"Some people ain't made for small-town life"

Last night I attended a remarkable production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town". Written at the peak of the 1930s (before World War II had started to seep in and draw that period to a close), it's a classic portrayal of small town life which poses profound questions about life, death and eternity. The minimalist scenery (two ladders, a couple of movable tables and chairs) provide a perfect backdrop, for they leave the audience's imagination free to wander.

It's been called a Norman Rockwell-like portrayal, but that's a bit misleading, because it is and it isn't. (Of course, depending on whom you ask, even Norman Rockwell is and isn't.)

The town has its secrets, such as the dark side of the alcoholic choir director who committed suicide. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Subtextual Analysis from PostModernist U to spot it, either.

The one outsider we meet is Simon Stimson, the church choir director, whose nameless "troubles" drive him to drink. (Some critics have speculated that Simon Stimson's "trouble" was his repressed homosexuality.) All through the first two acts, he remains a silent, accusatory presence. His neighbors gossip about him; some worry about him. But most avoid him. "I guess I know more about Simon Stimson's affairs than anybody in this town," says the town doctor. "Some people ain't made for small-town life. I don't know how that'll end; but there's nothing we can do but just leave it alone." How it ends, we later learn, is in Stimson's suicide.
Whether he is gay or not isn't the point so much as the fact that the town has its secrets, and not everyone is happy there. The audience really doesn't need to know what unbearable secret drove the man to drink, or to take his life.

What I do find fascinating about the unstated subtext is the way the poor man has evolved over time -- from a character whose dark secret could not have been mentioned to a 1930s audience, to being acknowledged by many as a "gay character," and finally, in a modern, gay Orwellian twist, to being relegated back into the closet where he belongs in the interest of avoiding negative gay stereotypes!

Imagine what the author would think were he alive today. As it was, he "suffered from severe writer's block while writing the final act." During that time, he was having an affair in Zurich with another man:

Although Wilder never discussed being gay publicly or in his writings, his close friend Samuel Steward is generally acknowledged to have been a lover. Wilder was introduced to Steward by Gertrude Stein, who at the time regularly corresponded with the both of them. The third act of Our Town was famously drafted during a brief affair with Steward in Zurich on their first meeting.
Steward was an interesting character (a professor, a writer, and a tattoo artist) who died at age 85 in 1993 in Berkeley. From an interview with Steward not long before his death:
Keehnen: You were also lovers with Thornton Wilder at one point.

Steward: Yes. Thornton Wilder was afraid of sex, and unfortunately I was put in the position of outing him, but I never did it until after he had died. We were lovers in Zurich. He was very secretive about his homosexual inclinations, but they were definitely there. We had quite an experience. Thornton always went about having sex as though it were something going on behind his back and he didn't know anything about it. He was more than a little afraid of it, I think.

Well, considering that the guy was a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, "coming out" in the modern sense would have had disastrous consequences, and had he done so, it is highly unlikely that he would have gotten a second Pulitzer Prize for "Our Town," and thus it would most likely not have become the enduring American classic that it did. It might never have been written, and had the author outed himself, the play would probably have been regarded with suspicion, and not performed much if at all. As it is, the only instance of it ever being censored was by Soviet occupation forces in Germany in 1946:
In 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave."
I'm not sure why the Russian occupiers -- hardened Stalinists at the time -- would have been concerned with German suicides or German mental health at all, unless they feared suicidal attacks. And it's tough to imagine how anyone could watch the play and decide on suicide, much less suicide of the kamikaze or Jihadist variety. (At any rate, I didn't see any obvious al Qaeda recruiters standing outside the theater when I left.)

I often criticize the pro-censorship 1930s, but another remark by the playwright's lover reminded me that it's a mistake to see the censorship that thrived during that period as being unique or singular as so many modern people are prone to do. People on the "left" side of the Culture War tend to see the 1930s as an awful thing that has been defeated and overcome by the wonderful forces of modern liberation, while people on the "right" see the period as epitomizing what they champion as "traditional values." As Steward makes clear, censorship is not merely a "traditional" 1930s value, but it is always with us!

Censorship, he says, is "one of those things ingrained in the American spirit":

Keehnen: In 1936 you were fired as a teacher for writing Angels on the Bough, a book deemed "questionable." Are you shocked by the slackening of censorship over the past 57 years?

Steward: That particular college was under the control of an autocrat who was a fundamentalist, at least in his narrow-minded viewpoints. Personally, I'm not shocked because I never believed in any sort of censorship. We've always had a struggle between those who want to say everything and those who want to say nothing. Currently, we are fighting a more subtle form of censorship called political correctness. You even have to say it correctly or you're damned. It's nothing but an extension of McCarthyism. But censorship just seems to be one of those things ingrained in the American spirit, and I deplore it.

Damn that's good. And things are worse today than they were in 1993 when he said that. (Today you can't even call an Islamic terrorist an Islamic terrorist, although you can call the Hutaree militia "Christian terrorists.")

And if you think that's startling, Steward also says we had more freedom during the repressive 1930s than during the liberated 1990s!

Keehnen: Was there more behavioral freedom in the 1930s with social restrictions or in the 1990s with community limitations, assimilation, political correctness, etc.?

Steward: Owen, that is one of the great paradoxes of the twentieth century, but there was much more freedom in the 1930s under the umbrella of ignorance.

To say something like "ignorance is freedom" sounds positively.... Orwellian. Except it isn't. (Especially when "freedom" is used as sleight of hand to take freedom away.)

In the right context, almost everything is offensive to someone.

The truth sucks.

(But some truths suck more than others, etc.)

posted by Eric on 05.06.10 at 11:32 AM


I don't think "ignorance is freedom" fits there.
More like "ignorance bestows freedom".

If I don't know it's going on, I don't have to deal with it.

If I do know, I have to do something about it.

It works best/worst with parents of teenagers, but it's across the board.

Of course, if you don't pay enough attention you can lose your freedom through ignorance.

Like, ohhhh..... say... by voting for a cipher and then discovering he's not what you'd hoped he was.

Veeshir   ·  May 6, 2010 1:24 PM

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