Zen and the Art of Playwrighting
Our calm, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in “scenery”.
Sometime during the 6th Century B.C., the
historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, sat before a
gathering of disciples near the
Our Town is a deceptive play. After
viewing it, one is liable to come away thinking of Wilder as a local color poet
who, like Dr. Gibbs and his wife of Grover’s Corners, never got farther than
Although each of these traditions flourished in different parts of the world, they all share a common spiritual purpose that helped to shape their performance style. The Noh theatre of Japan, the Ming of China and the Sanskrit of India all present their plays on bare stages using minimal props and precisely choreographed gestures to tell their stories. A simple fan, for instance, can be transformed into a sword, mountain, or even a cascading stream. It is a very demanding style of performance; so much, in fact, that Noh actors begin training at the age of 7 and do not reach artistic maturity until their mid 30s. Wilder saw the potential in this ancient art, always asserting—and demonstrating in his own plays— that the bare stage and miming of props is superior to realism because it engages the audience’s imagination and frees the ideas in the play from the prison of the realistic set.
However, Wilder did not just appropriate the use of mime and gesture while writing Our Town; he also emulated the non-linear plots used in Asian theatre. Sanskrit plays, for instance, are often composed of casual scenes that do not necessarily follow the cause and effect pattern of Western Drama. As in Our Town, they leap great distances in time, and do not follow the action of a single protagonist. The only link unifying the drama is an omnipresent narrator. In the Noh, this character is called “the Man of the Place”, referring the local in which the play is set. Like the Stage Manager in Our Town, he shares legends upon which the play is based, and assumes different roles throughout the story.
The underlying purpose of these performance styles—Our Town included—is a deeply religious one. Zeami Motokio, whose 14th century treatise on the Noh, Kwadensho or “The Book of the Flower”, believed this style of theatre would help audiences transcend the word and the object, as Kashyapa had done while watching the Buddha’s twisting flower, and perceive “Yugen” or grace in the world. Yet, perhaps Wilder put it more plainly. “It is an attempt to find value above all price for the smallest events in our lives.”
Dan Tarker, Literary Associate