Our Townby Thorton Wilder (1897- 1975)Type of Work:Presentational life dramaSettingGrover’s Corners, New Hampshire; 1901to 1913Principal CharactersStage Ma Beer, the play’s all-wise narratorDr. and Mrs.
Gibbs, an ordinary small-town physician and housewifeGeorge Gibbs, their sonMr. and Mrs. Webb, a news editor and hiswifeEmily Webb, their daughterSimon Stimson , the town drunkard andchurch choir organistA conglomeration of other ordinary peopleliving out ordinary livesStory OverveiwAct 1. Daily Life:The Stage Manager speaks while pointingto different parts of the stage: “Up here is Main Street . . .
Here’s theTown Hall and Post Office combined . . . First automobile’s going to comealong in about five years; belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen. .Order now
. lives in the big white house up on the hill. ” A train whistle is heard,and the early birds of the town start to appear. The newsboy and the milkmanbegin their rounds just as the doctor is finishing his. They stop for abrief exchange of gossip: the school teacher is getting married, the doctorjust delivered twins, and the milkman’s horse refuses to adjust to a changein route. Now Mrs.
Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are spotlightedin their respective kitchens, preparing breakfast. Mrs. Gibbs calls upto her children, George and Rebecca, and, as they appear, complains toher husband that George isn’t helping with the chores.
Mrs. Webb remindsher son Wally to wash thoroughly. The Gibbs daughter, Rebecca, doesn’twant to wear her blue gingham dress. George negotiates for a raise in hisallowance. Each child is reminded to eat slowly, finish his breakfast,stand up straight . .
. The day has begun. Later, coming home from school, Emily Webbpromises to give George Gibbs some help with his algebra. At the CongregationalChurch, choir practice can be heard. In the Gibbs home, George and hisfather have a “serious” talk about growing up. Returning from choir practice,Mrs.
Gibbs prattles on about the drunken choir organist, Simon Stimson. The town constable makes his rounds to ensure that all is well, and theStage Manager calls an end to this typical day in Grover’s Corners. Act 2. Love and Marriage:”Three years have gone by,” muses the StageManager. “Yes, the sun’s come up over a thousand times .
. . ” The dateis now July 7,1904. It’s been raining. As Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs.
Webb reappearin their kitchens, he continues: “Both of those ladies cooked three mealsa day – one of’em for twenty years and the other for forty – and no summervacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house. . .
and never a nervous breakdown. It’s like what one of those Middle Westpoets said: You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to havelife to love life . . .
It’s what they call a vicious circle. “Howie, the milkman, makes his deliveriesto Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs, and at each house you hear talk of the sametwo breakfast-table conversation topics: the weather and the upcoming weddingof Emily and George.
The chit-chat is typical of things people say beforeweddings. Mrs. Gibbs worries out loud about the inexperience of the brideand groom; the doctor reminisces about being a groom himself. His fearwas that he and his wife would run out of things to talk about which, hechuckles, hasn’t been the case at all. When George comes downstairs and is aboutto leave for a visit with Emily, his mother reminds him to put on his overshoes.
But Emily’s mother, though she invites George into her kitchen, won’t lethim see her daughter. Traditionally, she says, a groom is not allowed tosee his bride on the wedding day until the ceremony begins. Mr. Webb placatesyoung George: “There is a lot of common sense in some superstitions. ” Thenervous groom sits down to a cup of coffee with Mr. Webb, his equally nervousfuture father-in-law.
Mr. Webb makes various attempts at small talk andreassures George that his nervousness about impending matrimony is typical. “A man looks pretty small at a wedding . . . all those women standing shoulderto shoulder making sure that the knot is tied in a might grand way.
” Hethen shares with George the advice his father gave him when he married;the stern counsel to keep his wife in line and show her who’s in charge. George is puzzled until Mr. Webb goes on: “So I took the opposite of myfather’s advice and I’ve been happy ever since. “The Stage Manager interrupts this sceneb y dismissing the characters on stage and telling the audience that hewants to show them “how this all began this wedding, this plan to spenda lifetime together . .
. I’m awfully interested in how bi 9 things likethat begin. ” He takes two chairs from the Gibbs kitchen, arranges themback-to-back, with two planks across and two stools in front, to serveas Morgan’s Main Street Drugstore Counter. Emily and George again enter, now as highschool students. They call goodbye to their friends.
