Support the Monkey! Tell All your Friends and Teachers

Help / FAQ


printable study guide online download notes summary




Our Town
Thornton Wilder


THE STORY

In order to feel the power of Our Town, you should try to imagine the play being presented in front of you. Plays are intended to be performed, and a playwright's intentions are often clearer on stage than on the printed page. This is particularly true in the case of Thornton Wilder's plays, because he considered the actors as collaborators in producing the final product.

ACT I

Our Town begins while people are still entering the theater and being seated. A character known only as the Stage Manager enters a bare, partly lit stage. He puts a table and three chairs stage left and another table and chairs stage right. Then he adds a low bench stage left. (See illustration.)

NOTE: PULLMAN CAR HIAWATHA
Wilder's one-act play, Pullman Car Hiawatha, published in 1931, contains many similarities to Our Town. Like Our Town, the earlier play uses a Stage Manager to set the scene and chat with the audience about the action on stage. The title of Pullman Car Hiawatha, refers to a railroad sleeping car named after the legendary Onondaga Indian chief, Hiawatha. The train is on the New York to Chicago run and Wilder uses the train, its passengers, and the towns it passes through to represent the whole of the human experience, in much the same way he uses Grover's Corners in Our Town. In fact, one of the towns along the route is Grover's Corners, Ohio!

There is little scenery in Pullman Car Hiawatha; the Stage Manager draws outlines of the car and its compartments on the stage floor with chalk and passengers enter carrying their own chairs. The themes of time, size- from the tiniest town to the entire solar system- death, and repeating cycles of human activity are all found in this short play. You might want to read Pullman Car Hiawatha and compare Wilder's treatment of these themes to how he deals with them in Our Town.

After he finishes setting up, the Stage Manager leans against the wall at the side of the stage and watches the audience.

NOTE: In a famous speech in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, one of the characters says, "All the world's a stage,/And all the men and women merely players." Is the Stage Manager indicating to you that the same metaphor is being used here?

The house lights dim and the Stage Manager begins to speak. At this point, if you were in the audience and didn't know anything about the play, you might be a little confused. You probably would think that the man was just someone working in the theater, not part of the play. Then the first thing he tells you is what you probably just read in your program- who wrote the play, who directed it, who's playing what part. You aren't being allowed to forget that this is a play, not real life.

Then the Stage Manager takes you to Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, just before dawn on May 7, 1901. He describes the town, pointing to different parts of the stage. "Up here is Main Street.... Here's the Town Hall and Post Office combined...."

NOTE: Keep in mind that the Stage Manager is talking about a bare stage. You must picture the town for yourself. Wilder didn't want you to sit back passively to watch his play. He wanted you to fill in the setting by using your own imagination and experience. This is unusual in a twentieth-century play. But plays in ancient Greece were staged without scenery, and there were virtually no stage props around 1600, when Shakespeare wrote his great plays.

As he's describing the town, the Stage Manager says something odd: "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." Notice the way the verb tenses keep shifting. This is your first hint that something strange is happening with time in this play.

The Stage Manager continues to describe the town, pointing out Doc Gibbs's house, then Editor Webb's house, then the cemetery. Then juxtaposition of life and death is obviously important in the play. It's repeated almost immediately: the Stage Manager points out Doc Gibbs, coming on the stage. First he tells you that Doc Gibbs is just coming home from delivering twins, and then he tells you that Doc Gibbs died in 1930. He adds that Mrs. Gibbs died first, "long time ago, in fact." But you can see Mrs. Gibbs on stage. What time is it supposed to be, anyway? Is it 1901, or is it today? or is it both?

While the Stage Manager points out Doc Gibbs's house, the stagehands push a pair of trellises onto the stage. "For those who think they have to have scenery," the Stage Manager comments. It's a joke, but it's also a reminder of Wilder's theories about the theater.

You also hear a train whistle; the Stage Manager checks his watch and nods to the audience.

NOTE: ON SOUND
Throughout Our Town there are stage directions for various sounds. One reason is that Wilder wants to encourage you to use your imagination while watching this play, and sound is a great trigger for imagination. Most people have heard a train whistle- though perhaps not as many now as in 1938- and hearing that sound calls up a response from your unique personal history. By forcing you to remember through the use of one of your senses, Wilder makes your involvement in the play that much greater.

