The Leftovers, Our Town, and the Brutal Power of Ordinary Details

Author Tom Perrotta, co-creator of a much-hyped new HBO drama, says Thornton Wilder's play taught him to write about finding meaning in the banal.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

The Leftovers, the acclaimed Tom Perrotta novel whose 10-part TV adaptation will premiere on HBO this Sunday, begins with the extraordinary. The book’s catalyzing event, which will come to dramatic life in the show co-created by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, is part catastrophe, part cosmic mystery: Without fanfare or explanation, two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishes.

But despite the dramatic premise, The Leftovers is really about the everyday experience of griefand for Perrotta, literary power lies not with sound and fury but in small details. As he explained in our conversation for this series, writers need quiet, daily moments to open the door to greater themes and feelings. To illustrate, Perrotta turned to Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town, which takes great pains to build the quotidian social fabric that it ultimately intends to tear apart. 

Tom Perrota’s work has been on screen before; his novels Election and Little Children both became feature films. He spoke to me by phone.

Tom Perrotta: When I was a kid, I got a lot of my information from Reader’s Digest—and I first saw Our Town referred to in a copy my parents had lying around. The magazine didn’t excerpt the play directly, but used a few details to craft an uplifting little life lesson. It explained how, in the play, a dead woman relives her 12th birthday and discovers how much in life she took for granted. The goal was to remind people that every day is precious; appreciate the time you have, it said, and love the people in front of you.

Though the takeaway was banal—carpe diem!—something about it still made a big impression on me. There was a compelling, Twilight Zone-like quality to the idea of someone coming back from the dead, looking on in anguish and regret at her own life. I remember thinking Our Town was something I should try to read. 

But I never came across it in high school. I took the advanced English seminars, and Our Town was relegated to the basic courses. In college, I never had Wilder on an English syllabus. I’m sure if I took “American Playwriting” I would have come across it, but I didn’t. I was in my late 20s when I first saw the play performed—the Spalding Gray version put on in New York in the late '80s—and I loved it. When I went to see a new production about a year ago in Boston, I made sure to bring my kids.

And something caught me totally off guard—I just lost it. During the third act, I started to weep. I think I scared my kids, but I simply couldn’t help it. 

Our Town can take you by surprise that way. If you know the play, you know how it builds from an innocuous premise towards a cosmic, emotionally punishing finale. It works the kind of magic that certain works of art achieve in that it forces you to do the very thing it says is impossible. The play laments the fact that we can’t see our lives from the perspective of the dead—and that’s exactly what it makes us do.

Our Town is a play in three acts. There’s an ordinary day, then three years later a wedding, and then nine years later there’s a death. So an ordinary day, a celebration, and a death—using just those three elements, he provides a crushing sense of how quickly and irrevocably time slips by. It’s an amazing work from an artistic standpoint. The play strips away almost everything. The stage directions suggest a bare-bones set, and there are no props—characters mime their actions. The characters are mostly boiled down to stock types, and there’s really no plot. It all boils down to this essential fact: These people live, and then they die. The play generates an enormous amount of emotion from just that basic fact of existence.

But there’s no way to make the cosmic moves that Wilder pulls off unless we first believe in the mundane reality of the characters. That’s why the first two acts mostly serve to build the world and make the characters feel real. Act One depicts daily life in Grover’s Corners using a series of vignettes: children getting ready for school, local housewives complaining about their husbands, the milkman delivering milk, the country doctor returning from his rounds. The kids banter, the adults discuss and gossip, and though most of what we see is wholesome, innocent—Our Town prefigures Happy Days in this senseall the little moments ring so true. 

Act Two deals with love and courtship—with a focus on the deepening relationship of two characters, George and Emily. Again, Wilder builds upon the small moments. We get this touching flashback when Emily accuses George of growing too conceited—as George resolves to be better, and Emily apologies for calling him out, we begin to realize this mundane teenage confession is really a marriage proposal. There are so many small gestures surrounding the wedding that convince completely: the parents’ awkward dispensing of advice, the cold feet felt by both bridge and groom. It’s fairly conventional stuff, but that’s the sleight of hand—the play only works if the small moments feel completely real.

It’s by building this believable, mundane world, that Wilder can pull off a radical move in Act Three. Suddenly, we’re in the cemetery. It’s nine years later, and many of the characters we’ve come to know are dead. The cemetery functions like a town all on its own—the inhabitants gather and converse with one another, beyond the grave. Though they’re able to watch what the living do, they feel it’s too painful to do so; slowly, they learn to turn away from that world. 

It’s a terrible, frightening thing to imagine your life from the perspective of the dead, but that’s what Wilder asks of us. And then we’re dealt this emotional blow: Emily, who we’ve seen grow up, fall in love, and get married, enters the cemetery—a fact the other dead greet with indifference. She died giving birth to her second child. Suddenly, the play’s innocence—it’s light and laughter—becomes cast in a completely different light.

What we don’t expect is how painful it will be for the dead to watch the living. And Emily, a new arrival who still clings to the life she had, learns the hard way. “How can I ever forget that life?” she says. “It’s all I know. It’s all I had.” 

The other dead people, who have been in the cemetery longer, know it’s best to forget. But Emily insists on going back to relive a day from her past, even though all the ranks of dead citizens warn against it. Of course, she wants to choose a happy day—maybe the day she fell in love with George. But Mrs. Gibbs, Emily’s mother-in-law (killed by pneumonia) warns her that she shouldn’t choose something so special—it will be too intense. 

Mrs. Gibbs: At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough. 

When Emily reluctantly goes back to watch her 12th birthday—a day she thinks will be commonplace enough—she’s shocked to find every moment suffused with great significance and a terrible sense of loss. The simple scene—her mother giving her presents, relatives paying their respects—is the kind of thing we watched, blithely, in the play’s first two acts; glimpsed from inside the cemetery, though, that everydayness has a kind of terrible power. Emily wants to savor every moment, because all of it’s gone for good. She becomes completely overwhelmed: 

Emily: I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything. I can’t look at everything hard enough

“I can’t look at everything hard enough”: the tragedy is that, while we’re alive, we don’t view our days in the knowledge that all things must pass. We don’t—we can’t—value our lives, our loved ones, with the urgent knowledge that they’ll one day be gone forever. Emily notices with despair that she and her mother barely look at one another, and she laments our self-possession, our distractedness, the million things that keep us from each other. “Oh Mama,” she cries, “just look at me one minute as though you really saw me! … Let’s look at one another.” But mother and daughter remain self-absorbed, each in a private sea of her own thoughts, and that moment of recognition, of connection, never comes. Eventually, Emily has to turn away.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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