THORNTON WILDER 1938
Graver’s Corners, New Hampshire. Small, rural, out-of-the-way fictional town. 1901 to 1913. Life is pretty much the same for small towns in America. There is no apparent threat of global conflict or war. Such is the setting of Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town.
Received with mixed reviews at its premiere in 1938, but awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Our Town has become one of the most popularly produced plays of the twentieth century. It is quite possible that on almost any given day of the year, somewhere in the world, Our Town is being performed by either a professional company or an amateur troupe of actors.
There are echoes of classic Greek drama: the Stage Manager as Chorus and the three-act structure as trilogy. Like its Greek ancestors, Our Town concerns itself with the continuing cycle of life, humankind’s nearest understanding of eternity.
The central values of the play—Christian morality, community, the family, appreciation of everyday pleasures—are traditional. Yet, Wilder’s methods of presenting these values on the stage are anything but. No scenery, few props, mimed actions, a dramatis persona who fluidly travels both in and out of the action of the play—all these make for a radically innovative way of presenting a drama. This was certainly a risk at a time when theater productions were known for their lavish costumes and scenery. However, these “experimental techniques” allow the audience to focus on the characters themselves rather than on their location and how they related to objects that surrounded them.
In Our Town, Thornton Wilder artfully manipulates time and place and relates the here-and-now of a small, New England village to the timeless concerns of all humankind. He builds the action of the play toward the dramatic revelation that human life, however painful, dreary, or inconsequential its daily events, is both a precious gift in its own right as well as a portion of the mysterious plan that rests in the “Mind of God.”
The surviving member of a pair of twin boys, Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wisconsin, where his father owned and edited a local newspaper. In 1906, his father, Amos Parker Wilder, relocated the family to Hong Kong after accepting a post as the U. S. Consul General. As a result, Wilder’s early formal education took place in German schools in Hong Kong and Shanghai, the China Inland Mission School at Chefoo, and public schools in California. He graduated from high school in Berkeley, California, in 1915, and then, at the insistence of his father, attended Oberlin College.
After two years, Wilder, again at the insistence of his father, transferred to Yale and graduated in 1920. As a student, Wilder began writing short plays and essays for publication in the Yale Literary Review and had hoped to pursue writing as a career after earning his degree. But Amos Wilder intervened again and found young Thornton a teaching position at Lawrenceville School, a preparatory school for boys near Princeton, New Jersey. While at Lawrenceville, Wilder earned his master’s degree from Princeton University.
In 1927, Wilder published The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a critical and popular success which earned him the Pulitzer Prize and gave him the financial security to resign his position at Lawrenceville and pursue writing as a full-time career. While teaching comparative literature at the University of Chicago, Wilder became increasingly involved with theater and in some of its more experimental aspects. He continued to write and published The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays (1928), a collection of short scenes with stage directions considered virtually impossible
to accomplish in the theater, a novel, The Woman of Andros (1930) and The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act (1931).
Through his friendship with New York Times critic Alexander Wolcott, Wilder gained entry into New York theatrical circles. In 1938, Our Town brought Wilder both financial success and his second Pulitzer Prize. It ran for 336 performances on Broadway and established Wilder’s reputation as a major dramatist. Wilder’s reputations as a playwright also rests on two comedies, The Matchmaker, (1955, originally performed as The Merchant of Yonkers, 1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1943). The Matchmaker was adapted by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman as their popular musical Hello, Dolly!, and The Skin of Our Teeth earned Wilder his third Pulitzer Prize.
Wilder’s other prominent works include The Ides of March (1948), a historical novel about the last days of Julius Caesar, and The Eighth Day (1967), a novel dealing with the effects of an act of violence on a growing number of people.
In 1963 Thornton Wilder received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 1965 he was honored with the first National Medal of Literature. He died on December 7, 1975, in Hamden, Connecticut, widely recognized as an accomplished dramatist and man of letters whose innovative works remain central to discussions of the American theater.
Act One: Daily Life
The title for Act One is “Daily Life,” the Stage Manager tells the audience. Our Town begins at daybreak in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, in the year 1901. The Stage Manager points out some of the geographical features of the town and indicates the houses of the two families who provide much of the action of the play, the Webb and Gibbs families. Dr. Gibbs is returning home from delivering twins, Joe Crowell delivers the morning newspaper, and Howie Newsome makes his rounds delivering milk.
The children of the two central families (Emily and Wally Webb and George and Rebecca Gibbs) appear for breakfast in their houses and get themselves ready for school. After the Doctor has retired for a nap and the children are on their way to school, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb stop for some gossip while they string beans. The Stage Manager interrupts the women and calls on Professor Willard for a scientific report on Graver’s Corners and on Editor Webb for a social and political report. As Editor Webb leaves, children return home from school and Emily promises to help George with his homework. The Stage Manager returns with brief biographies of Joe Crowell and Howie Newsome.
Evening falls on Grover’s Corners and the Congregational Church choir, under the direction of Simon Stimson, begins its practice. George and Emily discuss Algebra. Dr. Gibbs and George have a “serious” talk about allowances and responsibility. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Soames gossip about Simon Stimson’s drinking problem. George and Rebecca chat at the window. Mr. Webb talks to his daughter, who is enjoying the moonlight at her bedroom window. The constable makes his rounds to ensure that all is well, and the Stage Manager calls an end to this typical day in Grover’s Corners.
Act Two: Love and Marriage
The Stage Manager informs the audience that Act Two will be called “Love and Marriage.” It isn’t much of a surprise to discover that George and Emily are the central figures for this part of the play. Three years have passed since Act One and it is now early on the morning of July 7, 1904. George attempts to see Emily, but Mrs. Webb won’t let him see his bride on their wedding day.
