true nature. Simplicity, solitude and silence are natural characteristics of our true state of being.

Thornton Wilder was more aware of the emerging worldview of Simple Reality than most artists of his or any other time. The principle of Oneness, the interdependence and interconnectedness of all of creation is an underlying theme of this play. Wilder is also able to see the universality in the human experience. “There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

“All the greatest people [who] ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it.”

In the marriage of George and Emily he realized that, “a single marriage becomes representative of many marriages, past, present, and future, and a single romance becomes representative of universal feelings of love.” The Stage Manager/Narrator says “that the universality of Our Town could be any small American town.” Or any human community on the planet for that matter.

With this play we realize that Thornton Wilder’s insights into the behavior of Americans can be extended to humanity in general. He saw “the predictability and regularity of the town’s activities [and that] The Gibbs and the Webbs represent two archetypal American families.” Our Town illustrates the universality of human concerns and desires, regardless of national identity.  Wilder purposely focuses on “ordinary” day to day activities to emphasize his characters’ universality.  “No profound conflicts emerge that lead us to believe that life in Grover’s Corners differs from life anywhere else.” He has then in an un-dramatic but inescapable way illustrated that: “The hopes, dreams, and morning rituals of the townspeople we meet are characteristic of people all the world over. Likewise, the townspeople’s personal tragedies echo broader modern tragedies, evident when we learn that the prize [winning] pupil Joe Crowell, Jr. will meet an untimely end in World War I.” Hence, the tragedies and suffering related to being unconscious are universal.

The playwright’s insight into human unconsciousness is the most striking message of the play. Emily has died but has the opportunity to visit the living on any day she chooses including scenes from her own past life. She is an objective observer of her own behavior and of the behavior of the other members of her family. On her short visitation she is saddened by how unaware the members of her family are of each other in their everyday exchanges. She sees in effect that they are not “present” to one another, they are unconscious and they thereby miss the essence of life.  “Overcome by her observation that human beings go through life without savoring their time on Earth, Emily tells the Stage Manager that she is ready to go back and return to the cemetery. [She sadly comments] ‘They don’t understand do they?’”

Another of the occupants of the cemetery, Stimson the choir director, who is buried close to Emily makes a comment that cites the human “false self” as the cause for the unconscious behavior. Stimson comments “that people ‘move about in a cloud of ignorance always at the mercy on one self-centered passion, or another.’” Here we have revealed that people often become preoccupied with what psychologists call the “survival strategy.” They are continually seeking security, power or affection among other things to such an extent that they are rarely aware of what is happening around them in the present moment.

Speaking of the “present moment” we must be keenly aware of the distinction between the state of consciousness we refer to as the “NOW” and that of living in the past/future. Life can only occur in the present moment, the past is gone and the future hasn’t arrived yet and probably never will, at least as we imagine it. Wilder realizes this when he sees his characters caught up in not being present and “so obligated to the mundane chores of daily life that they often miss the meaningful nature of human existence. [And as a consequence] often lack any sense of wonder at what passes before their eyes every day.”

It is easy to get the impression that in writing Our Town Wilder was led to unwittingly advocate a paradigm shift for his fellow human beings. “Wilder reveals to his living audience that most people ‘don’t understand’ that the power of life exists not only in the moments of great passion and joy, but in the details of everyday existence as well.”

The plays critics seem to have understood the profound message that Wilder was communicating about appreciating and savoring life as it occurs. It is toward the end of the play that Emily says, “They don’t understand, do they?” “Her realization that life is precious because it is fleeting is perhaps the central message of the play.” To realize that present moment awareness is not only the goal of life itself but the only way to transcend human suffering was undoubtedly beyond what Wilder had in mind. Nevertheless he had an inkling of the importance of present moment awareness in addressing human suffering. Emily questions, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”  

“The characters spend precious time flashing back in their own minds appreciating past moments in retrospect rather than recognizing the value of moments as they occur in the present.”

The character of the stage manager engages in detached observations increasing audience awareness of and appreciation of the importance of the present moment. Wilder continually breaks the “fourth wall” reminding the audience that they are observing a play, not reality. He does this by stopping the play to give actors direction, to initiate flashbacks, inviting questions from the audience (actors planted in the audience), by having the Stage Manager leave the function of Stage Manager (narrator) to assume minor roles in the play, and addressing the audience directly to explain what is happening and to invite them to smoke while announcing the intermission.

Wilder transcends conventional religion, which often focuses on the afterlife, when he advocates that divine presence is always available if only we believed that: “the eternal exists on Earth during each and every moment of human interaction.”

The play makes an argument for a more meaningful relationship with that “power” greater than we are when he observes that “most people fail to recognize the eternal in themselves and in those around them during their earthly lives.” This highlights Wilder’s contention that though life is transient, it is nonetheless precious. He transcends conventional religion which focuses on the afterlife when he advocates that, “human beings should engage the eternal while on Earth. They do not need to wait until the afterlife in order for their eternal nature to shine forth.”

The ultimate “salvation” of an individual and/or of humanity rests on the ability to see the universal in the particular. The universal awakening of a sleepwalking humanity would be the realization of Oneness. Quantum physicists are beginning to speak of reality as “mind stuff” or that form is not matter but is more like a “thought.” George Gibbs’ younger sister gazing up at the night-time sky remarks that she thinks the universe is contained within “the Mind of God.” Thornton Wilder was beginning to realize that we were not only contained within the Mind of God but that all of creation was an expression of the Mind of God and that we human beings as part of that expression would do well to wake up and enjoy the beauty and freedom from suffering that that realization would bring.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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