Just over seventy-five years ago, Our Town opened at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre, two weeks ahead of its scheduled Broadway premiere. That same day, January 25th 1938, The Boston Post carried a headline linking the new show to a suicide. Rosamond Pinchot, the glamorous starlet once billed as the loveliest woman in America, had taken her own life the previous morning, reportedly distraught over her failure to win a part in Thornton Wilder’s play.
News of her death “fell like a bomb into the middle of everything,” Wilder confided to his friend Alexander Woollcott in a letter now part of Houghton’s collection. Director Jed Harris—whose affair with Pinchot was public gossip—although shaken, was bearing up. But the emotional strain only added to tension between the two on the tack Harris’ production was taking.
Some twenty years later a New York press agent recalled the Boston tryouts as a flop:
[Our Town’s] reception was so chilly and attendance so wretched that the two-week engagement was pared to one. The American Athens wanted no truck with a play without scenery. To Beacon Hill Brahmins, such an omission was as confusing as tackling a grapefruit without a spoon.
True, the play called for no curtain and no set, and attendance at the Wilbur was down in 1938, as it was at many theaters nationwide. However the account Wilder gave to Woollcott was something different entirely. In Boston, as at a preview performance days earlier in Princeton, “applause interrupted scene after scene. Laughter swept the house. Here, too, that is happening,” Wilder wrote, “tho’ to thin business.” Still he mourned, “Something is the matter at the heart of the play.”
Unburdening himself, Wilder accused Harris of “devitalizing” the play’s early scenes into “homely, humorous, touching aspects of village life; of a wedding there; on to which is added a sad and all but harrowing last act” whose abrupt change of tone was certain to blindside audiences. “At the matinée yesterday there were stories of nose-blowings and sobs. A lady who called for a friend at five o’clock saw emerging a crowd of red eyes, swollen faces and mascara stains.” The wife of the Massachusetts Governor even phoned the box office to say the final act was too upsetting.
Privately to Woollcott, Wilder refuted the charge that has dogged Our Town since: that it is a quaint portrait of rural manners, a milk-and-water melodrama. It was “Jed’s happy interpolations” and poor casting that were to blame for sweetening Our Town’s critical bite, Wilder argued: “Our reviews say that is a nostalgic, unpretentious play with charm. But what I wrote was damned pretentious.” “I’d rather have it die on the road,” he added, “than come into New York as an aimless series of little jokes, with a painful last act.”
Our Town retreated from Boston after a single week, but die it did not. Within four months it won the Pulitzer Prize and by November had rounded out its New York run at 336 performances before taking again to the road.
The Harvard Theatre Collection holds the prompt script for the original production and lately acquired two contracts between Martha Scott and Jed Harris for her role as Emily Webb. Wilder’s correspondence with Alexander Woollcott is among Woollcott’s papers in the Department of Modern Books and Manuscripts.
This post is part of a series called “Auspicious Debuts.” Houghton staff members will feature “firsts” from the Library’s collections ranging from first editions and first appearances in print and on stage to novelties, innovations, and the unprecedented. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the AuspiciousDebuts tag.
[Thanks to Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant in the Harvard Theatre Collection, for contributing this post.]