The Stage Manager interrupts to present a scene from the past when George and Emily first became aware of their love for each other. The Stage Manager calls on Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs to explain to the audience how the parents reacted to the engagement. They know that the young couple will have their share of trouble, but, since they know the pain is worth enduring, they agree to the marriage.
While the actors set up chairs to be pews for the wedding scene, the Stage Manager talks to the audience about the importance of marriage. Mrs. Webb expresses sudden concern for Emily. George has some momentary doubts and is comforted by his mother. Emily arrives dressed in white, doubtful and very frightened. Her father tries to comfort her, but without success. He calls George over, the doubts and fears are overcome, and the wedding begins with the Stage Manager as the clergyman. The words of the service are overwhelmed by the shrill comments of Mrs. Soames on the loveliness of marriage and the “perfectly lovely wedding.” George and Emily run off joyously at the end of the ceremony, and the Stage manager announces the end of the second act.
Act Three: Death
Act Three opens in a graveyard. The Stage Manager tells the audience that nine years have passed. He talks briefly about death and what death means to the people of Grover’s Corners, but is interrupted by Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, and Sam Craig, a Grover’s Corners native who moved away but has returned for the funeral. The graves of Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Soames, Mr. Stimson, and others are represented by rows of chairs in which the occupants are quietly sitting. When the funeral procession enters, Mrs. Soames asks Mrs. Gibbs who is coming, and Mrs. Gibbs replies that it is her daughter-in-law, Emily.
When Emily appears from the umbrellas of the funeral procession, the dead greet her, but she is still restless, talking about the new barn and George’s new Ford. Despite the warnings from Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Soames, and even the Stage Manager, Emily decides to return to the happiest moment of her life: her twelfth birthday. She sees the town as it was then, but it is just too painful. She can’t stand watching everyone pay so little attention to life while it is being lived, so she returns to her place among the dead.
As the Stage Manager draws a black curtain over this quiet scene, he tells the audience that almost everyone is asleep in Graver’s Corners. “You get a good rest, too,” he advises the audience as the play ends.
There seems to be little in the way of crime in Graver’s Corners, so Constable Warren has to watch over the safety of the townspeople. He rescues a man who has fallen drunk into a snowbank and tries to make sure that the young boys, like Wally Webb, don’t start smoking. He also ensures, when Simon Stimson is wandering around town at night, drunk, that he gets home safely.
Like the Crowell brothers and Howie Newsome, Sam Craig and Joe Stoddard bring news, but instead of bringing news of life, they bring news of death. Through them the audience learns of recent deaths and how they have affected the town.
Joe Crowell and his brother Si, are the town’s newspaper boys. They are up early making their rounds before the town wakens. As the play progresses, the Stage Manager reveals that Joe was bright, but died in France during World War I.
Si Crowell and his brother Joe are the town’s newspaper boys. Neither one has a positive opinion of marriage; Si and his Graver’s Corners teammates lose “the best baseball pitcher Grover’s Corners ever had” when George Gibbs decides to marry Emily Webb and settle down to farming.
Dr. Frank Gibbs
Frank Gibbs is a loving father and a kind husband. He knows just about everything about everybody in town, and he is perfectly content to live his life in Grover’s Corners. Although there are differences that distinguish him from the character of Charles Webb, the two characters share similar roles and functions in the play.
George Gibbs is the All-American boy, or, more appropriately, what some people think of as the typical boy—nice and polite, but not very good at book and school learning; loving, but not very good at expressing those emotions; and perfectly happy to stay on the farm.
George is sincere, though just a bit tongue-tied when it comes to telling Emily that he loves her in Act Two. He is not a rebel and he doesn’t want to change the world. He just wants to fall in love, marry, and live happily until “death do us part.” And, even though the living happily part didn’t last as long as he wanted it to, that’s exactly what happens to George and Emily.
In Act Three, George doesn’t utter a single word, but, when he throws himself on Emily’s grave, his actions speak volumes.
Julia Hersey Gibbs
Mrs. Gibbs, a wife and a mother, can be viewed as interchangeable with the character of Myrtle Webb. Each worries about her husband and her children. Each seems content with life in Grover’s Corners, although Mrs. Gibbs does express a desire to take the money received by selling an antique piece of furniture and convince her husband to take a vacation to Paris, instead of their usual excursion to visit Civil War battlefields. But, instead, she holds onto the money and leaves it in her will to the married George and Emily, who use the funds to improve the farm.
Rebecca is the younger sister of George Gibbs. She is presented, with Wally Webb, as a child squabbling with an older sibling in the family scenes, especially in Act One. The Stage Manager informs the audience in Act Three that Rebecca has married and moved to Ohio.
Howie Newsome, the milkman, is one of the town’s early risers. A friendly and chatty man,
- Our Town Our Town was brought to the big screen in 1940 by producer Sol Lesser and director Sam Wood. Thornton Wilder received a writing credit for the screenplay. Frank Craven played the Stage Manager and also contributed to the screenplay. The film was nominated for Best Picture (losing to Rebecca). Ninety minutes, black & white, available from Nostalgia Home Video.
- In September, 1955, NBC-TV Producers Showcase brought Our Town to the small screen with Frank Sinatra in the Stage Manager role, and Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman as Emily and George. This production introduced the song “Love and Marriage” [ “go together like a horse and carriage”]. Earlier appearances of Our Town on television were as part of these anthology series: Robert Montgomery Presents (NBC, April, 1950) with Burgess Meredith as the Stage Manager, and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (ABC, December, 1950) with Edward Arnold as the Stage Manager. Not available on video.
- A second adaptation of Our Town appeared on NBC in November, 1959, with Art Carney in the Stage Manager role. Not available on video.
