Review of Wilder's 'Our Town' is here.
Review of Sartre's 'No Exit' is here.
I pulled both of these plays off the shelf almost at random. I'd read 'Our Town' some twenty years ago but hadn't read 'No Exit' before. Both are striking in different ways but they share a similarity in how they deal with being dead. The third act of 'Our Town' takes place in a cemetery and is (mostly) peopled by the dead talking about the living. 'No Exit' features three dead people trapped in a room together making each other miserable. But both are very, very different.
How the dead interact with life - In 'Our Town', the newly dead are seated in the spots of their graves. They are calm and distant. When the living come, they are aware but not excited. Their survivors aren't very important any more, nor is the world that is still going on. In fact, the main lesson learned is that the living don't appreciate just how good being alive is. This is presented without envy. If anything, it's presented with pity and remorse.
In 'No Exit', the newly dead still have some connection to the lives they've led but only until they are forgotten. As soon as that happens, all connection is severed and they are cut off from that experience. When that happens, it is somewhat tragic as then they are truly stuck in a room. There is nothing calm about their demeanor.
How the dead interact with each other - 'No Exit' famously ends with the line that 'hell is other people'. The three are trapped with each other for only about an hour in the play and they make each other miserable. They find faults and they pick at them. They will quickly drive each other crazy. Forever.
Meanwhile, in 'Our Town', the residents of Grover's Corners can idly sit together without any problems. They have the attitude of people sitting and visiting after church, which no doubt they did many, many times while still alive. No one seems all that bothered, and this includes a man who was a drunkard that hung himself.
What they do - Wilder's cast can sit forever without problems. In fact, the only thing that I can imagine they'd miss is having something to do. If I was staging this, the women would be knitting while the men were endlessly whittling or something.
The cast of 'No Exit' fret, but it's harder to imagine what they'd be doing to keep busy. The women are veterans of countless dinner parties but these clearly aren't friendly affairs. Their knives are ever at hand. The man is a newspaper man, who lives by thinking and writing. He'd be just as bored with knitting and if you offered him a chance to whittle, he'd try to kill himself with a knife.
Their intended audience - It's no exaggeration to say that 'Our Town' is very American, while 'No Exit' is very French. It's hard to think of a switch between them. 'Our Town' wouldn't play to raves in Paris and 'No Exit' would not be a terribly popular high school play. (Well, maybe with the students, but not with their parents.) They both contain philosophical truths, but one invites after-play discussion over wine and cigarettes, the other over a burger and malt. (Though come to think of it, the two plays would make a fascinating double feature or mash-up!)
These are both fine, fine plays.