Amy Beddows 5:26 p.m., June 18
A cartoon in the New Yorker, March, 1938, shows three women standing before a ticket booth. One asks, obviously worried: "Does this play have scenery?"
Thornton Wilder's Our Town had opened in February. Many a first-nighter thought they'd made a mistake. There was no curtain and, except for bricks and boxy radiators on the rear wall, the stage was bare. Was this a rehearsal?
Except for some chairs, tables, and stepladders, Wilder wanted no sets, few, if any props, and everyday apparel for costumes.
The cartoon typifies initial reactions. There was something too humble in the look.
Pundit's scratched their heads for precedents. Marc Blitzstein's musical, The Cradle Will Rock, had been evicted and moved 20 blocks away, in 1937. They had to rent a piano, while the cast performed in the audience.
For one performance, also in 1937, teamsters refused to move sets into the theater, and a performance of Father Malachy's Miracle (an adaptation of Bruce Marshall's novel) had actors in expensive costumes on a bare stage. As in Chinese theater's use of placards, the actors held up signs to announce a location: one said "St. Margaret's Church."
In "Some Thoughts on Playwriting," Wilder acknowledged another influence. Shakespeare's plays were staged with little scenery. This encouraged audiences to "piece together" the story with their imaginations.
The theater of his time, wrote Wilder, "loaded the stage with specific objects." But "every concrete object on stage fixes and narrows the action to one moment in time and place."
Wilder's aim for Our Town, currently at Cygnet Theatre, was the opposite. No matter where the play is set, "it is precisely the glory of the stage that it is always 'now' there."
Thornton Wilder pantomiming a scene for the actors in Our Town.