Our Town

The Rev. Alison Cornish

Sunday, April 17, 2005 –

Thornton Wilder’s biographer, Richard Goldstone, may have been overstating his case just slightly when he wrote in 1975, “every day of the year [Our Town] is being performed somewhere in the United States.” Perhaps a little exaggeration – but certainly not much. Though Our Town was not a roaring success with either the critics or the public when it was first performed in out-of-town tryouts and on Broadway in 1938, it has become, in effect, America’s “national play.” This play, a work that Wilder referred to as “my little play” while he was still at work on it, stands alone, something of a landmark in the landscape of American theater.

There are likely as many theories about why this play has had such phenomenal staying power as there are readers and actors who have taken the play into their lives. I like these words, again from Wilder’s biographer, Richard Goldstone:

[The play] depicts the outward behavior of some unexceptional people in a rural community around the turn of the century. In describing little more than what they did, said and thought aloud, Wilder … provided insight into the human condition…

At some level, it really is that simple. By a plain showing of ordinary people moving through life, the play just plain gets under our skin. While Wilder was still at work on the play, one friend commented “most plays progress in time, but here is progression in depth. Let us know this town more and more.”

Let us know this town more and more. That, to me, is the deeper meaning of the play. This play is about belonging – to a family, a community; ultimately, to the human race. The people in Grover’s Corners are headed the same place, on the same path. They may have doubts – or, as the belligerent man, even questions that try to poke at the status quo. But as we know this town, more and more, we understand that there are shared understandings that inform the world of the characters and allow them this deep sense of belonging. These shared understandings about how the world is, flow, I believe, from two sources: experiences, and place. In Grover’s Corners, there is an intimacy that comes from the familiarity and proximity of one another’s lives that goes beyond any stereotypical label of “small town.” The rhythms of the day are established by well-known routines – “seems like you’re late today” says Mrs. Gibbs to the milkman – “Yes. Somep’n went wrong with the separator” he confirms. Sights and sounds travel out into the commons with clues about one another’s lives. The stage manager tells us, “out in the country there’ve been lights on for some time, what with milkin’s and so on.” And “high school’s still further over. Quarter of nine mornings, noontimes, and three o’clock afternoons, the hull town can hear the yelling and screaming from those schoolyards.” It is the playwright’s gift to give us in such terse language and threadbare details how people move in and through their days in the place they call home.

To be sure, these shared understandings, the clear sense of place, is probably overstated in Our Town. Perhaps that came from an attempt by Wilder to describe what it is to live as an American as the inevitability of the U.S.’s entry into World War II loomed – or maybe from setting the play in an already bygone time. But this notion – that people once lived in communities, in specific places, sharing common lives and destinies – is far more than a myth, or an exercise in nostalgia. Recently journalist Ray Suarez wrote these words on the subject:

There was a time when the broad American masses all “knew” the same things. Colliers, Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post didn’t deliver wildly different versions of America in their pages …

There was a widely shared set of norms in the 1940s, 1950s, and even the wildly oversold ‘counter culture’ 1960s that gave Americans very definite instructions about what to think. These instructions could be a straitjacket, and they could be merciless to those who colored outside the lines … [but they were there].

Suarez calls this a “consensus culture,” and he theorizes that the real breakdown in this shared knowing began in the 1970s:

After taking a ferocious pounding in the 1960s, the bottom was dropping out of America’s shared assumptions in the 1970s. We no longer “all knew” the same things. The further we moved from each other in distance, in racial segregation, and in class stratification, the more different our various Americas became… Once we no longer knew the same things, we no longer had a need for cultural cohesion. Once we no longer had cultural cohesion, it was easier and easier to draw circles of concern more and more narrowly around one’s own doorstep…

I think Suarez really hits it on the nail when he calls out how Americans have moved from one another – in distance, in racial segregation, and in class stratification – and that has resulted in “our various Americas.” Of course each of these represents an enormous topic unto itself. Suarez links them together in his examination of suburbanization, surely a powerful force in creating these “various Americas.” But what speaks most loudly to me, and links his observations with Wilder’s Our Town, is the loss of a sense of place – a place that helped give meaning to lives. More and more I have the sense that Americans are willing to accept a notion that I find deeply disquieting – that one place is interchangeable with another.

