Our Town, a play about small town life in New England at the turn of the century, no not the 21st, but the 20th, premiered on this date in 1938. Many people don’t realize there is a Martian connection to the play. This connection as well as other little know information follows.
It was on this day in 1938 the play Our Town was first performed on stage at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ. It could be argued it has been the most performed play in modern history, although there are no hard numbers to confirm this fact. After all, is there any amateur theater company, college performing group or high school theater ensemble which hasn’t performed it at least once? This doesn’t even include the numerous professional theater companies, Hollywood movie adaptations and made-for-TV versions over the last 76 years.
The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 was written by Thornton Wilder and set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, NH. The story follows the lives of the residents of this small town during a 12 year period (1901 – 1913). It is believed Wilder based the fictional town on Peterborough, NH, a small town on the New Hampshire – Massachusetts border where he had spent several years at the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for writers, actors and composers. Although he never confirmed this fact, the similarities are many including his placing of the longitude and latitude coordinates at the beginning of the play.
Is there anything left of Our Town today? And what is this about a Martian connection? Here are some of the significant places connected with the play, what is happening with them today and how there is a Martian connection.
Peterborough, NH – Peterborough was first settled in 1749 (celebrating 275 years this year) and is located at the base of Mount Monadnock and on the banks of the Contoocook River, the river being a source of water used to power the many mills which were once located in town. Other than the probable setting for Our Town and the home of the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough’s other claim to fame is the town library. It is the oldest free library supported by taxation in the United States, this all happened in 1833. The 2010 census lists 3,103 residents, in 1938 it was around 2,700, still a relatively small town and is very much still there, the quintessential New England small town.
MacDowell Colony – Wilder wrote Our Town while in residence at the MacDowell Colony in 1937. The MacDowell colony was started by Edward and Marian MacDowell in 1907 in an abandoned farm the couple had purchased in 1896. It was Edward’s wish to bring together writers, artists and composers giving them a place to create and interact with each other. He believed this mixing of disciplines was good for the creative process. Edward died in 1908 soon after the colony began, but his wife carried on his dream. MacDowell was the first artist colony in the United States.
Who besides Thornton Wilder spent time at the MacDowell Colony? Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Milton Avery and James Baldwin, to name just a few. Copland composed the film score for the 1940 Our Town film starring William Holden and it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars the same year.
The MacDowell Colony is still operating and offers residencies and frequently holds live events featuring MacDowell artists.
McCarter Theater – The first staging of Our Town was at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ, the home of Princeton University. The McCarter Theater Center for the Performing Arts was opened on February 21, 1930. It was built to be the home of the Princeton University Triangle Club and became a popular showplace for pre-Broadway productions. Many well-known Broadway productions premiered here in the thirties and forties, including William Inge’s Bus Stop, Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take it With You and Philip Barry’s Without Love which starred Katharine Hepburn.
The Princeton Triangle Club, for whom the theater was built, is the oldest touring collegiate musical-comedy troupe in the US, touring since 1891. The first production in the McCarter Theater was the 40th annual Triangle Show called The Golden Dog. Then, as now each year the Triangle Club performs a show written by one of their members. The star of the 1930 show was a junior by the name of Joshua Logan who later became an award winning Broadway director and screenplay writer, winning a Tony Award in 1950 for Best Director (South Pacific) and a Pulitzer Prize for co-writing the same play. One of the co-stars of that first production at the McCarter? A sophomore named James Stewart.
The McCarter is still operating with a full schedule and still holds the annual Triangle Show.
The Other Famous Grover in Literary History and the Martian Connection – Our Town premiered in January of 1938 and later that year on October 30, there was another town with a similar name which would become famous in another theater production and for other reasons. The town, a real one this time was Grover’s Mill, NJ, and its claim to fame is it where the Martians first landed when they attacked the earth in Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Grover’s Mill is an unincorporated village which is part of West Windsor Township.
The radio broadcast was aired live on the night before Halloween, and it induced panic throughout the United States. It is estimated 12 million people heard the radio play with its “live” radio news reports and “eyewitness” accounts of Martian spaceships landing around the world. Many people did not hear the disclaimers at the beginning of the program and thought the attack was real, mass hysteria ensued.
It is believed that the script writer, Howard Koch, who adapted the radio drama from the H.G. Wells novel, had a New Jersey gas station map spread out on a table, closed his eyes and poked the map with a pencil. The pencil was on Grover’s Mill. Koch later won an Oscar for co-scripting the movie Casablanca in 1944. This didn’t help him a few years later when he was blacklisted from Hollywood for allegedly being a communist. Grover’s Mills is only a few miles from Princeton and the McCarter Theater.
Orson Welles, years later, in 1977 appeared in a made-for-television movie with Marlo Thomas. The name of the movie was It Happened One Christmas. The movie was a remake of the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life with Welles playing the evil banker, Mr. Potter and Thomas playing Mary Bailey, the female version of George Bailey, the character played by that sophomore co-star at the McCarter Theater, James Stewart. Whether Martians ever attended any of the retreats at the MacDowell colony is not know.
Is the Our Town – Martian connection a coincidence or… ?
By: Paul Roy
Library of Congress Wilder Exhibit