In the dusky half-light of incomplete scenery, unhurried stagehands conjure a pair of living spaces via strategic placements of benches and tables and chairs. It’s a simplistic setup, the kind any high school or amateur theatre troupe could assemble. Yet the stagehands’ assured, businesslike movements convey that they’re professionals. For the moment, that body language is all one can read; their shadowed faces keep them anonymous and inscrutable as they ignore the audience and attend to their tasks. You’d be forgiven for thinking they aren’t actors—that they’re workmen whose routine you’ve interrupted; that you’re a nuisance who threatens their rhythm, and only by disregarding you can they lessen your intrusion.
But one of them soon rescues you from any such discomfort. The shine of his spectacles and the brim of his hat materialize in the dim light as he turns to acknowledge the audience. He raises a gentle finger, as if asking a favor: one second more, please. I’ll be right with you. Through this gesture alone, he conveys a warmth and consideration that convinces you you’re no irritant at all. You’re a welcome guest, arriving a little too early. Take a seat, he seems to say; make yourself comfortable. It’s enough to make you feel like you’re in good hands.
His name, if he even has one, is never uttered. But readers of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play about everyday life in the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners—and the window unto the sublime and eternal that it opens—know to call this kindly figure the Stage Manager.
Even by theatrical standards, the Stage Manager is a flexible part. By way of example, its many notable performances have included the likes of Wilder himself, Frank Sinatra, and Helen Hunt. In this particular incarnation—James Naughton’s 2003 rendition, made for television under PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre aegis—he’s played by Paul Newman.
For me, Newman’s interpretation will always be the definitive version. His complete command of the role supplies reason enough to crown him. Who else could demonstrate his character’s entire disposition with nothing more than a single raised finger? Yet the full explanation for why Newman’s bravura performance transcends all others requires an understanding of both Our Town and the insular region at its heart.
Truth be told, I have a soft spot for Our Town in all its forms, whether onstage or on film. As a one-time theatre kid from the kind of tiny New Hampshire settlement depicted in the play (the fictional Grover’s Corners is said to be modeled after Peterborough, close to where I grew up), Our Town trips my every aesthetic wire as if by design. Part of its appeal is the novelty of seeing New Hampshire discussed in any capacity, because—let’s face it—we’re easily overlooked. Boston’s outsize cultural influence overshadows virtually all of New England, and New Hampshire can’t compete for recognition. What do we have going for us? We don’t even boast a functional state symbol anymore, since the rock formation we liked so much collapsed in 2003. (By coincidence, that same year delivered Newman’s Stage Manager, as if to replace our dearly departed Old Man of the Mountain.) So it’s refreshing for my home state to receive any attention whatsoever. And it’s nothing short of wild to hear a nationally televised broadcast contain both the word “Contoocook” and its correct pronunciation.
Yet the real joy of Our Town for New Hampshirites like myself is less its regional fan service than its impeccable rendering of a stripe of small-town living deeply familiar to us. The play captures its disappointments and its poetry alike—the ways it weighs us down, and the soaring spiritual highs it sometimes lets us attain.
The fact is, this sort of life isn’t one that I can recommend without reservations. It comes with a learning curve. Its slow tempo can grind down souls unable to bear boredom. (The most newsworthy event to befall the unimpressive Grover’s Corners, the Stage Manager informs us, is that noted presidential loser William Jennings Bryan once stopped there to deliver a speech.) The rural setting confines as much as it liberates—public transit is rare, city and civilization far away. Worse still, the culture fosters a unique species of cruelty that mushrooms out of the New Englander respect for privacy: where no help is solicited, none is given. (“I don’t know how that will end,” Grover’s Corners whispers as the traumatized, depressive church organist Simon Stimson spirals into alcoholism and suicide, despite everyone being well aware that he’s “seen a peck of trouble.”) Simply put, it’s a life that can be hard to love.
But love it we do. Because in our skies, far removed from city lights, the moon glows strongly enough to cast shadows that remake the world in filigree silvers and blues. Because the depths of our winters lace the night with more stars than you can count. Because any garden coaxed from our stony, miserly soil confers a sense of accomplishment that makes nothing seem impossible, and a feeling of hope no religion can rival. Because the local lore gains a flesh and blood and sinew that’s all but inconceivable at the abstract, impersonal scale of urban living. If heaven really is a place on earth, who’s to say that it’s not somewhere out here—somewhere like Grover’s Corners?
The greatness of Newman’s Stage Manager is that he understands the complexities of this love, and embodies it fully. Throughout his performance, he makes palpable the depth of his Stage Manager’s love for Grover’s Corners. He portrays someone whose love is all-encompassing, who loves despite and loves because. And it’s from this love that Newman’s Stage Manager is able to draw his remarkable combination of power and vulnerability—a familiar paradox for anyone who has ever loved something, or someone, or somewhere.
