Our Town

OUR TOWN is Thornton Wilder’s Pulitizer-Prize winning play which premiered on stage in 1938.  In 1977, it was produced for television by FATW subsidiary Hartwest Productions, Inc., at which time Hartwest obtained what amounts to perpetual video, television, and merchandising rights to the play.  In 1989, Hartwest licensed it for remake by Vivian Beaumont Theater, Inc., d/b/a Lincoln Center Theater.  Subsequently, Hartwest licensed it to Showtime Networks for another remake, starring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager.  FATW owns the copyrights of the first two productions, which have been licensed for video to Richard Stadin’s Mastervision.   Hartwest does not own the stage performance rights, and no longer owns the musical production rights (although it claims ownership of merchandising rights for any new musical production).  While Hartwest alone can license it for video and television remakes, it is obligated to pay a fixed sum to the Thornton Wilder Estate for each new production.  Both of the owned versions are available for television broadcasting worldwide.

SYNOPSIS   The play opens on the State Manager casually puffing on his pipe, looking at his watch and deprecating latecomers.  He then describes Grover’s Corners and takes us to the adjoining houses of Doc Gibbs and his wife and children, George and Rebecca; and editor Webb and his wife and children, Emily and Wally.  The year is 1901; the plot is as bare as the set.  Emily marries young George Gibbs, then dies in childbirth in the second act.  At her cemetery burial in the third act, we see and hear the townspeople, living and dead.  Emily pleads to return to life, is given one day to relive, then willingly goes back to the realm of the dead.” The Enthusiast, A Life of Thornton Wilder, by Gilbert A. Harrison, Ticknor & Fields, New Haven and New York, 1983, p. 179.

THE 1977 PRODUCTION

The 1977 production is a two-hour television program of.  The play was an historic success in the theatre.  It holds the distinction of having been seen by more audiences than any other American play.  In fact, it has been performed somewhere in the world virtually every day of the week since 1938.  This production was produced by Hartwest Productions, Inc. in 1977, and was broadcast twice on the N.B.C. television network — in May, 1977, and June, 1978.  It was sponsored in both instances by A T & T for the Bell System.

The program stars Hal Holbrook, Sada Thompson, Ned Beatty, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robby Benson, Glynnis O’Connor, and Ronny Cox, with a special appearance by John Houseman.  It was directed and produced by George Schaefer; the late Saul Jaffe, co-founder of Hartwest, was executive producer.  The production cost in 1977 was approximately $900,000.

OUR TOWN was nominated for eight Emmy awards, including “Best Dramatic Special,” and was the winner of one.  It was also awarded the presitgious Gabriel Award, along with ROOTS, in 1978.  It received uniform “rave” reviews as a meticulous and profoundly moving production, and several critics suggested that it should, as a great American classic, be shown annually.

Hartwest also owns a complete uncut, word-for-word version of the play which has never been shown on television, including a segment with John Houseman which was cut from the original N.B.C. broadcast.

The materials for the program are first-rate; the files relative to its production are relatively complete and intact.  It was licensed to the United States Information Service for limited library distribution, in connection with which it was subtitled into French and Spanish; these masters are available.

THE 1989 PRODUCTION

The 1989 production was produced by Vivian Beaumont Theater, Inc. D/b/a Lincoln Center Theater, for PBS broadcast.  It stars  Spalding Gray, Eric Stoltz, and Penelope Ann Miller; it has a runtime of 120 minutes.

Review, The New York Times, Friday, November 3, 1989, by John J. O’Connor:

“The genius of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is in its simplicity.  Writing in 1938 about the way people are “In our living and our dying,” the scholarly Wilder devised a play drawing on what philosophers call the eternal verities.  The townsfolk of his Grover’s Corners in New Hampshire live within thoroughly familiar, unchanging cycles.  The first act, introducing the Gibbs and Webb families, begins at dawn and ends at bedtime.  The second revolves around courtship and marriage.  The third ponders death and the painful realization that “we don’t have time to look at one another.”

“It is the genius of the Lincoln Center theater production directed by Gregory Mosher, which can be seen tonight on “Great Performances” on Channel 13 at 9:00 that Wilder’s conception has been meticulously respected while the play’s darker aspects are confronted unflinchingly .  The television adaptation, directed by Kirk Browning, was taped at the Lyceum Theater without an audience.

“Wilder brings Grover’s Corners vividly to life through sheer theatricality.  The stage is nearly bare except for a few props.  A “stage manager” serves as narrator, telling us about the town and the people, slipping in and out of several roles himself.  Boundaries of time are obliterated.  In the opening scenes, set in 1901, we are already being told that the newspaper boy will die in World War I.  “All that education for nothing” is the quietly bitter comment.  In the final scenes, the dead Emily gets to return to a family scene taking place in 1899, only to cry “On Earth you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

“Mr. Browning uses the empty theater to expand the play’s theatricality.  Some scenes take place in the boxes along the side walls.  The wedding of Emily and George ends with the bride and groom running up the center aisle.  In the cemetery scene, the dead, sitting on chairs, are seen against a backdrop of the theater’s interior, the vacant, covered seats resembling a landscape of tombstones.  There’s little doubt that the playwright would have approved.

“This is a thoughtfully cast production.  There are no jarring star turns.  I suspect that Spalding Gray’s Stage Manager, criticized in some quar5tes for being a little too casual and lowkey on stage, is substantially more effective within the confines of a television screen.  The tone is flawless.  Among the other outstanding contributions: Penelope Ann Miller as Emily, Eric Stoltz as George, Frances Conroy and James Rebhorn as the Gibbs parents, and Roberta Maxwell and Peter Maloney as the Webbs.

“ “Our Town” holds a secure place within the handful of lasting masterpieces written for the American theater in this century.  This production brilliantly reminds us why.”

The above two versions have been licensed for home video to Mastervision, which has released them in a single set.  To purchase the set, you may use the link below.