Our Town by Thorton Wilder (1897 – 1975)

Our Town
by Thorton Wilder (1897
– 1975)
Type of Work:
Presentational life drama
Setting
Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire; 1901
to 1913
Principal Characters
Stage Ma Beer, the play’s all-wise narrator
Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, an ordinary small-
town physician and housewife
George Gibbs, their son
Mr. and Mrs. Webb, a news editor and his
wife
Emily Webb, their daughter
Simon Stimson , the town drunkard and
church choir organist
A conglomeration of other ordinary people
living out ordinary lives
Story Overveiw
Act 1. Daily Life:
The Stage Manager speaks while pointing
to different parts of the stage: “Up here is Main Street … Here’s the
Town Hall and Post Office combined … First automobile’s going to come
along in about five years; belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen
… 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 milkman
begin their rounds just as the doctor is finishing his. They stop for a
brief exchange of gossip: the school teacher is getting married, the doctor
just delivered twins, and the milkman’s horse refuses to adjust to a change
in route.


Now Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are spotlighted
in their respective kitchens, preparing breakfast. Mrs. Gibbs calls up
to her children, George and Rebecca, and, as they appear, complains to
her husband that George isn’t helping with the chores. Mrs. Webb reminds
her son Wally to wash thoroughly. The Gibbs daughter, Rebecca, doesn’t
want to wear her blue gingham dress. George negotiates for a raise in his
allowance. Each child is reminded to eat slowly, finish his breakfast,
stand up straight … The day has begun.

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Later, coming home from school, Emily Webb
promises to give George Gibbs some help with his algebra. At the Congregational
Church, choir practice can be heard. In the Gibbs home, George and his
father 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 the
Stage Manager calls an end to this typical day in Grover’s Corners.


Act 2. Love and Marriage:
“Three years have gone by,” muses the Stage
Manager. “Yes, the sun’s come up over a thousand times . . . ” The date
is now July 7,1904. It’s been raining. As Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb reappear
in their kitchens, he continues: “Both of those ladies cooked three meals
a day – one of’em for twenty years and the other for forty – and no summer
vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house
… and never a nervous breakdown. 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 … It’s what they call a vicious circle.”
Howie, the milkman, makes his deliveries
to Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs, and at each house you hear talk of the same
two breakfast-table conversation topics: the weather and the upcoming wedding
of Emily and George. The chit-chat is typical of things people say before
weddings. Mrs. Gibbs worries out loud about the inexperience of the bride
and groom; the doctor reminisces about being a groom himself. His fear
was that he and his wife would run out of things to talk about which, he
chuckles, hasn’t been the case at all.


When George comes downstairs and is about
to 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 let
him see her daughter. Traditionally, she says, a groom is not allowed to
see his bride on the wedding day until the ceremony begins. Mr. Webb placates
young George: “There is a lot of common sense in some superstitions.” The
nervous groom sits down to a cup of coffee with Mr. Webb, his equally nervous
future father-in-law. Mr. Webb makes various attempts at small talk and
reassures George that his nervousness about impending matrimony is typical.


“A man looks pretty small at a wedding … all those women standing shoulder
to shoulder making sure that the knot is tied in a might grand way.” He
then 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 my
father’s advice and I’ve been happy ever since.”
The Stage Manager interrupts this scene
b y dismissing the characters on stage and telling the audience that he
wants to show them “how this all began this wedding, this plan to spend
a lifetime together … I’m awfully interested in how bi 9 things like
that begin.” He takes two chairs from the Gibbs kitchen, arranges them
back-to-back, with two planks across and two stools in front, to serve
as Morgan’s Main Street Drugstore Counter.


Emily and George again enter, now as high
school students. They call goodbye to their friends. Over an ice cream
soda 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 possibility
for a moment, then decides that he shouldn’t go: “I guess new people aren’t
any better than old ones.” He tries to explain that he has decided to stay
because of the way he feels about her, and, in halfspoken sentences, the
two manage to express their love. The act culminates in a moving wedding
scene, containing all the elements of potential sorrow and abundant happiness.


Act 3. Life and Death:
Nine years have passed, and we are looking
down at a cemetery on a hill. We see that many of the townspeople we came
to know in the first two acts have passed on. The Stage Manager slowly
speaks: “Whenever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers
of nonsense …. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses
and it ain’t names … that something has to do with human beings.” And
so the dead stand, patient and smiling, awaiting not “judgement,” but greater
understanding of eternity.


Into the midst of the dead is led a young
mother. Emily and her second baby have just died in childbirth. She timidly
approaches the assemblage, glancing wistfully back toward the life she
has just departed. Gradually recognizing the spirits before her, Emily
suddenly realizes that none of these people truly understood or appreciated
the greatness of being alive! There had been no appreciation of life’s
little, 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 to
earth 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 earth
will be too painful. Nonetheless, Emily elects to reexperience one of the
happiest days of her life – her twelfth birthday.


As the day unfolds, however, Emily’s excitement
turns to disillusionment. She feels no joy in watching herself with her
father and mother and her little brother Wally; the day is wasted with
trivial preoccupations. She cries to her mother: “Just for a moment we’re
happy. 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 Corners
neighbors, was never fully savored either. It cai-ne, was lived in self-centeredness
and 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 hurries
back to her body’s resting place. There she finds George, her husband,
weeping by her grave. Too late, she now understands: Our time on earth
is 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 achieves
meaning as we cherish and blend the pieces – even the seemingly insignificant
pieces – into a full, universal whole.


Commentary
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town provides the
audience with an informal, intimate and compelling human drama. Wilder
was dissatisfied with the unimaginative, stilted theatrical productions
of his time: “They aimed to be soothing. The tragic had no heat; the
comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.”
Our Town, with its far-reaching theme and unmistakable symbolism, was a
far 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 constantly
shifting verb tense throughout the play reveals that something strange
is happening here with time. Pantomime and conversation simultaneously
enact 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. He
is aware of the present, and privy to both the past and the future. He
knows the characters’ feelings, and alternately takes on the roles of narrator,
philosophical druggist, host, master of ceremonies, commentator and friend
to the audience.


Wilder creates types rather than individuals
in 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 that
way myself.” This sense of “recollection” permeates the play to both thrill
and haunt us with reminders of our common – and fragile – humanity- By
using the barest of scenery and props, Wilder reinforces that our hopes
and despairs and loves begin and end not with things, but in the mind and
the soul, as our lives unfold through one another. This focus on “absolute
reality” allows us to see Emily’s simplest pleasures and cares (algebra
lessons, birthday presents, etc.) through child-like eyes. Her timelessness
helps the audience understand, just as she herself comes to understand,
the seamless relationship between past, present and future. Her commonplace
experiences (marriage, family … ) contrast sharply with her death experience,
where she finally comes to appreciate the commonplace. The play motivates
the audience to treasure everyday life just as it is.