Newman’s performance hinges on the practicalities of what a stage manager is and does. You could say that a stage manager is analogous to the support officers of a military operation if they could all be rolled into one person; they’re simultaneously the production’s quartermaster, adjutant, and aide-de-camp. If the director is responsible for articulating a creative vision, the stage manager’s duty is to provide the logistical, organizational, and practical assistance to realize it. The director pictures how the costumes are supposed to look and feel; the stage manager sources the materials to make them. The director maneuvers actors onstage to achieve a particular dramatic effect; the stage manager records and distributes the blocking instructions. The director orders that a scene be bathed in warm colors at a certain point; the stage manager ensures that the correct lights fire during the vital moment. In short, stage managers do the dirty work that’s essential to make everything run.
Any attempt at playing the Stage Manager benefits from leaning into this laundry list of obligations, because it provides an immediate source of dramatic tension from which a character can be sketched. Since I’m still an insufferable theatre kid not too deep down, I’ve often thought about how I’d pilot Our Town’s Stage Manager given the opportunity. A seriocomic take strikes me as a viable route—a Liz Lemon type whose infrequent victories are slowly souring the business of the stage. I picture him as a person at war with the play itself, stuck in a rapidly unraveling production where the actors don’t respond to his cues, no scene commences at the right time or in quite the right way, and audiences keep arriving at inconvenient moments before he can apply the necessary bandages to prevent the enterprise from falling apart. Accordingly, I’d approach the Stage Manager as someone who’s barely keeping up with his duties, a harried plate-spinner of questionable aptitude whose imagination bristles with visions of shattered porcelain.
Newman seizes on a similar dynamic, forging his character in the gap between what the play demands and what his Stage Manager is capable of providing. It’s a noteworthy departure from Newman’s more famous fare. He’s played plenty of memorable rebels (Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy, and Reggie Dunlop, to name a few) who overflow with vitality, shirking whatever customs or rules or laws impede the living of their larger-than lives. Newman’s Stage Manager is the opposite: he cannot disregard the rules of his station, and bit by bit, they’re crushing him.
Ironically, it takes a Newman at the height of his powers to portray someone whose considerable skills are on the downswing. The Stage Manager is among Newman’s final roles, and it shows. He comports himself like someone freighted with several lifetimes’ worth of wisdom who’s losing the capacity to shoulder it. He’s still strong enough to carry all that weight for the time being. But what was once a straightforward deadlift has since become a balancing act. His studied movements project not only gentleness, but caution—so as to avoid upsetting the tenuous world he cradles, lest it tumble from his grasp and break.
In a common interpretation of the play, the Stage Manager stands in for the Christian God, an eternal benevolence whose gaze (be)holds past, present, and future. Naughton’s Our Town even hints as much. When the young Rebecca Gibbs tells the story of a postcard with a vertiginous address, which starts with a street and telescopes out through the continent and planet and solar system before arriving at “the Mind of God” as its broadest signpost, the next scene cuts to a pensive Newman in a wash of white light. We’re given a few moments to watch his mind at work as he silently ponders some unspoken mystery. The framing invites us to wonder whether an entire universe turns within it.
Yet the Stage Manager’s abilities undercut such a facile reading. If he’s any kind of god, he’s at best a minor deity whose feats are less pronounced than his limitations.
He seems to have two superhuman powers. First, he possesses an omniscience that allows him to see beyond the fourth wall, as well as into every era of Grover’s Corners. Second, he enjoys the freedom to inhabit other lives (which he exercises to become the druggist Mr. Morgan and the minister presiding over a wedding). These are more than devices for advancing the play’s narrative; they’re also mechanisms for emphasizing the Stage Manager’s many constraints. Outside of them, he continually runs up against the limits of what he can do.
People remain beyond his command, for starters; invited speakers like Professor Willard stray from the topics he seeks, and characters tend to miss the cues he sets. He can’t persuade others to share what he finds important; he’s always interrupting and hurrying a cast that doesn’t value time and punctuality like he does. And when a deceased Emily asks to revisit past days with her family, he’s unable to help her communicate with them or convey her blessings; all he can do is replay her memories. His is not the power to create or change. After all, he isn’t the director. He has a script and blocking scheme to follow that aren’t of his own making.
Newman’s performance not only reflects the Stage Manager’s constraints, but emphasizes the tremendous emotional toll they exact. A bone-deep weariness tempers his Stage Manager’s sagacity, as if to suggest that his warmth and kindness are born of countless defeats. There’s a pervasive sense that his outwardly steady persona exists to mask his impotence in the face of forces greater than himself.
Newman coaxes out his Stage Manager’s troubled inner life through a number of subtle gestures. His gaze cants downward, like someone deep in thought who isn’t given many opportunities to surface. When he interacts directly with other characters, his lines frequently conclude with little swallows of sadness, as if to suggest that he’s beholding the person’s end in the same all-seeing glance, and must choke back a spasm of involuntary mourning. In moments where matters don’t go to plan, such as Editor Webb blowing his entry cue, Newman’s Stage Manager musters small, nervous movements with his hands—a helpless motion to indicate that he’s aware meaningful intervention is beyond him. All of these choices are markedly tender idiosyncrasies that signal his ongoing emotional struggle. He loves everyone and everything in his small patch of world, and it pains him that he’s powerless to intervene in lives whose tragedies he knows all too intimately.