- NBC presented a third special adaptation of Our Town in May, 1977, with Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager and Glynnis O’Connor and Robby Benson as Emily and George. 120 minutes, color, available from Mastervision.
- The most recent adaptation available on video is a 1989 TV version of the Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center production of Our Town. Spaulding Gray stars as the Stage Manager with Penelope Ann Miller and Eric Stolz as Emily and George. 104 minutes, color, available from Mastervision.
- Britannica Films has two half-hour films, Our Town and Our Universe, I and Our Town and Ourselves, II. These films discuss the unusual conventions of the play and Wilder’s use of music, light motif, and the condensed line or word. 1959, Britannica Films.
Howie delivers the local gossip with his milk and cream every morning to the residents of Grover’s Corners.
Mrs. Soames is the town chatterbox. She always has something to say, even when she’s dead. It is Mrs. Soames who reveals Simon Stimson’s drinking problem, and it is Mrs. Soames who gushes about the wedding. In death, it is Mrs. Soames who observes that life was both awful and wonderful.
The most important character in the play has no name and little importance in the story’s action. But, he has the longest part, more speeches than any other character, and is always on the stage. Some critics have commented that he is like the omniscient narrator encountered in fiction. Often it appears that he simply chats with the audience, dispensing folksy wisdom and sounding like the embodiment of common sense.
In classical Greek theater, the chorus served an important function. As a group of neutral observers, the chorus commented on the play’s action and advised the audience how they should respond to the events of the drama. The nineteenth century’s fascination with representing “reality” on the stage did away with the use of asides (comments made by stage performers that are intended to be heard by the audience but not by other characters). Wilder returns to that convention and uses the Stage Manager as a chorus figure to halt the action, intervene in the story, move back and forth in time, and make it clear that the representation on the stage is not “reality” in the naturalistic sense.
In addition to his duties as the “chorus,” the Stage Manager also plays prim Mrs. Forest, old-fashioned and conservative Mr. Morgan, and the solemn minister.
Stimson is the church organist who has a drinking problem and is the focus of much of the gossip of Grover’s Corners. The conversation between the undertaker and Emily’s cousin reveals that Stimson committed suicide and, instead of a epitaph on his grave stone, there are just notes of music. Stimson is the only character in the play who is unhappy. Other characters, such as Doc Gibbs, refer to Stimson’s sorrows in general terms but never indicate specifically what they are. Even in death, Simon Stimson is a bitter man.
Like the Crowell brothers and Howie Newsome, Joe Stoddard and Sam Craig bring news, but instead of bringing news of life, they bring news of death. It is through them that the audience learns of recent deaths and how they have affected the town.
Like the character of Dr. Frank Gibbs, Charles Webb is a loving father and a kind husband with a sense of humor that survives the strain of their children’s marriage. While each man has some interest that differentiates him from the other (Civil War battlefields for Doc Gibbs; Napoleon for Editor Webb), the speeches delivered by these two could be spoken by the other without any loss of importance.
Emily Webb might be called “the All-Ameri-can girl.” She is bright, articulate, and, despite the anxiety she shares with her mother, a beautiful creature. She is the focus of the action of the play. In Act One, Emily is the naive schoolgirl, in Act Two, the maturing young woman, and in Act Three, the mother who has died in childbirth. It is through Emily that time of the play can be tracked.
Emily exhibits emotions that are familiar to the audience. From the unsure adolescent looking at the moonlight to the bride with a moment of last-minute panic on her wedding day, the audience connects with these feelings. It is also through Emily that Wilder presents his central life-affirming idea—“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Myrtle Webb and Julia Hersey Gibbs, like their husbands, are two characters that can be viewed as virtually interchangeable. Content with life in Grover’s Corners, each is a wife and a mother whose life focuses on her husband and her children.
As the younger brother of Emily Webb, Wally is seen throughout the play as child squabbling with his older sibling, especially in Act One. In this, his character is a parallel to that of Rebecca Gibbs. At the beginning of Act Three, the Stage Manager informs the audience that Wally Webb, who died of a ruptured appendix on a camping trip, is one of those in the cemetery.
Cycle of Life
Our Town begins at daybreak with the birth of twins in a Polish town and ends at night with the death of Emily Webb Gibbs in childbirth. As one life ends, another begins. Throughout the play, Wilder (through the Stage Manager—a role Wilder himself once played) directs the attention of the audience to the repetition of the cycle of life. In his opening monologue, he points out that the names on tombstones in the graveyard that date back to the 1600s are “the same names that are around here now.” As Act Two opens, the Stage Manager talks about the sun having “come up over a thousand times,” the growing up and the slowing down of some of the town’s residents, and the millions of gallons of water [that have gone] by the mill.” His comments about marriage are particularly interesting:
I’ve married over two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know. M. . . . marries N. . . . millions of them. The cottage, the g-cart, the Sunday-afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed,
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Some other American writers did not look as kindly on the village in their works as Thornton Wilder did in Our Town. Look at the poems of Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson, the short stories of Sherwood Anderson, and the novels of Sinclair Lewis for different views of life in small town America.
- Research the Progressive Movement in American politics at the turn of the century. Investigate the links between the Progressives and the Women ‘s Suffrage Movement.
- Many small towns in New Hampshire were thriving manufacturing centers during the 19th century. Research what life might have been like for the average 16-year-old in one of those towns at the turn of the century.
- Some critics have complained that Wilder oversimplified life in turn-of-the-century America, depicting an idealized society that never existed in reality. What do you think Wilder’s motivations were for creating such a town?
the reading of the will,. . . Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.
Meaning of Life
Thornton Wilder is often considered to be a religious writer and Our Town is often considered to be a religious play. Yet, there is little mention of heaven or God or any of those subjects often thought of as being religious. The Stage Manager muses aloud about the word eternal at the beginning of Act Three.
Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
Love and Passion
The characters in Our Town mention love often and Wilder provides the audience with many illustrations. The major characters all love one another, and throughout the play the audience is given examples of different types of love. In Act One, family love and friendship predominate. Parents and children love each other, and neighbors love one another as well. In Act Two, romantic love blossoms into marriage. In Act Three, spiritual, selfless love, the love that expects nothing in return, is shown.
When Our Town was first performed in 1938, Thornton Wilder was better known as the Pulitzer prize-winning (1927) author of a novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Unhappy with most of what he was seeing on the American stage, Wilder decided to introduce a different approach to theater. He explains his idea in the preface to Three Plays by Thornton Wilder (Bantam, 1958):
Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theater. I ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented there. . . . I felt that something had gone wrong with it [the theater] in my time and that it was fulfilling only a small part of its potentialities.
Our Town was considered innovative for its time because of the experimental techniques Wilder incorporated into the play. The Stage Manager, a character both inside and outside the play, narrates the action. He comments to the audience on the present, the past, and the future. He is bounded by the limits of time, and, yet, he stands both beyond and outside it. In addition, there are no props, background scenery, or designed sets—just chairs, two tables, two step ladders, and two trellises (“scenery for those who think they have to have scenery,” as Wilder explained). Action that normally would involve the use of props is mimed by the actors. This approach carried a great deal of risk at a time when theatrical productions were trying to outdo each other in terms of costumes and scenery. Wilder’s use of these experimental techniques forced the audience to focus more on the characters than on what they were wearing and what objects surrounded them. In her book, Currents in Contemporary Drama, Ruby Cohn explains Wilder’s approach: “The Stage Manager in Our Town functions much like an omnipresent author in a novel, but he does not suggest that his characters are actors. . . . On the contrary, the characters are more real than things, because they are present on stage whereas things are not.”
Homage to Classical Drama
Thornton Wilder was educated in what is called “the classical tradition.” Our Town includes several influences from classical Greek drama. The Stage Manager functions as a sort of Greek chorus. He is a neutral character who comments on the action and tells the audience about events that happen offstage. He advises the audience how they should (or should not) react to events on stage, and he reinforces the moral message of the play. Additionally, Wilder does not divide the acts into scenes, but does try, in a way, to follow the three unities of Greek drama: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.
Unity of time usually means that the entire action of the play occurs within a single twenty-four hour period. In a strict counting of time, the action of Our Town spans much more than a single day, including shifts both forward and backward. But, in a different reading, the action of Our Town all takes place in one day. The play begins at daybreak and ends at night—a single day of life. Unity of place demands that the action of the play occur in a single location. As the stage directions state, “the entire play takes place in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.” There is also unity of action. Our Town focuses on one story with no subplots to complicate things.
Invention and Growth
During the time period of the play, 1901 to 1913, America saw many industrial advances. One that features prominently in the play itself is the introduction in 1908 of Henry Ford’s Model T automobile. The Stage Manager, in his opening speech in Act Three, mentions that “farmers are coming to town in Fords.” The horse and buggy days are gone, even for the fictional town of Grover’s Corners.
Organized baseball had its first World Series in 1903 and the sport soon earned the nickname of “The National Pastime.” Scouts from the professional teams would travel to rural areas looking for talented athletes. Though none of these scouts appear in the play, much mention is made of George Gibbs’s skill as a pitcher.
When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, The Progressive Era in American society began. The Progressives believed that the irresponsible actions of the rich were corrupting both public and private life in the country. In order to change this, regulations had to be instituted to create a more balanced and efficient society. Even though the country was relatively stable economically, the social spectrum ranged from the opulently wealthy to the tragically poor. Jacob Riis, a photographer, documented the plight of these disenfranchised Americans. In an effort to eliminate child labor, Lewis Hine photographed young children working in factories. Other Progressives fought for new laws that would break up large monopolies or trusts. (They were called “Trust Busters.”) These reformers called for regulation of the railroads, the opportunity for people to vote on laws themselves through referendum, a graduated income tax where people who earned more money would pay higher taxes, and better conservation of natural resources. The “Belligerent Man” who questions Mr. Webb in Act One may be Wilder’s nod to the Progressives.
Emily dies in childbirth, a common occurrence during this time period. Causes of death ranged from infection due to unsanitary conditions to the
transfer of disease into the household. Most births occurred at home, not in a hospital, and many babies were delivered by midwives and not doctors. In rural areas, especially farms with cattle, sheep, pigs, and other animals, germ-free conditions were hard to come by. Sometimes people were infected by doctors and midwives who cared for both people and animals. By the early 1900s, the practice of providing antiseptic environments had still not been adopted in all rural areas.
The Turn of the Century and the Industrial Revolution
Our Town’s action occurs at the turn of the twentieth century, a time of great societal change in America. By this time the industrial revolution, which would forever change the work environment of America, was well underway. Despite mention of such technical advancements as the automobile, life in Grover’s Corners is relatively unaffected by the great changes that were sweeping most of the country. Most people in the town earn their livings the way that their predecessors did for much of the nineteenth century; they are milkmen, newspaper editors, doctors, and farmers. In this sense, Grover’s Corners represents an American way of life that is fading; the play freezes this simpler time, preserving it for future generations.
Our Town’s off-Broadway warm-up shows met with cool reception in 1938, but New York critics, spearheaded by Brooks Atkinson, built up a favorable response that was matched by public enthusiasm and a run of 336 performances. It is, without question, the most produced play in American theater. Scarcely a day has passed since its opening in 1938 that Our Town has not been performed somewhere in this country—in productions from professional revivals to community theaters to colleges and high schools. Why? There is no scenery; the actors dress in everyday clothing for the early 1900s; there is no sex or violence; there’s not even any harsh language. Yet there is something in this play that draws people to it year after year.