Notice, however, that Wilder does not include stage directions for all the possible sounds in Grover's Corners. You might want to make one list of the sound effects called for in the script and another of the sound effects that could have been included but weren't. What conclusions can you draw from comparing the lists?

Before anything happens, before any of the characters actually say or do anything, the Stage Manager has talked for a long time. Why do you suppose this is so? He has set the stage for you and established a gentle, friendly tone for the play. But in most plays that is accomplished with the scenery. You can tell where you are and what kind of play this is going to be as soon as the curtain rises. What else is Wilder doing with the Stage Manager?

Finally, something happens. The earlybirds of the town appear- the newsboy and the milkman are starting their rounds and the doctor is finishing his. They stop for a brief exchange of gossip- the schoolteacher is getting married, the doctor just delivered twins, and the milkman's horse can't adapt to a change in route.

While this is going on, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are in their kitchens, pantomiming the preparations for breakfast. Remember that if you were seeing the play you'd be watching the pantomimes and listening to the conversation at the same time. Perhaps Wilder is pointing out that life doesn't happen in just one place at just one time.

NOTE: Pantomime can be a particularly effective stage technique. It draws an audience into the action and encourages observers to use their imaginations more actively. Try it for yourself. Take turns with friends miming some common activity. How do you feel as you watch? Do you pay more attention than you usually would? Do you notice things you would normally ignore?

Now it's breakfast time, and the children must prepare for school. Mrs. Gibbs is calling George and Rebecca; Mrs. Webb is calling Emily and Wally. The conversation may not sparkle but it probably sounds familiar to you. Mrs. Gibbs complains to her husband that George isn't helping with the chores. Mrs. Webb reminds Wally to wash thoroughly. Rebecca doesn't want to wear her blue gingham dress- that's the one she hates. George wants a raise in his allowance. Children are reminded to eat slowly, finish their breakfast, stand up straight, pick up their feet.

Does it sound familiar? Although the scene takes place at the start of the twentieth century, the conversation is almost timeless. Once upon a time there was probably a Neanderthal girl complaining that she didn't like her wolfskin robe and a Neanderthal mother telling her children to gnaw their bones slowly. And if you listen tomorrow morning, you may hear a small conversation in your own house. Did anyone ever tell you to come when called? Did anyone ever remind you to do your chores? To stand up straight? To finish your breakfast?

The next question, of course, is why did Wilder use such ordinary conversation for this scene? Does it help you identify with the characters? Even if it doesn't sound familiar, does it sound appealing? Would you like to grow up in a town like this, in a family like one of these?

Breakfast over, Mrs. Webb fills her apron and goes out to feed the chickens. Mrs. Webb goes out to sit in the garden while she strings her beans. Mrs. Gibbs comes over to share the task and to share her secret.

A secondhand furniture man from Boston has offered Mrs. Gibbs $350 for her old highboy (a chest of drawers on legs). This is an amazing windfall. Mrs. Webb thinks it's a wonderful chance, but Mrs. Gibbs isn't entirely sure she wants the money. The only thing she really wants is for her husband to accompany her on a trip to Paris. The problem is that she doesn't think he'll go. She's dropped a few hints about "if I got a legacy," but hasn't gotten anywhere. Dr. Gibbs says "it might make him discontented with Grover's Corners to be traipsin' about Europe." His idea of a perfect vacation is visiting Civil War battlefields.

Unfortunately for her, Mrs. Gibbs seems a bit tired of battlefields like Gettysburg and Antietam. Mrs. Webb urges her to sell the highboy and keep dropping hints. "That's how I got to see the Atlantic Ocean, y'know."

NOTE: ON HINTS AND WOMAN'S PLACE
Mrs. Webb suggests that Mrs. Gibbs hint about what she wants her husband to know, and later you will see her do just that. Emily will also offer George hints. Other characters will also speak indirectly. Hinting is offering an idea in a gentle way, not forcing it upon a person. Why not come right out and say what's on your mind? Isn't Mrs. Gibbs missing an opportunity? In Act III, Emily sees the many ways we miss the chance to show our love for one another. Is hinting another way we miss the chance to say "I love you"? Or is it a way we avoid hurting people's feelings unnecessarily?