Over an ice creamsoda George asks Emil y if she will write to him while he is away at college. She admits her concern that George will lose interest in Grover’s Corners- and in her – once he is away. He unhappily contemplates this possibilityfor a moment, then decides that he shouldn’t go: “I guess new people aren’tany better than old ones. ” He tries to explain that he has decided to staybecause of the way he feels about her, and, in halfspoken sentences, thetwo manage to express their love.
The act culminates in a moving weddingscene, containing all the elements of potential sorrow and abundant happiness. Act 3. Life and Death:Nine years have passed, and we are lookingdown at a cemetery on a hill. We see that many of the townspeople we cameto know in the first two acts have passed on. The Stage Manager slowlyspeaks: “Whenever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layersof nonsense . .
. . We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t housesand it ain’t names . . .
that something has to do with human beings. ” Andso the dead stand, patient and smiling, awaiting not “judgement,” but greaterunderstanding of eternity. Into the midst of the dead is led a youngmother. Emily and her second baby have just died in childbirth. She timidlyapproaches the assemblage, glancing wistfully back toward the life shehas just departed. Gradually recognizing the spirits before her, Emilysuddenly realizes that none of these people truly understood or appreciatedthe greatness of being alive! There had been no appreciation of life’slittle, fleeting moments; no ability to stop and absorb life’s essence;no comprehension of the deep human value of the moment.
Emily is given the choice to return toearth and relive a day in her life. The dead – including her mother-in-law,Mrs. Gibbs, try to discourage her, warning her that returning to earthwill be too painful. Nonetheless, Emily elects to reexperience one of thehappiest days of her life – her twelfth birthday. As the day unfolds, however, Emily’s excitementturns to disillusionment. She feels no joy in watching herself with herfather and mother and her little brother Wally; the day is wasted withtrivial preoccupations.
She cries to her mother: “Just for a moment we’rehappy. Let’s look at one another. . . ” Then, pangs of remorse fill her- her life, just like the lives of her family members and Grover’s Cornersneighbors, was never fully savored either. It cai-ne, was lived in self-centerednessand pctty preoccupations, then swiftly departed – all quite meaningless.
The suicidal Simon Stimson appears and offers a poignant yet bitter comment:”Life is a time of supreme ignorance, folly and blindness. “Unable to endure this vision, Emily hurriesback to her body’s resting place. There she finds George, her husband,weeping by her grave. Too late, she now understands: Our time on earthis an irreplaceable gift, one to be treasured and relished every moment;life is a fragile gift that is delivered to us in pieces, and it only achievesmeaning as we cherish and blend the pieces – even the seemingly insignificantpieces – into a full, universal whole. CommentaryThornton Wilder’s Our Town provides theaudience with an informal, intimate and compelling human drama. Wilderwas dissatisfied with the unimaginative, stilted theatrical productionsof his time: “They aimed to be soothing.
The tragic had no heat; thecomic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility. “Our Town, with its far-reaching theme and unmistakable symbolism, was afar cry from the typical bland depression era play (though, ironically,”the magic of the mundane” is the play’s major theme). Though set during the early Twentieth Century,Grover’s Corner is anyplace and all places, anytime and all times. A constantlyshifting verb tense throughout the play reveals that something strangeis happening here with time. Pantomime and conversation simultaneouslyenact life’s continuum of time and place. The principal actor is the Stage Manager,who remains on stage the entire time explaining much of the action.
Heis aware of the present, and privy to both the past and the future. Heknows the characters’ feelings, and alternately takes on the roles of narrator,philosophical druggist, host, master of ceremonies, commentator and friendto the audience. Wilder creates types rather than individualsin 0ur Town. Every audience member can say, “Yes, I know someone like that. He’s just like so-and-so,” or “I know what he is feeling. I’ve felt thatway myself.
” This sense of “recollection” permeates the play to both thrilland haunt us with reminders of our common – and fragile – humanity- Byusing the barest of scenery and props, Wilder reinforces that our hopesand despairs and loves begin and end not with things, but in the mind andthe soul, as our lives unfold through one another. This focus on “absolutereality” allows us to see Emily’s simplest pleasures and cares (algebralessons, birthday presents, etc. ) through child-like eyes. Her timelessnesshelps the audience understand, just as she herself comes to understand,the seamless relationship between past, present and future. Her commonplaceexperiences (marriage, family .
. . ) contrast sharply with her death experience,where she finally comes to appreciate the commonplace. The play motivatesthe audience to treasure everyday life just as it is.