A few weeks ago, our high school put on Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. I’ve had a few weeks to think about the play. It is a play that you take out of the theatre with you afterwards and every so often it sneaks up on you and leaks a little out of the corner of your eye.
The time of the play is about a hundred years before ours, but it was also about a quarter of a century before the time of its writing. There is a certain amount of nostalgia going on, of course, but there is also distance. Distance in time allows us to examine the things that change and the things that don’t change. The things that never change are eternal.
There is a scene wherein the boy and girl next door are doing their homework by the light of the moon. That will change over the course of time; the virtue of frugality that keeps them from lighting a lantern to do it, might not change.
The boy and girl next door falling in love, making new life will never change as long as the human race exists.
Love is an eternal thing. Husband-wife, mother-daughter, it lasts forever. And it is not an emotion though we experience it through emotion, through joy, of course, but sometimes most intensely through pain.
We humans are creatures who learn things long after they would have been useful to know. This is eternal too. We are told things by our elders; we nod our heads in affirmation; we go on as before.
In the Harry Potter book, there is a creature called the thestral. The only people who can see them are those who have seen death.
So many of our lessons are like the thestral. We can only understand them after we have seen death, after we have known pain, after we have experienced a sufficient amount of regret. Only then do they become real to us.
That fact was caught in the staging of this play. Traditionally, the play is done with minimal settings. A couple of tables, a few chairs. However, in this staging, in the final act--centered at the cemetery--the decision was made to cook real food on stage, with real smells wafting through the theater. Only in the end, only after it is gone is it real to us.
Part of that third act affected me very strongly, and not only because my daughter was playing the part. Emily, the girl next door, has died in childbirth. She chooses, against advice, to relive a day. She wishes most of all to look her mother once again in the face, but she can’t. That time is past. You can only understand how sweet a thing it is to look your mother in the face when that chance is forever gone.
That I now understand all too well.
In talking with people about the play afterwards, this is borne out. While the younger people knew it was sad at the end, there was not nearly the emotional reaction as from the older people. This is true even from some of the young people who had memorized the lines and gave lip-service to the message. There are some things we only know through pain and loss.
And as I write this my curse is knowing that I will look back after a certain number of years and realize there is something I am missing even now.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. )