Orson Welles Presents Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the Most Popular High School Play of All Time (1939)

If you went to high school in America, you almost certainly saw a production of Our Town. If you participated in your high school’s drama program, you almost certainly acted in a production of Our Town. I myself built sets for a production of Our Town, doing what I could to properly realize the fictional, small early 20th-century American town of Grover’s Corners on my high school’s stage while remaining within its long-respected tradition of minimalist scenery. Sometimes I wonder if it would have taken the wind out of my sails had I known that no less an auteur than the 24-year-old Orson Welles had produced his own Our Town more than sixty years before using no sets or props at all — using, in fact, nothing but sound.

Since its first performance in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s quaint yet dark, sentimental yet metafictional signature dramatic work has become the most popular high-school play of them all (though George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s comedy You Can’t Take It with You gives it a run for its money). Welles adapted it for radio in 1939, the year after its premiere on stage as well as the year after the broadcast of his much more infamous radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (and, notably, the year before Citizen Kane). Welles and Wilder had first met at a party in 1933, not long after Welles had put in a performing stint at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. “To Welles’ amazement,” writes Charles Higham in Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius, “Wilder knew all about his career at the Gate,” recalling praise the young actor received from the New York Times.

“Wilder whisked Welles away from the party on a round of late night speakeasies,” Higham continues, “and as dawn broke, Wilder scribbled out notes of introduction to friends in New York, all of whom were influential in the theater.” Given Wilder’s non-trivial role in facilitating the development of Welles’ early career, it makes sense that Welles would want to do right by Wilder’s work, and it still holds up well against the versions of Our Town in any form that have followed. For a taste of how the play translates to the cinema, you could do worse than Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation starring William Holden, free to watch at the Internet Archive or YouTube, although it uses relatively elaborate production design and turns the original tragic ending into a happy one. For a purer Our Town, you’ll want to stick with Welles’ interpretation — or that of an American high school near you.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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