John Mason Brown remarked in his Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show that “Mr. Wilder’s play involves more than a New England township.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- Turn of the Century: Most schoolteachers were women. If they wanted to marry (like Joe Crowell’s teacher in Act One), they had to resign their teaching positions. In rural communities, teachers often lived with local families during the school year.
1930s: As the country struggled with unemployment during the Great Depression, teaching positions were prized jobs for both single and married women. More men joined the ranks of teachers, mostly at the upper grade levels. Rural areas still had one- and two-room schoolhouses.
Today: Women still outnumber men in the teaching profession. Salaries have increased and people can support families on teachers’ wages. In many rural areas, towns have been forced to give up their own schools and join with other towns to create a single regional school.
- Turn of the Century: People lived and worked in the same location. No place was too far away that a person couldn’t walk to it. Horse and buggy was the principal transportation.
1930s: Automobiles replaced the horse and buggy as the primary mode of transportation. The Great Depression forced mills and factories that once thrived in small New England towns to shut their doors, forcing people to either move away or to travel elsewhere to seek work.
Today: Thousands of people commute into Boston everyday from small towns in southern New Hampshire. Some drive their cars on mutli-lane highways for nearly two hours each way, while others travel to an outlying train station and finish their commute into the city by rail.
- Turn of the Century: Women rarely worked at a job outside the home. As the Stage Manager says in his opening monologue to Act Two: “both those ladies cooked three meals a day—one of ‘em for twenty years, the other for forty—and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house—and never a nervous breakdown.”
1930s: Most women were mothers and housewives, but the economic realities of the Great Depression dictated that whoever could, worked. When the country entered World War II just three years after Our Town opened, thousands of women took factory jobs while men went off to war.
Today: Women are in the workforce in larger numbers than ever before. Families juggle work schedules of the father, the mother, and the children. Take-out food has replaced the traditional family dinner, and eating in front of the television has replaced conversation at the dinner table.
It burrows into the essence of the growing-up, the marrying, the living, and the dying of all of us who sit before it and are included by it. . . . It is not so much of the streets of a New England Town he writes as of the clean white spire which rises above them.” This is the kind of play, Brown continued, that “[makes] us weep for our own vanished youth at the same time we are sobbing for the short-lived pleasures and sufferings which we know await our children.” Wilder gives his audience precise geographical coordinates, as well as an entire Venn diagram of its imaginary location. But “Mr. Wilder’s place is laid in no imaginary place. It becomes a reality in the human heart.”
Reknowned dramatist Arthur Miller remarked in The Atlantic Monthly that Our Town is a play that is “poetic without verse,” and that uses traditional family figures as a prism through which is reflected the author’s basic idea—“the indestructibility, the everlastingness, of the family and the community, its rhythm of life, its rootedness in the essentially safe cosmos despite troubles, wracks, and seemingly disastrous, but essentially temporary, dislocations.”
Arthur H. Ballet argued in an essay in English Journal that Our Town is a carefully constructed drama, actually a trilogy. Like its Greek predecessors, Our Town is concerned with the great and continuing cycle of life; out of life comes death and from death comes life. This cycle is man’s closest understanding of eternity, his finest artistic expression of what he senses to be a mission and a purpose. The fears and faith of the play “ring true” because they are common experiences. Our Town brilliantly shows that life is a paradox, and that human beings retain their faith that in death, too, there is life and a greater understanding.
William P. Wiles
Wiles is a teacher with more than twenty years of experience in secondary education. His essay examines why Wilder’s play continues to be so popular.
No scenery. Not even a curtain hides the back wall of the stage. A few chairs; two tables; two stepladders. No props, except for the Stage Manager’s pipe. No breathtaking special effects; no stirring musical score. Just a few recorded sounds and some hymns. Why, then, has Our Town not only endured since 1938, but prospered as America’s most often produced play?
Thornton Wilder shows human beings as they believe in their hearts they live. Life in this play seems simple. Nearly everyone is happy and good-natured. Only one, Simon Stimson the church organist, appears to be truly unhappy, but, other than some gossip, the audience never gets to know him as a developed character.
By setting the play in the not too distant past, Wilder strikes a responsive chord with feelings of nostalgia. The past, the way things used to be, seems better than the present, the way things are. The combination of life as people would like it to be set in a less complicated (and better) time than the present day creates enormous appeal. If Wilder explored the darkness of Simon Stimson’s life, that would detract from the innocence of George and Emily. If Wilder had set the play in the nineteenth century instead of at its end, there would be difficulty relating to the characters. Instead of dealing with the particular aspects of a small New England Town and its inhabitants, Wilder focuses attention on the bigger picture—the universality of events, emotions, and responses.
In the classic film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character, Ric Blaine, says to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), “[T]he problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Thornton Wilder would not agree. By using the ordinary, everyday events of people from a town off the beaten path, Wilder argues that it is precisely the problems of the common people that make life interesting and worth examining. The focus of Our Town is two events which are common to every single human who has ever lived, who lives now, and who will live long after the current population has turned to dust: birth and death. A third event, love and marriage, is so much a part of people’s lives that it receives equal billing. Everyone who watches the play can identify with some part of what is going on and can probably name a counterpart from their own real world for each of the characters.
Act One, called “Daily Life,” introduces this concept of the particular representing the universal. The inhabitants of Grover’s Corners go about their routines: delivering milk and newspapers and babies in the early morning hours; preparing breakfast; getting ready for school; feeding chickens; stringing beans with a neighbor; chatting about a dream; worrying about looks; gossiping about the town drunk; walking home from choir practice. Those in the audience are drawn into this world because, even though it is set in the recent past, it is familiar territory; these events are part of the audience’s experiences too. Thus, a bond between actors and audience is established.