This scene also raises some questions about the role of women in Grover's Corners. At the turn of the century, women still couldn't vote and most didn't work outside the home. With the hindsight gained from the current feminist movement, you might see Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb as having little power or freedom to make their own decisions. How do you think Wilder felt about this? Is the playwright unconsciously reflecting the majority view of that time? Is he supporting it with an idealized picture of the mother as the loving and supportive center of the family? Or is he subtly criticizing the position in which society placed women? What evidence can you find in the play to support your view?

The Stage Manager enters, interrupting the conversation between the two women and sending them away. This is another reminder that this is a stage play, not real life.

Wilder constructs reality on the stage in such a way that the audience can easily relate to what is taking place. At the same time, he constantly reminds you that this is a theatrical production, a game that a group of people are playing on the stage. He wants you to realize that the only things that are real and important in life happen inside of you. It's not what's being acted out on the stage that's important, but how you respond to it. This idea is crucial in the final act, so keep it in mind.

Now the Stage Manager invites Professor Willard from the State University to sketch in the town's history. Very briefly you go from Archaeozoic granite ("some of the oldest land in the world") to the twins who had just been born when the play began. In between you have the same sort of zigzag, from sandstone outcroppings three hundred million years old to Silas Peckham's cow pasture, from tenth- century Cotahatchee tribes to possible traces in three families.

NOTE: This broad view of the world juxtaposed with a close-up view of the town will be repeated throughout the play. Wilder is commenting on the greatness of the universe, the smallness of daily human existence, and the simultaneous importance of both. Wilder did not see human existence as small or petty in contrast to the vastness of history. Instead, he believed that the humdrum activities of daily life were common to all people in all times, and that this bound humanity into one great living force. The Stage Manager acts as the link between the two concepts. He keeps putting the "action" of the play into proper perspective.

The play begins by showing you the lives of a few people in a small town. By the end, the characters will have become representative of all humanity. Wilder starts with one small idea and expands it until he is dealing with very large ideas. If you are aware of this as you read, you can appreciate how Wilder is able to accomplish it.

The Stage Manager dismisses Willard and asks Editor Webb to come out. Mrs. Webb comes out instead to explain that her husband has just cut his hand and will be right out. Her impatient call, "Charles! Everybody's waitin'," is so believable and typical that you are immediately back in Grover's Corners.

Mr. Webb enters and offers you some statistical information- the kind you'd find in an almanac or a sociology book. He says it's a "very ordinary town." Does it sound ordinary to you? Is the kind of population it has anything like the population in a town you know of?

The Stage Manager calls for questions from the audience (only actors are expected to respond). The Lady in the Balcony asks about drinking. The Belligerent Man asks about social injustice. The Lady in the Box asks about culture. These are all Major Issues, Important Questions, but they aren't of much importance in Grover's Corners. Drinking? There's some, but not enough to make anyone think it's a serious problem. Injustice? Everyone knows it exists, but until someone can figure out a way to eliminate it, the citizens of Grover's Corners are content to help those who need help and otherwise mind their own business. Culture? Love of Beauty? Well, they know their Bible, and in place of art they have the beauty of nature. Why bring this up? What is Wilder's point here? Is he saying that we should all be simple folk and not try to think about culture or social problems? Is he saying that these problems are transitory, that they will be solved, and we should concentrate on eternal, timeless questions? What do you think?

NOTE: SOCIAL ISSUES
One of the strongest criticisms leveled against Wilder, especially in his early work, was that he was unconcerned about the social and political issues of his day. Some readers believe that he should address current problems like war and poverty. Others say he was concerned not with the particular, but with universal issues of human existence. This is part of an ongoing argument among students of literature. Does the artist have a responsibility to deal with the problems of his society? Or are timeless issues more important? What do you think?

Wilder may have been giving his critics an answer in this scene. In 1901, the "Evils of Drink" was a popular issue, and many social activists sought to completely ban consumption of alcohol. In 1919 the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States was prohibited. In 1933, however, prohibition was ended on the national level after proving less than successful.

