Rantin' and Rovin'

Our Town and Archaeology

It’s been a while. A long while. Far too long a while, and I apologize for my absence. A lot has happened (I finished my MLitt dissertation!), and there’s more about it all here, but let’s not waste any more time.

Recently, I’ve become the assistant director/producer of our local community theatre’s production of Our Town. It’s a wonderful play, and it is going to be a wonderful show. It also has a lot to do with humanity, which means a lot of the themes are particularly fitting for an archaeologist. One set of lines stood out to me at the last rehearsal, and I want to talk a bit about them today.

Actually, they not so much stood out to me as smacked me right in the face.

In the middle of Act I, the stage manager says one of the most famous lines of the play: “So – people a thousand years from now – this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

This is a beautiful line, but it cuts off the context and the associated lines. As an archaeologist, I can’t accept that.

So let’s try again.

The context:

The stage manager is an unusual character in that he’s not just the narrator, he really is the stage manager. He invites members of the town up to show part of their lives or he dismisses them when he feels the audience has had enough. He acts as various townsfolk when he feels the need, and he provides information to the audience when he feels it necessary to the story. The stage manager is therefore both inside and outside the play, and creates an interesting dynamic as liaison to the audience.

In the middle of Act I (subtitled Daily Life), the stage manager talk about how the town is planning to put a time capsule in the cornerstone of a new bank being built. They plan to put in several issues of the New York Times, copies of the local paper, the Bible, a copy of the Constitution, and a book of Shakespeare’s plays.

The associated lines:

The whole of the lines connected to the one quoted in terms of sentiment and theme are:

“Y’know – Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts… and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night, all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney – same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the REAL life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then. So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone and the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us – more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight.

See what I mean?

So – people a thousand years from now – this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

Before my long silence, I was writing about how archaeology isn’t about stuff, it’s about the people behind the stuff. And here Thornton Wilder is saying exactly why archaeology matters in a play written in 1938. We do know more about the daily lives of those in Babylon and Greece and Rome, now, but it’s not huge amounts.

And here’s the main kicker about this play. It’s set at various times between 1901 and 1913. This play is written in 1938 about life one hundred years ago (and more). And throughout the play, the people and their characters are so human, so alive, so real. They are a century old, but they are just as human as anyone, and there is no suspension of belief necessary. The play could be any town in the US right now.

The stage manager knows it, Wilder knows it, and they are preserving a piece of that lifestyle as best they can for future generation.

And then what does the stage manager/Wilder do? He addresses those people, one thousand years in the future, who he hopes will read this play and know what daily life was like. He talks directly to those people he expects will attempt to create a connection with their town some distant time in the future.

I’ve never had any direct communication from the distant past specifically to me, as a person 1000 years in their future, and I don’t suspect I ever will. But I’m certainly moved by witnessing Wilder’s communication to those 900 years in the future, trying to connect with them as much as they will likely try to connect with him.

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