Thornton Wilder points out in the preface to a 1957 collection that includes Our Town that “the recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are ‘hundreds,“thousands,’ and ‘millions.’” How can people comprehend such vast numbers? Wilder maintains that they do not—“each individual’s assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner.” The only way to make sense, then, of this “crazy world” is to look at those things that are real and important, those that happen on the inside. The actions on the stage are not important in and of themselves; what becomes important, then, is how the individual responds to them. And, because the actions of the play are part of the overall human experience, the response becomes one of connectedness and not alienation.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Also by Thornton Wilder and included with Our Town in Three Plays by Thornton Wilder are. The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker. The Skin of Our Teeth focuses on the Antrobus family from Excelsior, New Jersey. Together they endure the Ice Age and the Great Flood, as well as the malicious acts of son Henry, whose name is changed to Cain after the “accidental” death of his brother. This play earned Wilder his third Pulitzer Prize. The Matchmaker had an earlier life as The Merchant ofYonkers: A Farce in Four Acts (1938). The title character of the play is Dolly Levi, a worldly-wise widow who attempts to dissuade an uncharitable merchant from opposing the marriage of his niece to an impoverished artist. In 1964, Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman adapted The Matchmaker as the popular musical Hello, Dolly!
- Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters is a collection of poems that detail thoughts of residents of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois, who speak from the grave. Instead of the very brief comments of the dead from Act Three of Our Town, Masters presents free verse epitaphs from the inhabitants of the graveyard on the hill. The Stage Manager himself refers to this work in the opening monologue to Act Two: “It’s like what one of those Middle West poets said: You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to have life to love life.” This line comes form “Lucinda Matlock,” one of the epitaphs of Spoon River.
- Main Street by Sinclair Lewis presents a completely different portrayal of small town life than does Our Town. A good choice for contrast.
- Shoeless Joe, a novel by W. P. Kinsella that was later made into the film Field of Dreams, and the book Baseball that accompanies the PBS series of the same name by filmmaker Ken Burns, provide some insight into the popularity of the game of baseball before it became a business. Both film projects are worthwhile as well, even though the Baseball series is nine hours long (9 one-hour episodes or “innings”). These works, like Our Town, evoke a more innocent and simpler time in America’s past.
In Act Two, “Love and Marriage,” Wilder, through the Stage Manager, manipulates time so that the audience can not only participate in the wedding of George and Emily, but also see how and when this romance began in earnest. “I’m awfully interested in how big things like that begin,” the Stage Manager declares. Throughout this act we are reminded of the vast continuum not only of human existence, but of the residents of Grover’s Corners. In three years since Act One, the sun has “come up over a thousand times.” The mountain has eroded ever so slightly and “millions of gallons of water [have gone] by the mill.” Babies aren’t babies any longer, and some inhabitants have grown older. Other residents have fallen in love. It is against this vast backdrop that Morgan’s drugstore becomes the focal point for the moment when George declares his affection for Emily in the halting shy way that countless others have attempted to express their deepest feelings.
In his descriptions at the beginning of Act Three of those who rest in the cemetery on a hilltop in Grover’s Corners, the Stage Manager comments on the beauty of the setting. He also points out that these people were both silly and noble, Wilder’s reminder that die human race is not an either/or proposition—it contains all possibilities.
At the beginning of the play, the Stage Manager mentioned the death of Mrs. Gibbs, but it was simply a statement of fact. Now, to learn mat Mrs. Gibbs has died and is buried in the cemetery along with Wally Webb and Mrs. Soames and Simon Stimson strikes a responsive chord. These are no longer just names; the audience has met them and the characters they represent have become real. Death becomes less of an abstraction and more a part of the universal experience. Everyone—the characters in the play, the author, the audience, the reader, the critic—is going to die. That is part of what it means to be human, and one of the two events that all humans share no matter what their station, background, or ability.
The dead in the Grover’s Corners cemetery are waiting, says the Stage Manager, for the earth part of them to be burned away and for the “eternal part in them to come out clear.” It is this idea that the dead hardly remember what it was like to be alive that Wilder seeks to emphasize here. It is this movement toward the “eternal” rather than an emptiness or void that Emily joins but is not yet ready to accept. When she realizes that she can return to earth to relive her life, she persists in making it happen, even though the dead and the Stage Manager strongly advise against it.
It is when Emily relives her twelfth birthday (her happiest memory) that she comes to realize that the living don’t appreciate being alive. “They’re sort of shut up in little boxes,” she says. With her knowledge of past, present, and future time, she becomes overwhelmed at the realization that the tiniest moments of everyday life are full of the essence of being alive. “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
As the Stage Manager draws a black curtain across the scene, the cycle is complete. The play began at daybreak and ends at night. It began with birth and ends with death. It began with the particulars of daily life and ends with eternity.
Source: William P. Wiles, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
Winfield Townley Scott
In this excerpt, Scott examines the bittersweet nostalgia that pervades Wilder’s play.
Ten minutes up the road from where I live in Connecticut mere is a town called Brooklyn, and when I go there or while I read the play I always see it as the scene of Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners in Our Town. Which of course it is not. And it is even a smaller town—there is no high school, no railroad—than Wilder’s imaginary New Hampshire one. Further, unlike Grover’s Corners, Brooklyn has been touched a little with remarkability: a huge equestrian statue of General Israel Putnam holds down his Revolutionary bones not far from the town’s crossroads; in pre-Civil War days Prudence Crandall was jailed at Brooklyn for admitting Negro youngsters to her school over the hills in Canterbury, and until her death a surprisingly few years ago old Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt spent her summers in a square white house, now gone into tenements, alongside the Putnam monument. Wilder’s point, on the contrary, is that Grover’s Corners is not in the least exceptional: William Jennings Bryan once spoke from the Town Hall steps, the Stage Manager tells us, but very soon he assures us of his beloved place that “Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, —s’ far as we know.”
