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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The War of the Worlds: Orson Welles’ 1938 Radio Dra­ma That Pet­ri­fied a Nation

Orson Welles Turns Heart of Dark­ness Into a Radio Dra­ma, and Almost His First Great Film

Orson Welles’ Radio Per­for­mances of 10 Shake­speare Plays

A Christ­mas Car­ol, A Vin­tage Radio Broad­cast by Orson Welles and Lionel Bar­ry­more (1939)

Stream 61 Hours of Orson Welles’ Clas­sic 1930s Radio Plays: War of the WorldsHeart of Dark­ness & More

Hear 22-Year-Old Orson Welles Star in The Shad­ow, the Icon­ic 1930s Super Crime­fight­er Radio Show

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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  • Deborah Furlan Scavone says:

    I´d like to know how this radio show was received by lis­ten­ers and by Wilder him­self. Did the play­wright approve it? What about the reviews? I am writ­ing an arti­cle about this radio dra­ma. Thanks!

  • Deborah Furlan Scavone says:

    I´d like to know how this radio show was received by lis­ten­ers and by Wilder him­self. Did the play­wright approve it? What about the reviews?

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