The Stage Manager dismisses Mr. Webb and announces a shift in time. Now it is early afternoon. People have had dinner, all the dishes are washed, Mr. Webb is mowing the lawn (in pantomime, remember), and the children are coming home from school. Emily is calling to her friends and walking along pretending that she's a great lady. George is tossing a ball in the air- until he bumps into Mrs. Forrest.

NOTE: THE STAGE MANAGER
You have by now seen quite a bit of evidence indicating the unusual nature of the Stage Manager's role. Like the Greek chorus he comments on the action and fills you in on the background, but he has greater power than that. He can call forth and dismiss the characters, control their actions without their even noticing him, stand by invisibly as they go about their daily life, or suddenly become a character like Mrs. Forrest. He interrupts time and moves it up. He could be a frightening character if he were presented in a different tone. Maybe that is partly why Wilder gives him the friendly, folksy speech of Grover's Corners.

On the way home from school, George and Emily stop to talk. Emily is good at school work. George has been watching her doing homework in the evening. She promises to give him some "hints" to help him do his. In return, he confides his ambition to become a farmer.

Emily helps her mother with the string beans and asks one of the questions that often bother young girls: "Am I pretty?" She can't pry a satisfying answer from her mother- no guarantees here of future romance. All Mrs. Webb says is that Emily is "Pretty enough for all normal purposes."

NOTE: Exotic ambitions don't seem to take people very far in Grover's Corners. Mrs. Gibbs never visits Paris- in fact, when she does go away, to see her daughter in Ohio, she dies. Emily doesn't become a fine lady and doesn't spend her life "making speeches." The emphasis here is all on "normal purposes." Why do you suppose this is so?

Now you are back with the Stage Manager again. He tells you about the cornerstone of the new bank. It will have a time capsule in it, so when people a thousand years from now dig it up they will know about Grover's Corners. In it will be a copy of The New York Times and of Mr. Webb's Sentinel, a Bible, the Constitution of the United States, and a copy of Shakespeare's plays.

Then the Stage Manager says to the audience, "What do you say, folks? What do you think?" He almost sounds like a teacher. But what do you think? Would those items tell people a thousand years from now what life was like in Grover's Corners? You might notice that those items cover religion, politics, and culture, the same topics covered by the questions from the audience.

Next comes an important passage, worth reading closely:

Y'know- Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about 'em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts... and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney,- same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then.

Here past, present, and future are being tied together- the people in ancient Babylon, those in Grover's Corners, and the ones a thousand years from now who will look into the time capsule. All are the same when it comes to real life. What does Wilder mean by real life? Obviously not the things that find their way into history books, not the Treaty of Versailles or Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic. For Wilder, this play, with children doing homework and mothers stringing beans, is about the real essence of life.

In that speech the Stage Manager also comments that what we learn about real life in Greece and Rome we learn from comedies and joking poems. Maybe that gives you a hint about the reason for the tone of this play. The play may deal with enormous themes of life and death, but the tone is most often friendly, joking.

The choir now begins to sing "Blessed Be the Tie that Binds." They are being led by Simon Stimson, the choirmaster and organist. Two ladders have been pushed onto the stage; they suggest the second stories of the two houses. George and Emily each climb one and pantomime doing homework. The Stage Manager, still standing at the front of the stage, tells the audience, "The day's running down like a tired clock." (See illustration.)

NOTE: "BLESSED BE THE TIE THAT BINDS"
This traditional hymn is used in each of the three acts. Wilder chose it for its words:

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love:
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our Father's throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts and our cares.

Can you see how this hymn fits in with the themes of Our Town?

Against the background of the choir rehearsal, Emily admires the moonlight and George seeks help with his homework. He seems to be having quite a bit of trouble with it. Then Doc Gibbs calls George down for a talk.

George receives a lecture on responsibility. It's a lecture you have probably heard at some time in your life. It may not have been, "How are you going to be able to do all the work on the farm if you can't even remember to chop the wood for your mother?" But how about, "How can you be hungry for dessert when you are too full to finish your vegetables?" Or, "How can you remember the entire TV schedule, but you can't remember what you have for homework?"

It's a very kindly lecture, with far more love than harshness. Part of Doc Gibbs's point is that you do things for people because you love them, not because you will be punished if you don't.