Nevertheless, I “see” Brooklyn as Wilder’s typical New England small town: its few stores, the clapboard houses set comfortably apart across lawns and under maples and elms, the schoolhouse with the flagpole in the yard near the crossroads and flanking the crossroads the village green, the Congregational, Baptist, Episcopal, and Catholic churches, the post office, the roofed town pump, the farms off from the outskirts, and over it all a simple air of living that is neither rich nor poor, neither distinguished nor negligible, neither large nor shallow.
This I believe is the associational power of reading which Gertrude Stein warred against: if she wrote “brook,” she wanted it new, abstract, a Platonic “brook”; and she did not wish you to call up at her word a particular brook familiar to you. But how futile! This is merely the habit of the mind. It is not at all a narrowing sentimentality, it is one of the warmest responses to be got from reading. Again and again we do not construct, as the novelist is allegedly doing, an invented scene: as he constructs it he reminds us, reading, of something we know—and, hardly conscious of the process, we adapt our memory to his text at once.
It may be that we most generally do this over books which are themselves soaked with a sense of time and place: that is, not over the vastest things—the “King Lear,” the “War and Peace”—but over lesser literatures intensely regional and profoundly native; for example, Tom Sawyer, Spoon River Anthology, Winesburg, Ohio. These are some of the masterpieces in a genre which even in minor instances such as Whittier’s Snow-Bound, Sarah Orne Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs, and many more, is curiously evocative and durable. Our Town has in this genre a high position, perhaps among the highest. It is narrower, less colorful, and sweeter than the best of the books I have mentioned, but it is a more intelligently managed work of art than any of them; it is not lacking in the instinctiveness which makes those other books great primitives—that is to say, it is not lacking in poetry—though no doubt it is more self-conscious and literary; yet in the very skillful construction of the play is the secret of why Our Town does rank as one of the most moving and beautiful of American books.
This construction, or this method, comes to its apotheosis almost at the very end of Our Town with the shattering scene in which the dead Emily wills her own return to a day in her childhood; actually the double point of view, an intermeshing of past and present, runs throughout the play and accounts for its peculiar poignancy. It is as though the golden veil of nostalgia, not stretched across stage for us to see through, bisects the stage down center: it glows left and right upon past and present, and the players come and go through its shimmering summer haze, now this side of it, now that; but the audience sees both sides of it. And so too of course does that deus ex machina of the entire play, the Stage Manager (whom, I have heard, Mr. Wilder himself can act very well). . . .
Emily appears, to take her place with the dead. Already she is distant from the mourners, but her discovery that she can “go back” to past time seduces her despite the warnings of the older dead. The ubiquitous Stage Manager, too, can talk with Emily, and what he says to her introduces the summation scene with the keynote of the entire play: “You not only live it,” he says, “but you watch yourself living it.” Now Emily, in the yet more poignant way of self-involvement, will achieve that double vision we have had all along; and now we shall be burdened also with her self-involvement.
“And as you watch it,” the Stage Manager goes on, “you will see the thing that they—down there—never know. You see the future. You know what’s going to happen afterwards.”
Then perfectly in key comes Mrs. Gibbs’ advice to Emily: “At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.” There sound the central chords of the play: the common day and the light of the future.
Emily chooses her twelfth birthday and the magic begins to mount to almost unbearable tension. Now the Stage Manager repeats his enrichened gesture as he announces that it is February 11, 1899.
“THE APTEST THING EVER SAID ABOUT TOM SAWYER WAS SAID BY THE AUTHOR HIMSELF AND APPLIES AS NICELY TO OUR TOWN. MARK TWAIN SAID HIS BOOK WAS “A HYMN.”
and once again, as we saw him summon it in the same casual way so many years before, the town of Grover’s Corners stirs, awakens; a winter morning—Constable Warren, Howie Newsome, Joe Crowell, Jr., making their appearances along Main Street, Mrs. Webb firing the kitchen stove and calling Wally and Emily to breakfast. The little daily rhythms recur, now more touching for the big wheel has become vaster. Now we are taken back with Emily’s double-awareness accenting our own. Though the then-living are unaware as always, now the golden veil shines everywhere, even all around us ourselves. It is a terrific triumph of dramatic method.
“Oh, that’s the town I knew as a little girl. And, look, there is the old white fence that used to be around our house. Oh, I’d forgotten that!. . . I can’t look at everything hard enough,” Emily says. “There’s Mr. Morgan’s drugstore. And there’s the High School, forever and ever, and ever.” For her birthday young George Webb has left a postcard album on the doorstep: Emily had forgotten that.
The living cannot hear the dead Emily of fourteen years later, her whole lifetime later. Yet she cries out in the passion, which the play itself performs, to realize life while it is lived:“But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” And when offstage her father’s voice is heard a second time calling, “Where’s my girl? Where’s my birthday girl?”, Emily breaks. She flees back through the future, back to the patient and disinterested dead: “Oh,” she says of life, “it goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”
Here if the play is to get its proper and merited response there is nothing further to say of it: one simply weeps.