There’s a certain irony that, for all its abstract staging, Our Town sketches a vivid portrait of a place. Our Town was written in 1936-37, a time when places in America, whether country or city or town, were still identifiably unique, and the people who lived there drew their identity at least in part from knowing and understanding the place where they lived. Like shared understandings, experience and knowledge, a shared sense of place contributed mightily to the sense of being in this enterprise of life together. In contrast, our lives today are far less rooted in “place.” As Suarez says, “Life has increasingly become a string of pearls, incidents and encounters staged in a wide range of almost random physical locations, strung together by the automobile.” If we add the time we spend in front of those quintessentially dislocating media – the computer and the television – to our “car culture,” we might wonder what, if any, significant role “place” plays in American life.

Douglas Smith, writing in this month’s issue of the UU World, picks up this very theme. Like Suarez, Smith notes the preeminent role of place in our collective history:

American democracy depended on human relationships based in places… with self-governance in small towns…people who were not necessarily friends or family learned to participate together democratically and effectively because they shared fates – because they had to… the well-being of the place – of the community – depended on shaping and pursuing some common good together… Place was [once] like a forge that melded us together and provided the purposes we shared. Today, place has lost its heat… If we were able to spy on the people of Grover’s Corners at their annual Town Meeting, democratically deliberating their business of roads and fences and schools and taxes, we would see precisely what Smith is talking about – the links between people and place forged by an understanding of shared fates. These are relationships that Smith describes as “inescapable, conscious and meaningful.” They are relationships formed across generations, that cross from home into workplace, out onto the ball field, and down Main Street. They are relationships, in Smith’s words, that show how one’s fate is “entwined in daily, tangible ways with other residents of the same place.”

Though Smith concedes that there are “millions of people in the United States and beyond who still have an everyday, tangible, and gritty sense of sharing fates with others mostly because of the places they live,” I imagine that we would agree with him, that “most Americans no longer live in that world.” What connects us with one another is not so much place, but what we choose – common interests, or organizations, or affinities, or work commitments – as a basis of relationship.

Smith says, “none of this is a bad thing in itself. But it is a different thing.” I’m not sure I agree. For example, if we don’t get along with our neighbors, we can jump in a car, or get on the Internet, or turn up our television a little louder – there are a lot of ways to avoid interacting with the people who live near us, and get someplace that’s more comfortable. Perhaps coolness or distance between two neighbors is no big deal. But start multiplying that by all the residents of a neighborhood or a community – then throw in an issue that affects everyone, like zoning, or groundwater protection, or expansion of the school – issues of place, issues that force interaction between people who live near each other – and the debate often begins from a place of estrangement from one another. In this environment, groups catering to special interests multiply, nimby-ism flourishes, and the sense of “shared fates” or “common good” is buried under an avalanche of lawsuits and legal motions.

It’s against this background that I’d like to “’round the final corner” of my thoughts, still thinking about place, but this time, our place – our new congregational home, the meetinghouse (as we’ve been informally calling it), rising on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. A place where we don’t yet know our neighbors, in a community which, right now, only two families in this congregation call “home.” No children in our congregation attend the Bridgehampton Public School. Most of us will arrive at our new home by car – a few by bicycle, even fewer are likely to walk or take the public bus (which doesn’t run on Sundays). We will “arrive” at 977 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike in the same way we move through so many of our days – encapsulated in our cars, zooming past unknown neighborhoods.

For those of us who were around in 1999 when we made the momentous decision to buy a piece of property with the hope that one day we would be able to build a home of our own, you might remember the deliberations about where we would build. It had to be central to our congregational membership, which stretches from Montauk to Westhampton Beach; it had to be affordable, and meet relevant codes for a religious structure; and we wanted a visible and accessible location. We were delighted to find the piece of land that fit all those criteria, and then some – our property abuts the Long Pond Greenbelt conservation land; and it’s in an area whose population is economically and racially mixed.

Since 1999, it is understandable that our energy has been focused on raising monies and designing and building our new home. We have been tending to our own future. But soon it will be time to “meet the neighbors.” And we will have a chance to explore this place – new to us, but perhaps deeply familiar to them. Bridgehampton is a place with its own history – at least as long and as complex as any other place.

It has its own story of founding families and immigrants; of prosperity and scarcity; of camaraderie and dissention. Like Grover’s Corners, there are some who just want tomorrow to be the same as yesterday – and there are others who see a different prize. As we add our presence to that place, we will have a chance to ask, how are our fates shared? What is it that binds us together? Perhaps, in this case, place represents an opportunity to draw strangers together – an opportunity to search for the common good, and work for it. Perhaps place is the starting point, what we have in common. Perhaps, it will be our new home that let’s us know this town, our town, more and more.

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