NOTE: The generation gap doesn't seem to exist in Grover's Corners. This isn't because parent- child conflicts hadn't yet been invented. It's because Wilder wants to give you an idealized picture of family life.

Choir practice is over and the ladies come home. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs stop to gossip with Mrs. Soames, who seems to enjoy being shocked at Simon Stimson's behavior. He was drunk at choir practice, and it wasn't the first time. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are more charitable, Mrs. Webb saying that he's getting better, not worse.

They finally say good-bye. Mrs. Gibbs returns home, and takes her husband into the garden to enjoy the moonlight- the same moonlight Emily had been admiring earlier. She passes on the gossip about Simon Stimson. It's a situation Doc Gibbs seems to be familiar with, and he suggests that Stimson "ain't made for small-town life. I don't know how that'll end...."

This is the first time the expression "how things will end" is used. You will hear it again. It is one of the play's most haunting refrains. What do you think Wilder's purpose is in repeating the idea?

Why do you suppose Wilder has Doc Gibbs say that Stimson isn't made for small-town life? If Grover's Corners represents the whole world, what other kind of life is there? Is Wilder suggesting that some people aren't able to handle life at all?

Mrs. Gibbs makes some hints about her legacy and hopes for a vacation- though she talks about duty, not desire. But the doctor dismisses the idea and hurries her into the house.

There seems to be things left unsaid here, just as between Emily and her mother. It's not that these people don't love each other, but they seem to have trouble expressing their feelings. You will see more of this later.

The grownups withdraw, and Rebecca climbs the ladder to join her brother- to his irritation. But she wants to enjoy the moonlight too, the same moonlight that Emily and the Gibbses enjoyed, that is shining "on South America, Canada and half the whole world." The same moonlight that Constable Warren and Mr. Webb admire when they meet a moment later as Mr. Webb is on his way home from the newspaper.

The constable and Mr. Webb also encounter Stimson, who appears and departs, silent and unsteady. The constable and Mr. Webb are sympathetic. "He's seen a peck of trouble," says Mr. Webb, but we never know what it was. Then the conversation shifts, and Mr. Webb asks the constable to keep an eye out for Wally, to make sure he doesn't smoke cigarettes.

Again there is a sense of half-completed conversations and missed moments.

Rebecca tells her brother about a letter her friend Jane Crofut got from a minister. The address said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.

George is not impressed. But that's not all, says Rebecca. It goes on: The United States of America, Continent of North America, Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

"What do you know!" exclaims George.

Wilder has taken you again from the trivial to the profound, from children doing homework to the Mind of God. Wilder is reminding you that both the smallest and the greatest exist side by side, and both have to be recognized.

But to end the act on a less solemn note, the Stage Manager steps out to say, "You can go and smoke now, those that smoke."

ACT II

The stage for the second act still has the tables and chairs for the two kitchens, though the ladders and small bench are gone. Again the Stage Manager has been watching the audience settle down.

"Three years have gone by. Yes, the sun's come up over a thousand times." The Stage Manager tells you what's been happening- the mountains cracked a little bit more and some babies who hadn't been born three years ago have started to talk in complete sentences. Things are placed side by side like in the first act- the small and the large, the trivial detail of everyday life and the enormous force of nature.

The Stage Manager also tells the audience that the first act was called "Daily Life." This one will be "Love and Marriage." He implies that the last act will be about death.

NOTE: BIRTH, MARRIAGE, AND DEATH
These are the three major crises of human existence according to Wilder. He believes that most people are so caught up in the everyday small events, like the weather and stringing beans, that they fail to see the real grandeur and terror of life as it passes. It is only when one of these three crises occurs that people stand back and take a look at being alive. Usually, at these times, it's impossible to avoid being aware of the importance of the event. At other times, Wilder believes, we live out our lives in a state of self-imposed blindness.

The date is July 7, 1904, and it's been raining. Otherwise, this morning seems to begin very much the same way that the morning of Act I began- the 5:45 train has blown its whistle, and Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are fixing breakfast.

The Stage Manager points out that "both of 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. 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."