“BY STRIPPING THE PLAY OF EVERYTHING THAT IS NOT ESSENTIAL, MR. WILDER HAS GIVEN IT A PROFOUND, STRANGE, UNWORLDLY SIGNIFICANCE”
It is thus, finally, that Emily can say farewell to the world—that is, to Grover’s Corners. Night, now; the night after Emily’s burial. The big wheel of the mutable universe turns almost alone. The Stage Manager notices starlight and its “millions of years,” but time ticks eleven o’clock on his watch and the town, though there, is mostly asleep, as he dismisses us for “a good rest, too.”
The aptest thing ever said about Tom Sawyer was said by the author himself and applies as nicely to Our Town. Mark Twain said his book was “a hymn.”
Source: Winfield Townley Scott, “Our Town and the Golden Veil” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 29, no. 1, Winter, 1953, pp. 103-5, 116-17.
In this review, which originally appeared in the New York Times ‘s February 5, 1938, edition, Atkinson praises Our Town as a moving evocation of the beauty and simplicity of ordinary life in America.
Considered one of the most influential theatre reviewers in America, Atkinson served as drama critic for the New York Times/ram 1925 to 1960.
Although Thornton Wilder is celebrated chiefly for his fiction, it will be necessary now to reckon with him as a dramatist. His Our Town, which opened at Henry Miller’s last evening, is a beautifully evocative play. Taking as his material three periods in the history of a placid New Hampshire town, Mr. Wilder has transmuted the simple events of human life into universal reverie. He has given familiar facts a deeply moving, philosophical perspective. Staged without scenery and with the curtain always up, Our Town has escaped from the formal barrier of the modern theatre into the quintessence of acting, thought and speculation. In the staging, Jed Harris has appreciated the rare quality of Mr. Wilder’s handiwork and illuminated it with a shining performance. Our Town is, in this column’s opinion, one of the finest achievements of the current stage.
Since the form is strange, this review must attempt to explain the purpose of the play. It is as though Mr. Wilder were saying:“Now for evidence as to the way Americans were living in the early part of the century, take Grover Corners, N.H., as an average town. Mark it ‘Exhibit A’ in American folkways.” His spokesman in New Hampshire cosmology is Frank Craven, the best pipe and pants-pocket actor in the business, who experimentally sets the stage with tables and chairs before the house lights go down and then prefaces the performance with a few general remarks about Grover Corners. Under his benign guidance we see three periods in career of one generation of Grover Corners folks—“Life,” “Love” and “Death.”
Literally, they are not important. On one side of an imaginary street Dr. Gibbs and his family are attending to their humdrum affairs with relish and probity. On the opposite side Mr. Webb, the local editor, and his family are fulfilling their quiet destiny. Dr. Gibbs’s boy falls in love with Mr. Webb’s girl—neighbors since birth. They marry after graduating from high school; she dies several years later in childbirth and she is buried on Cemetery Hill. Nothing happens in the play that is not normal and natural and ordinary.
But by stripping the play of everything that is not essential, Mr. Wilder has given it a profound, strange, unworldly significance. This is less the portrait of a town than the sublimation of the commonplace; and in contrast with the universe that silently swims around it, it is brimming over with compassion. Most of it is a tender idyll in the kindly economy of Mr. Wilder’s literary style; some of it is heartbreaking in the mute simplicity of human tragedy. For in the last act, which is entitled “Death,” Mr. Wilder shows the dead of Grover Corners sitting peacefully in their graves and receiving into their quiet company a neighbor’s girl whom they love. So Mr. Wilder’s pathetically humble evidence of human living passes into the wise beyond. Grover Corners is a green corner of the universe.
With about the best script of his career in his hands, Mr. Harris has risen nobly to the occasion. He has reduced theatre to its lowest common denominator without resort to perverse showmanship. As chorus, preacher, drug store proprietor and finally as shepherd of the flock, Frank Craven plays with great sincerity and understanding, keeping the sublime well inside his home-spun style. As the boy and girl, John Craven, who is Frank Craven’s son, and Martha Scott turn youth into tremulous idealization, some of their scenes are lovely past all enduring. Jay Fassett as Dr. Gibbs, Evelyn Varden as his wife, Thomas W. Ross and Helen Carew as the Webbs play with an honesty that is enriching. There are many other good bits of acting.
Out of respect for the detached tone of Mr. Wilder’s script the performance at a whole is subdued and understated. The scale is so large that the voices are never lifted. But under the leisurely monotone of the production there is a fragment of the immortal truth. Our Town is a microcosm. It is also a hauntingly beautiful play.
Source: Brooks Atkinson, review of Our Town (1938) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 198-200.
Ballet, Arthur H. “In Our Living and In Our Dying” in English Journal, Vol. XLV, no. 5, May, 1956, pp. 243-49.
In this essay, Ballet considers Our Town in terms of its affinity with classical tragedy.
Brown, John Mason. “Wilder’s ‘Our Town’” in his Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show, Viking, 1963, pp.79-84.
A highly respected drama critic and editor for the Saturday Review during the 1940s, Brown wrote several critical studies of the American theater. In this assessment of Our Town, written in 1938 and later included in his Dramatis Personae (1963), he supports Wilder’s rejection of contemporary political and social issues while praising his portrayal of such fundamental human concerns as death, love, and the passage of time.
DISCovering Authors: Modules, Gale, 1996.
A CD-ROM and online publication that contains biographical and critical information for Thornton Wilder (and hundreds of other authors). Particularly useful were hypertext links to critical articles.
Johns, Sally. “Thornton Wilder” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale, 1981, pp. 304-19.
This article presents an overview of Wilder’s career, concentrating on his contributions to American theater.
Miller, Arthur. “The Family in Modern Drama” in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 197, no. 4, April, 1956, pp. 35-41.
The author of Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), and numerous other dramatic works, Miller is ranked among the most important and influential American playwrights since World War II. In his essay, he praises Our Town as a poetic work that effectively links daily life to “the generality of men which is our society and our world.”