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OUR TOWN-GREAT AMERICAN TRAGEDY? In our longing for 3.Il- unattainable perfection, perhaps it is to be expected that the attempt to find "the great American novel" and "the great American drama" should continue. But ours is a nation of great size and remarkable variety; it poses a complex problem for the writer who attempts to synthesize and interpret its life for us. Though this is doubtful, considering the nature of art and our subjective reaction to it, in time a work may appear which will by overwhelming weight of opinion be awarded the title of "the greatest." Meanwhile, this search sometimes leads to extravagant claims. Such a claim, which seems unwarranted in view of the limits of the play set by the author, has been made for Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Professor Arthur H. Ballet, writing in The English Journal of May, 1956, finds in Our Town "the great American drama." This judgment seems to have been encouraged by the continuing popularity of the play as evidenced in performances, mainly in college and community theatres, and by discussion in critical and academic circles. Cited also is the choice of Wilder as their "favorite living playwright" by a group of American dramatists polled in The Saturday Review. It is not my purpose to denigrate Our Town, which is, within the limits of its subject, form, and point of view, an interesting and valuable play. But one must challenge the claim that it is the greatest American play; that it is an outstanding tragedy; and that Emily is "a tragic figure of enormous dimensions." Necessarily this discussion will have to take the form, in part, of an examination of Professor Ballet's article. According to his analysis, Our Town is like classic tragedy in several respects. Structurally it is a trilogy, with each act serving as a separate play; Act Three expands "the first parts of the trilogy into a complex of eternity where the mystery of life is culminated in death. Like its Greek predecessors, Our Town is concerned with the great and continuing cycle of life ... man's closest understanding of eternity , his finest artistic expression of what he senses to be a mission and a purpose. The trilogy, thus considered, admirably reinterprets this concept in modem terms and language and form, finding its roots in what is probably the finest drama of all time: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex." The Stage Manager, who serves as chorus, is further evidence of affinity with classic drama: "[He] represents the observing community . . . his serious but twinkling control of the progress of the play [prevents] over-identification, which would destroy the higher implications...." There is, also, a classic simplicity in the setting. 2.t;R 1959 Our Town-AMERICAN TRAGEDY? 259 "Returning to a theatrical tradition ranging from Athens to Elizabethan . England, [the play] returns ... to a plane of imagination rather than realistic reproduction and soars above mundane distractions of actuality...." At first glance, in this interpretation, Our Town falls short of accomplishing the purgation and ennoblement called for by Aristotle as essential effects of tragedy; but further analysis shows that death "is the fear-agent employed as a catharsis," and Emily, "the smallest of God's creatures, a young mother who becomes aware of the tragedy of life," is ennobled by death "to understand how wonderful life is...." Further, Wilder establishes Grover's Corners as a part of the cosmos, thus pointing the way to "a higher level of understanding" of the role played by man. In accord with Aristotelian standards, therefore, the play is "elevating" and "approaches significance as a tragedy." Admittedly the play is sentimental. Frank M. Whiting (An Introduction to the Theatre) is quoted: "It [Our Town] is an honest and revealing portrait of small-town American life. It has been criticized as sentimental, but American life is sentimental; Emily, George, and the others give us a far more genuine insight into twentieth-century American living than do the studies of neurotics, gangsters and the sexually frustrated." However, Professor Ballet believes this sentimentality is "without sententiousness; [the play] has romance without romanticism, and innocence without naivete." Finally, although theĀ· criticism that the first two acts are comic and...


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