NOTE: THE POET AND WOMAN'S PLACE
The midwest poet is Edgar Lee Masters, and the poem is "Lucinda Matlock." Lucinda, the narrator of the poem, lived to ninety-six, working hard, taking care of her family (like Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb), and enjoying every minute of it. She ends by saying:

What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent, and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you
It takes life to love life.

Is Wilder saying that women are happiest working hard and taking care of their families? Or is he saying that people are happiest working hard and taking care of their families? What do you think?

The "action" begins with the milkman and the newspaper boy (Joe's younger brother Si, this time), and they talk about a wedding and the weather. Look back to the beginning of Act I. They talked about the same things then, and Joe wasn't any more enthusiastic about marriage than his brother is now. Why do you suppose Wilder uses this kind of repetition?

Howie delivers the milk to Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs, and at each house you hear the same conversation about the weather and the wedding. If you hadn't guessed long ago, you now know that Emily and George are getting married.

Over breakfast, Mrs. Gibbs worries about the wedding ("they're too young") and the doctor reminisces about being a groom and his fears that he and his wife would run out of things to talk about.

The talk is typical of the kinds of things people say before weddings. The doctor's words are sentimental and nostalgic, but Mrs. Gibbs's words are quite different. She says, "Weddings are perfectly awful things. Farces,- that's what they are!" Wilder's feeling that marriage is neither all good nor all bad but a mixture of both is typical of his understanding of human relationships. You will meet this double perception again in the play.

The parents have a bit of trouble trying to think of their son as an adult- "that great gangling thing!" says the doctor. And when George comes down and wants to run across to see Emily, his mother makes him put on his overshoes.

It's all very typical, parents having trouble realizing that their children are growing up. But before you start thinking of it as overly sentimental, look again. Did you notice how many references to death there are in this little scene? George pretends to cut his throat; Mrs. Gibbs keeps talking about his death of cold and says, "From tomorrow on you can kill yourself in all weathers." Why do you suppose Wilder did this? Is he preparing you for the next act? Is he saying that death is always a part of life? What do you think?

Mrs. Webb won't let George see Emily. Traditionally, a groom is not allowed to see his bride on the wedding day until the ceremony begins. That's just superstition, George protests, but Mr. Webb says, "There's a lot of common sense in some superstitions...."

NOTE: SUPERSTITIONS
Are customs and superstitions founded on common sense? Or do they just keep people from recognizing what life is like? A superstition will keep you on a known path that avoids risks. Do you have to step off the path to encounter the very best and worst of life? Is this what Wilder is saying?

You might want to consider the idea that customs keep people bound into a very narrow view of life. This idea is repeated near the end of the play by Emily. Can you identify any customs or superstitions in your life or in the lives of people you know? Do they put unnecessary limits on life?

The nervous groom sits down to a cup of coffee with Mr. Webb, the almost equally nervous future father-in-law. Mr. Webb makes various attempts at small talk and assures George that all men feel just the way he does. "A man looks pretty small at a wedding.... All those good women standing shoulder to shoulder making sure that the knot's tied in a mighty public way."

What do you think Wilder is saying? Is he suggesting that women want to marry and men don't? Or is he perhaps saying that relationships are difficult, and marriage keeps you from running away? Is he poking gentle fun at men's and women's attitudes toward marriage?

NOTE: When Our Town was first produced, there was tremendous disagreement among the critics. Some saw this scene as satiric, others saw it as religious, and still others as an exercise in nostalgia. You should develop your own interpretation, supporting it with evidence from the play.

Mr. Webb next gives George the advice his own father had given him when he married- advice on how to keep your wife in line and show her who's in charge. George is a bit taken aback, but Mr. Webb goes on, "So I took the opposite of my father's advice and I've been happy ever since."

Is this another example of two views of an issue? Or is Wilder definitely on Mr. Webb's side? Perhaps Wilder is trying to nudge all men and women beyond immediate beliefs and attitudes to much larger issues? After all, he wanted to touch upon what is true for every person who exists. Doesn't Our Town have much less to do with particular people in a New England town than with the overall meaning of life?

To make sure things don't become too serious too soon, Wilder sends George home and has Mr. Webb offer his wife another superstition: "No bridegroom should see his father-in-law the day of the wedding or near it."

