Saturday, April 23, 2011

What it Was to Be Alive

I don't think I can say anything about Aristotle's Ethics without looking foolish, so instead I turned a few days ago to Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I only ever saw it for the first time last year in a stunning production in New York, and so I don't have the distasteful associations with saccharine nostalgia that others have.

Accordingly, in revisiting the play by reading it for the first time, I'm not struck by its folksy charm--it's there, which is all the more reason not to gild that lily--but by how much death hangs over even the cheeriest of the play's sections. In the opening of the first act the sun is rising and Joe Crowell the paperboy is delivering his stock. The Stage Manager narrating the proceedings casually drops this information:

Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there. Joe was awful bright--graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It aws all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin' to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.--All that education for nothing.

Reading that brought back memories of the play's climax, which was particularly devastating in the show I saw. The rest of the production had been done with bare bones staging as per Thornton Wilder's directions and then some: mimed action, chairs as set pieces, street clothes costumes, basic lighting. But for the final scene the black curtains pulled back to reveal a meticulously detailed kitchen set, with frosted windows, rich set decoration, a working faucet, all in order to illustrate how the deceased Emily Webb, reliving a day in her life, only realizes after it's too late how terribly ignorant she was of what a gift her time on earth was. And then the curtains closed, and we were left again darkness and in drab.

It was one of the biggest theatrical gut-punches I've ever experienced, and having such raw feelings reignited almost made me not want to keep reading. And yet I did. And so I came to Simon Stimson, the drunken choir director. He is a doomed figure, and skipping ahead I find in the that brutal third act climax he, now dead, delivers the most bitter speech of the entire play:

Yes, now you know. Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feeling of those... of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To always be at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know--that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.

When he half-staggers across the stage at the close of Act I, still alive, still only an alarming amusement as a drunkard, the police Constable Warren only says, "I don't know how that's goin' to end, Mr. Webb."

He wouldn't, would he?

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