The props afforded Newman’s Stage Manager help him reinforce this characterization. He keeps only two items in his possession, a pocket watch and a notebook, and they exist to drive home all he cannot do. His notebook is never paired with a writing implement, as if to assert that he’s not allowed to introduce anything new to the record. When he handles the notebook (most often in moments where he needs to verify a fact that has briefly escaped him), it’s always with a mix of trepidation and irritation, evoking a burgeoning senility feeling out the gaps in its remembrance. Similarly, the pocket watch stresses time’s passage remaining outside his ken. He breaks it out to comment on when trains should be arriving; left unspoken is that it’s not up to him whether they run on time. The props at first make it appear as if he’s on top of things, but their functions are fundamentally passive. By extension, so are his. Time and history are his to read, but not his to redefine.
Newman’s Stage Manager therefore hates the arc of history, despising both the cruel ways in which it unfolds and the foolish things that people choose to prioritize in recollection. In Wilder’s script, the Stage Manager already dislikes history’s erasure of everyday living. He speaks dismissively of the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight for overshadowing the minutiae of ordinary affairs in historical memory, and regrets how World War I squandered the education and potential of a local boy killed in the trenches. Newman takes this tendency even further, imbuing his Stage Manager with particular contempt for history’s lacunae.
His serene, contemplative voice rises only when discussing the gaps in human memory, imparting flashes of rage and indignation to surprising lines. Consider the text of the Stage Manager’s introductory monologue in Act III, a meditation on death and mourning that takes place in a peaceful, picturesque hilltop cemetery. In one memorable passage, the Stage Manager discusses what will outlast us. A cursory reading might construe it as a message of hope, softly submitted:
Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
Yet Newman delivers these words like a fiery sermon. His furious inflections blame us for history’s compounding miseries, chastising our willful neglect of generations of hard-won wisdom. How dare you forget what so many have died to learn and teach? he fulminates; how dare you make me share the agony of all your self-inflicted sorrows? It’s the outcry of someone who wants better for us, and in a rare moment of selfishness, wants better from us.
His frustration also boils over briefly in an exchange with the dead. When Emily asks him whether any living person recognizes the beauty of life, the script instructs the Stage Manager to reply: “No. Saints and poets, maybe. They do some.” At a glance, it lends itself to a parental sort of reading (Nobody understands, but don’t worry, because some people come close!) or a weary one (No, and the ones with the best shot are incomprehensible weirdos). But Newman spits that first word, his bitter “no” falling like a hammer with eons of impatience behind it. The rest of the line he gives a much more consoling tone, as if to compensate for the harshness of the truth he’s revealed. In those eight words, Newman encapsulates his Stage Manager’s entire character: a wise, pained demigod, who still finds the capacity to love his charges in spite of all he suffers.
And make no mistake, his suffering is immense. The intensity of his delivery when discussing the beautiful and the eternal shows that, of all the wisdom he has to share, these lessons are the ones he absolutely must impart. He offers them in the hope that somebody, anybody, is listening; that some chance pupil will take heed and make the future unfold more favorably. But he’s seen enough of the future to know that it’s unlikely to happen. Humanity doesn’t learn—its wars and treaties and frivolous feats of aviation continue apace—and the Stage Manager must bear witness to it all, unable to alter its course.
For Newman, the Stage Manager is someone left without a voice after too long shouting into the void. He has wept and prayed for spans of time beyond mortal reckoning. Yet his every prayer has gone unanswered. After all, in the order of the universe, who stands higher than him to receive his entreaties? To whom can a divinity pray?
Much is made in Our Town about the value of companionship. The entire second act tells a love story that culminates in a wedding. Most characters are or have been married, parted by death alone. Every child has a sibling. “People are meant to go through life two by two,” says Mrs. Gibbs, in a meditative interlude. “‘Tain’t natural to be lonesome.” Against this backdrop, the Stage Manager might appear a lonely presence. One can’t help noticing how he’s typically the only one onstage when made to speak, or how Wilder’s directions often call for him to be fixed in the beam of a single spotlight, isolated even from the set.
But, sooner or later, one realizes that the Stage Manager does have a pairing. His partner is all of Grover’s Corners: the place, the people, and the way of life they forge together. To be tethered to it—or tangled in it—makes for a challenging existence. But it has its satisfactions nonetheless. Newman’s turn as the Stage Manager makes plain this confounding species of joy. Even minor gods recognize that chains link even as they bind.
In the end, that is the beauty of Newman’s Stage Manager. What pain he nurses is born of love, but what love he nurtures provides more than enough to sustain. After all, Grover’s Corners is for him what heaven might be like—as the Granite State is for any New Hampshirite, as any place must be for those who’ve learned to call it home. And though his Stage Manager may suffer from his love for our tiny patch of soil, Newman lets us know that we needn’t worry too much about him. Of all possible worlds, he’s chosen this one. There’s nowhere he’d rather be.