The Stage Manager interrupts again, dismissing the characters on stage. (He's a bit like the master of ceremonies in a variety show or the ringmaster in a circus.) This time he wants to show you "how this all began- this wedding, this plan to spend a lifetime together." And he adds, "I'm awfully interested in how big things like that begin."

But before you see Emily and George, he wants the people in the audience to reach back in their memories to when they were young and in love. Notice that two things are going on here. Wilder is again encouraging the audience to feel a part of what is happening, and he is suggesting that these emotions are universal and that everyone experiences them.

NOTE: THE MANIPULATION OF TIME
Wilder has been playing with time all through the play. In the first act, verb tenses shifted back and forth almost at once. You were told what would happen to characters in their future (but in the past for the audience). Professor Willard talked about the land millions of years ago, and at the beginning of this act the Stage Manager described miniature changes in mountains that will not have a noticeable effect until far in the future. Each wrenching of time prepares you for the next. The first changes were only verbal; then changes were described. In the scene that follows between Emily and George, you move back in time only a few years. However, you actually view the scene as it took place. You are asked to accept that you can move about in time. The earlier manipulations of time prepare you for this one, just as this one prepares you for an even larger wrench in the final act. Wilder has deliberately organized the material of the play to create the strongest impact on the audience.

The Stage Manager takes two chairs from the Gibbs's kitchen and arranges them back-to-back at center stage. He puts a plank across the backs of the chairs and two stools in front of that. This will serve as Morgan's Drugstore on Main Street.

NOTE: SCENERY
Wilder said that too much scenery on stage interfered with the action of the play. He also felt that the impact of a play was stronger if the playgoer had to participate by using his or her imagination. Wilder was well aware that a bare stage was all the Greeks had needed for their great tragedies, and that Shakespeare had also used few props, depending on dialogue to set the scene. When Our Town was first produced in the late 1930s, the bare stage was a startling novelty. Most plays of the time used realistic stage sets. However, the bare stage subsequently was used by a fair number of other playwrights.

Emily and George, high school students again, come on stage. They call good-bye to other friends, but when George asks to carry Emily's books home, she seems a bit distant. George wants to know what's wrong. She has difficulty saying it but finally tells him that she doesn't like the way he's changed. Baseball seems to have made him "conceited and stuck-up."

Now both of them are miserable. George says he's glad she told him, because "it's hard for a fella not to have faults creep into his character." Emily thinks their fathers are perfect and can't see why George can't be, too. George is inclined to think that "men aren't naturally good; but girls are." Emily thinks it's the other way around.

Wilder wants us to see George and Emily as both very young, with foolish ideas about the opposite sex. He is not ridiculing his characters (poking a little gentle fun at them, maybe), but reminding people in the audience that they were once young and foolish, too. The mood created here is one of nostalgia for a time remembered as wonderful but, when seen from the vantage point of adulthood, recognized as a little silly. Even if they are a bit silly, George and Emily are certainly idealistic. They seem to think people should try to be perfect.

Emily is so upset at the thought that she might have upset George that he takes her into the drugstore for an ice cream soda. So she won't be embarrassed, when the Stage Manager/Mr. Morgan asks if she's been crying, George says she was almost run over by a wagon.

Now George and Emily have one of those conversations that sound trivial to outsiders but are of tremendous importance to the people involved. George asks Emily to write to him while he's at State Agricultural College. She wonders if he'll lose interest in Grover's Corners once he goes away. He says that if that's a possibility, perhaps he shouldn't go. "I guess new people aren't any better than old ones," he says. So George decides to stay.

NOTE: LEAVING HOME
You'll have to decide whether George is making a good choice here. By deciding to remain at home and become a farmer right away, is he giving up the chance to see life in a broader perspective? Is he getting so caught up in his immediate concerns that he won't have a chance to see that life is bigger than this? Or is he right? Would going away be the same as staying at home because home and away are all the same?

George tries to explain to Emily that he wants to stay because of the way he feels about her. In half- spoken sentences, they manage to express what they mean. "Would you be... I mean: could you be...," he says. "I... I am now; I always have been," she answers.

