Our Town Thornton Wilder
The following entry presents criticism of Wilder's play Our Town (1938).
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, Our Town may be the most popular American play ever written. It explores traditional American values of religion, community, family, and the simple pleasures of life, while employing innovative elements such as minimalist stage sets, a Stage Manager who narrates and controls the action, and a character who speaks from the grave. Although the setting, characters, and events are commonplace, Our Town addresses such universal themes as mortality, the human condition, and the value of everyday life. In his preface to Three Plays Wilder wrote, “Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death. … It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” Our Town may be the most frequently staged American play of the twentieth century. It is continually in production at regional, community, and college theaters, was filmed with most of the original Broadway cast, and has been televised more than once.
Plot and Major Characters
In Our Town, the central role belongs to the omniscient Stage Manager, who narrates the action, jokes with the audience, and, through his philosophizing, explicitly connects the people of the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners with the universe as a whole. The play features minimal props and scenery, while the characters function as symbols rather than fully developed individuals. In the first two acts, entitled “Daily Life” and “Love and Marriage,” the Stage Manager traces the quotidian existence of the Webbs and the Gibbses, two families who are united by the marriage of their children, George and Emily. “Daily Life” follows the families from morning to evening on an ordinary day in May 1901. The mothers cook breakfast and supper; the fathers go to work and come home; the children go to school and return. Family members interact; the milk and newspaper are delivered; the weather is discussed; the town drunk is pitied. “Love and Marriage” takes place on George and Emily's wedding day three years later, with a flashback to their encounter at the drugstore soda fountain when they first acknowledged their feelings for each other. The third act, “Death,” takes place nine years later. Emily Webb, who has died giving birth, arrives at the town cemetery, where other deceased members the community sit quietly in chairs. Unlike the others, who have grown detached from earthly concerns, Emily longs to return to Grover's Corners, and so obtains the permission of the Stage Manager to relive her twelfth birthday. However, the experience becomes too painful when, knowing the future, she attempts to savor each trivial moment with her family but cannot because between “it goes so fast. We barely have time to look at one another.” Returning to the dead, Emily bids farewell to “new-ironed dresses and hot baths” before expressing the central moral of the play that human beings must “realize life while they live it.”
Our Town is often placed in the tradition of American folk literature that focuses on small-town life. Grover's Corners is a typical American small town and its inhabitants are average, ordinary people who lead prosaic lives. The spare sets reinforce the unexceptional quality of the setting, plot, and characters. This minimalism renders the characters allegorical rather than individualized and the setting commonplace rather than specific. In this way the ordinary and mundane are invested with a timeless quality, and the events of the plot are transformed into universal experiences. The primary theme of Our Town is humanity's failure to appreciate every precious moment of life. This is stated most clearly by Emily as she returns to her grave, asking the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” Emily's early death and nostalgia for her childhood further express themes of the precarious nature of life and the inevitability of death. Our Town thus addresses age-old questions of the human condition and the meaning of life. The play is ultimately life-affirming in its urging the audience to appreciate ordinary, everyday life in the face of mortality.
Initially, Our Town was not well received. Wilder then altered the staging of the play to a bare-bones set and minimal props in order to emphasize the allegorical nature of the play, and it soon garnered favorable reviews and audience popularity. It ultimately ran for 336 performances in its debut production. Wilder was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama for Our Town, thus earning him recognition as a major American playwright. Champions of Our Town celebrate the play's focus on universal themes through allegorical theatrical techniques depicting archetypical characters and events. Detractors of the play criticize its bland sentimentality, underdeveloped characters, and failure to challenge the audience's received values. These two different perspectives on Our Town are partly a function of the degree to which a particular production or critic emphasizes its darker concerns with mortality and the fleeting nature of life, or its lighter, life-affirming elements. Recent critics have discussed the question of whether or not Our Town addresses themes still relevant to modern life.
How does Wilder use the hymn "Blessed Be The Tie That Binds" to reinforce the themes of the play? Do you think the reference is religious?
As a class or group, experience a production of Our Town-this can be a play, a radio adaptation, or even the 1940 movie adaptation. How does watching a production of the play affect your perception of the characters on the page? Do they seem more or less "archetypal" on stage than on paper?
Thornton Wilder once wrote: "I've always thought [Emily should live]. In a movie you see the people so close to that a different relation is established. In the theatre they are halfway abstractions in an allegory; in the movie they are very concrete. So in so far as the play is a Generalized Allegory she dies - we die - they die; in so far as it's a Concrete Happening it's not important that she die. Let her live - the idea will have been imparted anyway."
How do you interpret this quote? What implications does it have for your reading of the play? If you were directing a film of Our Town, would you let Emily live?
Although there is no direct, specific reference to Christianity or God in the play, Our Town can be read as a Christian play, if you interpret the Stage Manager's statement that the dead are waiting for something big to mean that they are waiting for the second coming. But Wilder did not identify as a Christian. Do you think Wilder intended the end of his play to be religious, non-religious, neither or both?
Many see an element of nostalgia and sentimentalizing in the portrayal of Grover's Corners, but the town is also shown as stifling for people like Simon Stimson. Is Our Town a celebration of small town life, or is it a criticism?
Imagine Our Town with realistic scenery and props, and no pantomime. Could such a production work? How would the play be affected by such a change?
How does Wilder dramatize the passage of time? Aside from standard dramatic elements like the changing seasons and the Stage Manager referring to his watch, what other techniques does he use to show the advance of the life of Grover's Corners?
We are told that Grover's Corners is an unremarkable town, and yet in some ways it is the main character of the play. How does Wilder employ the playwright's tools of characterization as regards to the town as a community?
The use of the pronoun "our" in the title of the play encourages inclusiveness for the audience - Grover's Corners is the town of the Webbs and Gibbs, and also the Stage Manager, and also the audience. What other cues does Wilder use to encourage audience identification with the town and its inhabitants?
Contrast the happiness of the Gibbs and Webb families with the misery of Simon Stimson. Is it true that Simon is just not cut out for small town life, or is there more to it?
Compare Mrs. Gibbs' wanderlust to her husband and son's resistance to leaving town. What are the implications of staying home-both positive and negative?