As I have mentioned many times in my last few posts, the current show at the theatre is Our Town by Thornton Wilder. I am not sure what it is about the play, but it really speaks to me, certainly more so now than when I have read it in the past. I am sure that a lot of that feeling comes from the fact that I am older now and I understand more of what is going on in the story. I believe that I have also mentioned that I will probably understand even more of the story as I get older still.
For those who don’t know, the story of Our Town documents life in Grover’s Corners, a fictitious small town in southern New Hampshire at the turn of the 20th Century (that’s 1900 for those who don’t do math well). The story is pretty timeless and deals with life issues and life-cycle events like birth, love and marriage, and death. One of the questions that I have found myself asking as we have been working on the show was this: “Would it be possible in the next 20-30 years to write a similar story about the turn of the 21st century?” Is the turn of the current century as important or interesting as the turn of the last was? Is there even a similar story to tell about the turn of the 21st century?
The world is certainly a much different place today than it was in 1910. It probably seemed like the world was a lot bigger back then. At the turn of the century people were getting around on horses and trains, automobiles were few and far between unless you lived in a “big city.” People still wrote letters (by hand), news traveled slower, waking up the people who fell asleep in a snow drift made the local papers. At the turn of the 21st century we could communicate instantaneously, you can’t walk out the front door without being hit by a car, people lock their doors at night.
One of the ideas that my brother planted for me to think about is the idea that we are much more aware today than we were 100 years ago. We have a greater understanding of how things work, how the world works and the forces that move us through. On the other hand, I think that there are things that we have lost as well. Today, if we forget to pay the gas bill, a quick phone call will settle things and get your furnace going again. 100 years ago, if you didn’t chop the wood for the stove, your house was cold until you did, or you couldn’t cook your meals. While many of the mysteries of the universe remain unsolved today like if there is life on other planets, we have discovered the secrets of many things.
For many people today, even falling in love is different than it used to be. How often today do people grow up next door to the person they marry? How often do we spontaneously go to get ice cream sodas when walking home from school and effectively make a marriage proposal over them? Today people do the thinking for you when you can go to a site like eHarmony and be paired with your potential “soulmate.” Sure, there were people who were matchmakers in the past (Fiddler on the Roof anyone?), but even that was more personal than going on the internet.
We may not have discovered the meaning of life. Maybe there isn’t really a meaning or a purpose to our existence as a whole. We are much more aware of what is going on around us. In some ways I think that knowledge, that awareness has really given us more to take for granted. At the turn of the 20th century things like industrialization were just starting to take off. The transition from horses to automobiles was barely beginning. In the years leading up to and just after the turn of the 21st century nothing that significant was happening. At least, it doesn’t seem like anything that significant is happening. Maybe we won’t know until we look back on it in retrospect.
There are certainly ideas in Our Town that I think still hold some truth today about small town life in New England. There are still towns that offer similar atmospheres, but they all have in some way embraced the advances that have been going on. People have computers and cars and all that kind of stuff. So, as timeless a story as Our Town is, could it be possible to tell a similar story about us now, at the turn of the 21st century?