When I was Mr. Webb
The other day a friend advised me to see a particular movie because of the excellence of its special effects. I declined. That sort of theater was permanently ruined for me by high school teachers of the '40s who had us all performing and reading the plays of Thornton Wilder - before we knew any better. The result is that, whatever else we may have missed, we got the stuff of real theater into our heads.
At my school we did his one-act ''The Happy Journey From Trenton to Camden,'' which takes place in a Model A. We used four chairs and a platform. Then just four or five years after its premiere in 1938, we put on ''Our Town.'' Once you've played Mr. Webb mowing his lawn without a mower, you are ever afterward spoiled for ''special effects.'' Last week a 50-year-old weather-beaten newspaperman sat in my living room and without provocation told me how as a boy he had played the drunken choirmaster, Simon Stimson. The last act in the cemetery has never left him.
His feelings and mine about the play run counter to the conventional wisdom. While he and I think of ''Our Town'' as an American classic, the critics have come to consider it a piece of sentiment, popular with high schools because it requires no scenery. It is described as a re-creation of an American small-town culture which in fact never existed, and a statement of a trivial, optimistic philosophy: ''We all know that something is eternal,'' says the stage manager.
It is of course true that the play is popular. Samuel French sells more copies (about 20,000 a year) of ''Our Town'' than any other of its plays. But, unlike poetry or serious fiction, all great plays are popular, performance being the only way a play can live. From ''King Lear'' to ''She Stoops to Conquer'' to ''The Importance of Being Earnest'' to ''Charley's Aunt,'' a theatrical classic is a performed classic. The art of the drama is crude and universal. To withstand the successive treatments and mistreatments of the generations, a play's structure must be of iron. Wilder believed that the novel is ''preeminently the vehicle of the unique occasion, the theater of the generalized one.'' But this ''generalized occasion'' is not necessarily sentimental, only familiar. Wilder once began a lecture on the pleasures of reading with the remark, ''We want something whose syllables have been familiar to us from childhood,'' and then he read to the audience the words of an old American hymn.
This is the sort of familiarity he had hoped to achieve in ''Our Town,'' and its bare staging was intended to reinforce it. The absence of scenery allows each member of the audience to recall his own version of the story. The technique is in fact most successful when most generalized - in the pantomime of lawn mowing and baseball catching. The fact that this economy of staging also lends itself to small high school budgets is just fine. That's exactly where our classical repertoire should begin, in our schools.
Despite this, critics have made merry over the early line of the stage manager, ''You all remember what it's like.'' Coming from Coney Island or the Bronx or Tupelo, Miss., they simply say, ''No, we don't,'' and hope to get away with it. But of course they lie. Grover's Corners is as much in their heads as it is in every American head, regardless of time or region. There is an Emersonian sense in which it is not even an old ideal, but a new one. Whitman and even Henry James understood this well. It is about time we grew up in this regard and admitted that the world of Grover's Corners has always been an American ideal and that it did in fact exist - still does.
I have a colleague who was born and raised in Northfield, Mass., not a stone's throw from the real Grover's Corners - Peterborough, N.H. I once asked him if anyone ever actually left Northfield because he wanted to - not simply to find work. He wasn't sure, but he didn't think so.
Real or not, this American ideal can be sentimentalized, indeed it frequently is. Individual scenes in ''Our Town'' admittedly come perilously close - George and Emily in the drugstore, for instance, has a kind of nostalgic, valentine quality. But this effect is tempered not only by the reversals of the last act but by a curious result of the play's phenomenal success. A good part of any present-day audience first saw the play when they were adolescents, and a sizable number even played these roles. Take down any copy of ''Our Town'' from your public library shelf and you will see the confirming evidence. The kids are still underlining their parts and marking the cuts demanded by Miss Gringard or Mr. Olsen.
It is, however, the last act that holds the play together and ennobles it - up on the hill above town in the cemetery. The actors - the ''live ones'' - carry umbrellas. If you are genuinely attentive to this last act, Wilder once wrote, you will find ''few of the comforts generally furnished by sentimentality.'' And, I might add, no special effects.