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Stu Levitan welcomes Howard Sherman, author of Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century as we add a new category – books about plays by Madison playwrights. That’s right, Thornton Wilder – the only person to receive Pulitzer Prizes for both Drama and the Novel – was born right here in Madison in 1897, when his father Amos was the progressive editor/publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal for 12 years before moving to Hong Kong as US Consul General in 1906.
Our Town is an odd play, with neither conventional plot nor even linear narrative, just snapshots of some of the 2,642 residents of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, especially Emily Webb, George Gibbs, and their families. Their growing up, their marrying, their living, their dying.
By Wilder’s stage direction, the play is to be performed with no curtain, no scenery, and no props, save for a table, some chairs, and two ladders. The lead character doesn’t even have a name, but is just called the Stage Manager, speaking directly to the audience and rarely interacting with the rest of the cast. It was a piece of meta-theatre 25 years before that term even existed.
Despite what he had the Stage Manager say, it was not, Wilder later wrote, meant to be understood as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as an updated interpretation of Dante’s Purgatory. Rather, he explained, it was “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.”
This seemingly small play has found great and lasting value ever since it opened on Broadway on February 4, 1938 and won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama – the first of two such awards Wilder would win, along with an earlier Pulitzer for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Decade after decade, it has been the most-produced play in America, from high schools to major professional productions on both stage and screen, featuring some of the biggest stars of their day. It’s been translated into 80 languages, and produced around the world; just this month, it became the first production when the Queensland Theatre of Australia reopened after the pandemic.
But what is it like to live in Grover’s Corners eight times a week? What happens when you think about the Mind of God every night, and bid farewell to the living at Wednesday and weekend matinees? How do you step back in time while keeping the play relevant to the audiences of today?
These are the questions which occupy Howard Sherman in Another Day’s Begun, questions he sought to answer by talking to more than 100 actors and directors responsible for 13 of the most interesting and innovative productions of the past 21 years. Some are award-winning household names, like Helen Hunt and Jane Kaczmarek; others are maximum-security inmates of Sing Sing prison. And he has done the seemingly impossible – written a book about Our Town that is almost as emotionally powerful and multi-faceted as the play itself.
Howard Sherman comes well-equipped to this assignment. He grew up in New Haven not far from Wilder’s long-time home in Hamden, CT and has held a series of executive, managerial and public relations positions with several theatres, including the Eugene O’Neill Theater, Hartford Stage, and Westport Playhouse. From 2003 to 2011 he was Executive Director of the American Theatre Wing, the folks who bring us the Tony Awards. A frequent presenter at national conferences, he also writes a weekly column for the British magazine The Stage and is contributing editor of Stage Directions magazine. In 2014, he was cited as one of the Top 40 Free Speech Defenders by the National Coalition Against Censorship the following year received the Defender Award from Dramatists Legal Defense Fund. And this month he celebrates his sixth anniversary as director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Drama.
It is a pleasure to welcome to Madison Bookbeat, Howard Sherman.