Monday, May 7, 2012

Goodbye, Grover's Corners

This evening, I read through Thorton Wilder's "Our Town" for the first time since high school.  You see, I was searching for an American play to have my 6th period English class read through and act out, as this particular class enjoys acting.  I decided on "Our Town."

It's with some trepidation that I choose this play: it doesn't have the cynicism or raw edginess that my students really enjoyed in Arthur Miller's work first semester.  It doesn't contain swearing, or sexual innuendo, or opportunities to be sarcastic.  It's wholesome.  When I used this adjective earlier today in describing the play to a student, she wrinkled her nose and made a noise that sounded like "uggh."  In other words, my 6th period group has their guard up.

So did I, when I was in high school.  "Our Town" definitely didn't appeal to my sarcastic and sometimes edgy sense of humor.  The first act of the play feels like a 50s family sitcom, but without conflict... it feels saccharine at times, as though this small town was some cliche vision of "the good old days".  However, as the play unfolds, it's hard not to be drawn in and invest in the characters.  I remember identifying with George Gibbs and wishing I had an Emily Webb to tell me when I was acting foolish.  I remember identifying with some of the quirks and foibles that Wilder attributes to small towns, and small communities in general.  I remember identifying with the pressures and questions about the future that children of small towns ask themselves.

The third act packs an emotional wallop as we are taken through the feelings and grief of death, but from the perspective of the departed, longing for their former life.  Emily, having relived the morning of her 12th birthday (an ability that the deceased possess in Wilder's world), cannot bear to spend a minute more in the past, knowing what she knows of the future.  So, she returns to her ultimate resting place: the hillside cemetery overlooking Grover's Corners.  As she departs, she casts one last, longing look back at her parents who are blissfully unaware of all that will befall them, both good and bad, important and trivial; at the home of her childhood; at the Grover's Corners of her lifetime, and says:

"Good-by, Good-by, world.  Good-by, Grover's Corners... Mama and Papa.  Good-by to clocks ticking... and Mama's sunflower's.  And food and coffee.  And new-ironed dresses and hot baths... and sleeping and waking up.  Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

She then looks to the stage manager, who functions as an omniscient narrator throughout the play and asks:
"Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? --every, every minute?"

The stage manager replies:
"No."  He thinks, and then continues, "The saints and poets, maybe--they do, some."

This play challenged me even as a sarcastic high school Junior to realize life as I live it, to take nothing for granted and to strive to approach life as the saints and poets do.  It is my hope that the play will have the same impact on a classroom full of my own students.  Of course, I wouldn't have admitted how impacted I was to my teachers, and so I guess I can't really expect my students to do so either...

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