Our Town, His: Paul Newman’s Curtain Call

Rebecca McClanahan

This thoughtful tribute to Paul Newman is part of a larger essay by Rebecca McClanahan, one of the nation’s finest practitioners of the literary essay and a long-time contributer to The Kenyon Review. For many years she has also been an instructor at the KR Writers Workshop.
Newman himself was a graduate of Kenyon College—legendary both for his prowess on the stage and his mischievousness and life-long friendships—and a quietly generous supporter of
The Kenyon Review as well. His gifts helped save the Review when it was in dire financial straits fifteen years ago, and later, when our needs had changed, supported scholarships for talented and disadvantaged high school students in our Young Writers program.— David H. Lynn, Editor

Excerpted and adapted from “Our Towns” by Rebecca McClanahan, first published in

The Gettysburg Review.

On the Playbill cover, a pocket watch ticks its way toward the next hour: five o’clock. A
few minutes before dawn, a few minutes before the Stage Manager delivers his first lines and the
sound technician cues the electronic, offstage rooster. This 2002 revival of Our Town represents
Paul Newman’s first return to the stage in nearly forty years, and if that interval is any indication,
this may well be our last chance to see him onstage. Our history of theater going-my husband’s
and mine-is a history of missed last chances. We didn’t know they were last chances at the
time. Some were limited runs, some were promising shows that suddenly, inexplicably closed. A
few were too successful for their own good, lulling us by running for so many decades that they
lost their appeal-and besides, we thought, we can always catch them next month, next year.

I remove my wool gloves and slip my hand into Donald’s. My hand in his is my way of
reminding myself of our good fortune-to be alive in this city after all this time, all that has
passed between us. I am not by nature sentimental, so I need such reminders and must work hard
not to feel embarrassed by them. As I must work hard, while I sit in the theater, not to feel
embarrassed by what I know is about to be acted out. Simple, homely sentiments. Ordinary
people, ordinary days. The smell of heliotrope, the clink of milk bottles on the doorstep. Births
and courtships and marriages and deaths.

I look around the theater. A sprinkling of young people, but the audience is mostly
middle-aged and older. An elderly man in front of us struggles out of his overcoat. Beside him a
thin woman removes her hat, revealing a thick, gray chignon from which a few hairpins are
coming loose. The twenty-something woman to our right is asking her companions what the play
is about, saying she came only to see Paul Newman. For me, watching Newman-in movies, on
television-is a bittersweet experience. He looks like my father, or my father looks like him: the

same straight nose, the same blue eyes, and in the past few years, the same thinning, white hair.
They even have the same first name. Newman will soon be seventy-eight, and my father recently
turned eighty. It took me decades to learn to love my father, wholly, without reserve. In matters
of the heart, I am a slow study.

When Paul Newman made his first appearance onstage, I had to look hard to find him. In
a day or two, when critics review his performance, they will mention the quiet way he
“insinuated” himself onto the stage in semi-darkness, and how when the lights came up, he kept
his back to the audience as he gave his opening lines, so as to short-circuit the applause that
almost always greets a star’s entrance onto the Broadway stage. Newman’s behavior seems
fitting not only because he is a self-effacing actor but also because the Stage Manager, though
listed at the top of the cast list, isn’t really the star of the show, any more than God is the star of
the Bible. I think of the Stage Manager not as a character but as an eye, a voice, a presence.
Though housed in body-in this case the lean, wiry frame of a vibrant septuagenarian-he seems
bodiless. Occasionally, as if hungry to become part of the human drama, the Stage Manager slips
into the skin of another character, someone too minor to be noted on the cast list: a neighbor lady
who scolds George for playing ball in the street; Mr. Morgan, the owner of the soda shoppe; the
minister who performs the wedding of George and Emily. Mostly, though, he stays removed
from the goings-on.

It must be a terrible burden to know in advance how each personal drama will unfold yet
be unable, or unwilling, to influence the outcome. To stand by, hands crossed upon your chest,
your pocket watch ticking, and observe it all being acted out, decade after decade, century after
century. No wonder the Stage Manager keeps his distance. No wonder his delivery is so droll, his
affect so affectless. The matter-of-fact quality seems more than regional, more than the New
England “dryness of tone” that Thornton Wilder, in his preface to the play, advises the director to
maintain. Beneath Wilder’s lines, a sadness lurks, a darkness. “My, isn’t the moonlight terrible?”
the young Emily asks near the end of Act 1. Terrible as in awe-inspiring, beautiful? Or as in
dreadful, terrifying? Or both?

