Misconceptions about time pervade throughout pop culture in large part due to its marketability. Saying that time is continuous implies a great many things, chief among them that it goes until it stops (namely at the point of death). Through this definition, a clear analogy would be a mode of transportation. Highways, railways–the implication being that time is as structured and rigid as the institutions and constructs we pour so much of ourselves into. Time is fixed, you see, and it is important–nay, critical!–that you live it with fulfillment, otherwise…well, you won’t be happy. That’s for certain. Or at least, that’s the way many would like to think about it.
The play In Transit, as given away by the title, deals with life in much the same analogy–namely that of a subway–and then goes one step further. Life is less akin to a straight line running in constant and more literally compared to the railway it takes place on, in, and around. Like trains, ones life can move along, stop momentarily, and, as the cast is fond of saying, “get stuck.”
Those dealing with difficult breakups, dead end jobs, and disapproving parents all describe their lives as being “stuck” to varying degrees. There’s a solution to these problems, though, and each person is defined primarily by their problem and its subsequent, obvious answer. The “narrator” (so to speak) Box Man tells the audience right away that New Yorkers spend almost a month out of every year commuting, which I am led to believe means in the larger allegory that being stuck is related to motion, whereas getting to where one has to go is closer to progress. I think. It’s never made abundantly clear.
Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town takes the opposite approach entirely. Time is regarded as perpetual, that the cycles of life and death, summer and winter, the ebbs and flows of nature are all part of the same eternal function rather than alternating speeds. There is no stop or start–only existence.
Our Town proves an interesting counterpoint to In Transit. Superficially, both have “narrators” that serve as actual characters in their plays in tandem with their wider storytelling responsibilities. Both take place in a confined setting and primarily focus on a small selection of people going about their daily lives. Everyone in both tales is connected to each other in some capacity, whether it be through romantic, familial, or some other bond.
The two begin to deviate in terms of their concepts of time, as mentioned before, and from there the rifts become clearer and extend farther. In Transit‘s identity forms around the notion of appreciating every moment because time is constantly moving and before you know it, you will reach your last stop (as it were). The problem here is that the person giving this advice quit his job to sell CDs in the subway underground for a living because he was “fed up with the bullshit.” Fair enough. But everyone else uses his example as a means of deciding which job would make them feel most fulfilled. If we are supposed to do as Box Man says but not as he does, then why does he seem to be the only one throughout the play that has some sense of where they’re going? Which is to say, by standing still.
The story’s climax comes when one of the main characters, an aspiring actress, deals with her tragedy by internalizing Box Man’s method of tuning into the beat of everything, and this ostensibly works. She sings a whole song about how she understands now, and then she runs into her love interest and they have a baby. End of play. No notion of whether or not she pursued acting or followed Box Man and now spends all her time on subway platforms, but who cares? She did the thing! Hooray!
Our Town deals with the eternity of time by showing tragedy as it really is: not in bits and pieces, but always surrounding us. One line that’s committed to memory is a young boy and his neighbor sharing pleasantries, interrupted by the narrator to share with the audience that the boy had a gifted mind, went to college for medicine, and died fighting in the First World War. Given appropriate context, all the innocuousness of his exchange takes on greater significance since we’re reminded that he’s not going to be around forever.
One of the main characters, Emily, dies at the end of the play, after we see her young relationship blossom into love and marriage–the cause of death being childbirth, no less. Emily makes a deal with her higher power to go back to the living for one day, disobeying her family and neighbors attempting to comfort her in the afterlife. She decides to relive her 12th birthday, and upon arrival, is instantly heartbroken. Every person she sees is young and happy; Emily knows none of this will last. Her happiest childhood memory is soiled by the nagging thought that none of the people she sees appreciates life the way she does, burdened with the knowledge of how it’s all bound to end. Ostensibly, Emily learns the lesson Box Man tried to teach, but she arrived at that conclusion on her own.
In Transit presents easily identifiable situations that pass for relatability, but only because of how broad the characters are. Granted, one could make the same argument that Our Town‘s aren’t much better than stock players (George and Emily are obviously supposed to be the young lovers, for instance) but the minutiae of their lives are more universally recognizable and enduring than In Transit‘s paradoxically specific and general humor, aimed squarely at New York residents and, apparently, fans of The Big Bang Theory, that’s bound to be dated within a year.
Our Town‘s narrator makes a point at the end that no matter how much times passes, the town will stay put: the young will have kids, the old will die, and life will go on. It’s a quiet, subtle, peaceful message intended to let one truly appreciate the meaning and intent of the otherwise overused phrase “make every second count” by demonstrating how precious and unique life is. In Transit, meanwhile, simply throws it out in the beginning and then spends the rest of the runtime patting itself on the back for having said so. Not every story needs to be overly significant and brimming with subtext, but there were times when In Transit made me think it might actually be trying to do something similar to Our Town in terms of showing the nuances of everyday hardships.
The gay man who wants his mother to accept him for who he is has an inner monologue about when he realizes she knew all along, but decides he doesn’t want her to have to face that harsh reality directly so soon after his father died. “She shouldn’t lose her husband and her son,” he reasons. Again, fair enough. The aspiring actress doesn’t get the big part she was waiting her whole life for. These two subplots showed a lot of promise, and even though the first half was a bit weird and schizophrenic with its message, I reminded myself that American Idiot started off similarly–with an overarching theme of idealism in a rigid and uncaring world–and prayed the latter’s maturity would seep in throughout its course, having the characters reevaluate their lives and goals.
The resolutions of said plots were, respectively, 1.) Mom accepts her son for seemingly no reason, and 2.) acting takes a backseat to raising a family with her love interest, so there’s no real closure. Also, the annoying subway clerk runs for mayor for some reason.
In Transit gives us the answer immediately and forgets to ask the question in the first place, whereas Our Town asks its question indirectly and let’s us piece the answer together for ourselves. Our Town respects its audience–In Transit may have simply been a vehicle for a cappella singing and nothing more.
Impressive as the singing was, by the way, if they were upfront about it I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. In Transit lost so much of its focus that by the time the story wrapped up, I had to remind myself of Box Man’s speech at the beginning about how we should appreciate life and time as much as possible, because it basically had no bearing on the end result whatsoever. Everything ended the way I predicted it would, and a clever concept about people’s lives intersecting on public transportation was wasted for the sake of flashier musical numbers–though they were good, but still–and broader application.
In summary, In Transit couldn’t maintain a coherent plot, structure, allegory, compelling cast of characters, message, and anyone looking to see its infinitely better counterpart should just read or see Our Town.