What do you discover with these two plays compared: Our Town vs. You Can’t Take It with You? You realize that what they have in common is that they’re the only two plays to have appeared in Educational Theatre Association’s 2020 ranking of the most popular plays in high school theatre in every decade from 1940 to 2010! You also learn that one is a wacky comedy about an eccentric family. And that the other is a largely plotless drama that lures its audience unsuspectingly into the afterlife. One is quite different from the other and yet both have enduring appeal.

PLAYS COMPARED: Why They Both Still Work

What explains the longevity of these disparate works from 80 years ago? Both offer the opportunity for large casts, useful for including all the students who aspire to participate in school drama. Such scale has grown increasingly rare over the years. There are some 20 characters in the Kaufman and Hart comedy, while Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners in Our Town originally had about 50 residents and can be reduced or expanded, as necessary.

Both are perceived as family friendly works, given their vintage. Plus, neither one has complicated scenic requirements: a single-unit set for You Can’t Take It with You and nothing more than chairs, tables, and a couple of ladders for Our Town.

PLAYS COMPARED: Similarities & Differences

You Can’t Take It with You is a romp (albeit with some dated characters of color), ideally suited for students with exuberance and good senses of humor. Our Town, for all the sweetness that’s on display in its first two acts, and two significant teen characters, is shot through with darkness and spends its entire third act in a cemetery.

Our Town requires a great deal of patience to watch. There’s no strong narrative in the play, no conflict, and no suspense. Three-quarters of the way through the viewer might wonder what’s the point! Is this just a story about a simple little town and a romance between two ordinary young people? Yes, until it takes a sharp turn in the third act. The play sheds its realism to tell of unexpected tragedy that forces audiences to consider how they’re spending their own lives. It often sends people out in tears. (Our Town forces actors and audiences to contemplate their own mortality. Interesting that the play remained so popular in school theatre.)

But perhaps the two plays have something more in common than a cursory reading or single viewing might reveal: that they are two sides of the same coin, even if one is an earthbound comedy, the other a metaphysical tragedy.

In Our Town, Emily cries out, “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” To which the Stage Manager replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some.”  She has discovered, too late, that we need to pay attention, to appreciate everything that is happening around us. In You Can’t Take It with You, Grandpa Vanderhoof opines, “All those plans we make… what happens to them? It’s only a handful of the lucky ones that can look back and say they even came close.”

Those lucky ones may be the saints and poets, and while the Vanderhof-Sycamore clan may aspire to being artists rather than making great achievements, they’re surely happier than those who work in offices and, it would seem, those who toil in kitchens and work on farms. In You Can’t Take It with You, conventional work prevents awareness, just as the workaday life of Our Town seems to distract from it.

That said, one appreciation of life and beauty is shared by both plays. “Time enough for everything,” declares Grandpa Vanderhof, “read, talk, visit the zoo now and then, practice my darts, even have time to notice when spring comes around.” That isn’t so far off from the thoughts of Mr. Webb, who in reply to whether there’s “any culture or love of beauty” responds, in part, “We’ve got a lot of pleasures of a kind here,” before going on to note, “We watch the change of the seasons; yes, everybody knows about them.” The seasons and nature are things to be treasured in both approaches to both plays’ guiding philosophies.

The two plays also evidence a sentiment towards letting go of commonplace concerns. “Used to worry about the world too,” explains Grandpa Vanderhof of his exceptionally early abandonment of conventional life. “Got all worked up about whether Cleveland or Blaine was going to be elected President – seemed awful important at the time, but who cares now?” And while it takes quite a bit longer for the citizens of Grover’s Corners to lose their worldly concerns, the Stage Manager echoes Grandpa, admittedly in a different context, when he says, “They stay here while the earth part of ‘em burns away, burns out; and all that time they slowly get indifferent to what’s going on in Grover’s Corners.”

While a reciprocal title swap wouldn’t make much sense between the two plays, it is not impossible to imagine Our Town being called You Can’t Take It With You. That simple bit of philosophy is a reminder that all worldly things are left behind us after we pass, and that seems an implicit part of what Wilder evokes in his Act III.

Maybe the two plays are getting at some of the same ideas in two decidedly different ways, bound not simply by vintage, size and popularity. Perhaps that’s why they have been arm in arm in schools over the decades and may well march forward together, side by side, for years to come.

Howard Sherman is an arts administrator, writer, and advocate. His book Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century, which shares oral histories from a baker’s dozer of recent Our Town productions across the US and in England, is now available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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