And now it’s Act 2 already, and the Stage manager has slipped into the body of the
minister, delivering the famous marriage speech: “Do I believe in it? I don’t know. I suppose I
do. M marries N. Millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the
Ford—the first rheumatism—the grandchildren—the second rheumatism—the deathbed—the
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reading of the will—One in a thousand times it’s interesting.” Newman’s voice has the ring of
authority, or maybe I am confusing the character with the actor playing the role. During the
intermission between the first and second acts, while skimming the cast notes in the Playbill, I
saw that, in typical fashion, Newman had downplayed his acting credits, choosing instead to
announce that he is married to “the best actress on the planet.” A planet is a big place. He must
think a lot of her, and vice versa. They have been married nearly half a century, and since theirs
is a professional as well as a personal partnership (they have acted together on several occasions,
and she produced this play), I assume that their marriage is the one in a thousand Wilder was
referring to.

I have no right to assume this, but it is hard not to. We watch, we wonder, we put two and
two together. Or one and one together, to make one-another way to think of marriage. We will
never know how long George and Emily’s marriage would have lasted had not death intervened
early on. But for now Newman has finished his marriage speech, the organist is playing the
Wedding March , and, after one of the church women reminds everyone that the important thing
is to be happy, Newman crosses downstage center and, standing in the center of the pinspot,
announces the end of the second act. Thornton Wilder stipulated an intermission, but in this
production Act 2 runs into Act 3 with only a momentary pause and a minor set change. This
seems fitting. When you are happily busy, as Emily and George probably were in those early
years-one child, another on the way, the farm growing-time passes quickly. “Too busy to
breathe,” my grandmother used to say. A blink of the pinspot and nine years have passed. And in
the time it takes for the stagehands to rearrange the chairs, the set has been transformed into a
cemetery. Chairs that had been filled with wedding guests are now filled with the dead, rows of
characters with placid, still demeanors. The church lady is there, and Mrs. Gibbs, and Wally, and
a half dozen others, some of them identified in the script only as “1st Dead Man” or “2nd Dead
Woman.”

Chances are you remember that Emily joins the dead ones, a heroine of sorts, having
given her life in childbirth, bringing forth fresh life. What you might not remember is that Emily
is still wearing her wedding dress, with minor alterations, as stipulated in the costume plot: For
wedding: white wedding dress and veil, with stiff muslin petticoat
. Act III: Same as for wedding
minus veil, substituting limp cotton petticoat
. Of course the onstage Emily never looks dead, not
even when she is about to rewind the tape of her life and haunt her family’s kitchen on the
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morning of her twelfth birthday. Despite the warnings of the other dead ones, Emily has insisted
on a return visit to the world she thinks she once knew. At this point, I am thinking as I sit in the
theater, the Stage Manager should take her by the shoulders, give her newly dead face a tender
slap. Instead, he keeps his distance, delivering his lines in the same low-key, casually ironic tone
he has used throughout the play, and Emily doesn’t seem to hear his words at all: “You not only
live it; but you watch yourself living it.” Also, he adds almost as an afterthought that she must
watch it with the knowledge of the future in her head.

The moments click by. A train whistles stage right. A clock strikes. “Eleven o’clock in
Grover’s Corners,” Paul Newman says, winding his watch as he finishes his last speech.
“Tomorrow’s going to be another day. You get a good rest too. Good night.” Wait, I want to say
as he exits downstage left. I’m not ready yet, I’m still in Act 2: “You know how it is,” Newman
had said, crossing down center to make his point. “You’re twenty-one or twenty-two and you
make some decisions; then whisssh! you’re seventy; you’ve been a lawyer for fifty years, and
that white-haired lady by your side has eaten over fifty thousand meals with you. . . .” Fifty
thousand meals
, I am thinking, trying to do the math, and then I am seeing Newman and
Woodward at their breakfast table, and Donald’s parents at theirs, and my parents at theirs-fifty
thousand meals!-and Donald and me at ours, then whisssh, the lights come back on, brighter
than ever, and I am thrown into the present moment: this theater in the center of New York City,
my ungloved hand slipping out of Donald’s so that we can both clap, loudly, steadily, because it
is curtain call, time to give something back. Time for everyone to take a bow-even Dead Man
#1 and Lady in the Box, even that amorphous clump appearing from the wings, the People of the
Town-and a long line forms across the stage and the applause thickens and broadens until, it
seems, we are all one pair of hands clapping as the line breaks apart and Newman appears in the
center. He seems smaller than he did earlier, more ordinary, his white hair so soft and fine that I
want to reach out and touch it. And as he lowers his head for the bow I see for the first time a
patch of pink scalp. He bows deeply, reverently, as if in obeisance to something larger, and
calmly walks off the stage.

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