You don't really need to see any more of their courtship. Everyone can fill in the rest, from books, movies, and personal experience. But there's another reason Wilder stops here. Some readers believe that the play is an allegory, that the characters and events in the play are personifications of abstract ideas. An allegory tries to create a dual interest both in the actual characters and events being shown and in the abstract ideas being represented. This would explain why the characters are not very individualized, why, for example, there is little to distinguish Mrs. Webb from Mrs. Gibbs.

In the same way, Emily and George represent every girl and boy who have ever fallen in love. If you saw their relationship develop in distinctive ways, George and Emily would become unique and special and would no longer represent everyone.

The scene in the drugstore ends quickly. George doesn't have enough money to pay and offers to leave his gold watch until he can come back with the money. Mr. Morgan says he will trust George for ten years- "not a day over."

As in so many other scenes, when events threaten to become too emotional, Wilder ends this scene with a touch of humor. Does this keep you from viewing the events too seriously? Or does it keep you from viewing them too sentimentally?

Mr. Morgan turns back into the Stage Manager and announces that it's time for the wedding. The stage is rearranged to represent the church, and the Stage Manager has a chance to talk some more- to give a sermon this time, since he also plays the minister in the wedding scene. It's a brief sermon, but he brings in some important themes. He reminds you that marriage is part of the universal human experience and recognizes that people often feel confused when faced with a wedding, one of the major events of human life. "We thought that that ought to be in our play too," he says. This gives still another bit of emphasis to the idea that the people and events in this play represent human life in general.

Then he talks about the others involved in this wedding- the child who is yet to be born, and the ancestors, "millions of them." Past, present, and future are once more joined together.

He also talks about perfection- about the idea that "every child born into the world is nature's attempt to make a perfect human being." Not long ago you were listening to Emily and George talk about people trying to be perfect. They sounded a bit silly and naive. Now the idea has more serious overtones. Look for it to reappear in Act III.

It's time for the wedding to begin and time for the moment of panic. Mrs. Webb is upset- she never could bring herself to tell Emily "anything" before marriage. "I went into it blind as a bat myself," she adds. "The whole world's wrong, that's what's the matter."

Then three members of the baseball team appear. Their catcalls are filled with sexual innuendoes. The Stage Manager chases them away, smiling. "There used to be an awful lot of that kind of thing at weddings," he says. "We're more civilized now,- so they say."

Next comes George's moment of panic, his realization that life is passing. He doesn't want to grow old. But the moment passes and then it's Emily's turn. She also panics and wants to go back, wants to stay a little girl.

NOTE: GOING BACK
There has been a lot of reminiscing on the part of the characters in this act. They have been looking back at the past and enjoying their memories. When Emily and George have their moments of panic here, they think of the past with fondness. You will see how different it will be in Act III when Emily does go back.

Seeing each other, both Emily and George recover and make their own promises before the ceremony- promising to care for each other, to love each other, to help each other. Why do you suppose these are the vows you hear, while Wilder has the traditional vows of the wedding service drowned out by Mrs. Soames' chatter?

NOTE: CREATING AN IMPACT
Most plays begin by introducing characters, starting a sequence of events, and creating suspense about how the characters will fare. Suspense is not quite as important in Our Town. When you first see Emily and George, it seems clear they will marry. Suspense is created, however, by the fact that you know early in the play that someone will die in the last act, but you do not know who.

Instead of depending heavily on suspense, Wilder increases your emotional involvement. In Act I you watch the daily life of some people in a small town. It is pleasant. In Act II you participate in a courtship and a wedding. Your emotional involvement is heightened. Your involvement increases in the third, and final, act until the full impact of Wilder's ideas is revealed.

The actors all freeze in a tableau while the Stage Manager/Minister speaks of the pattern that marriage begins, a pattern that is repeated over and over again. Then the tableau is broken and the joyous bride and groom come down the aisle. Mrs. Soames has the final word- "The important thing is to be happy."

Do you think that Wilder agrees with Mrs. Soames? Or, since this is only one of the acts in the play, do you think he is saying that happiness is only one of the things that happens to people, not necessarily the most important? Are most of the people in the play happy or unhappy? Are they too busy to know? What do you think?

THE STORY, continued

THE PLAY


ECC [Our Town Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
Further distribution without the written consent of PinkMonkey.com, Inc. is prohibited.

Google
  Web PinkMonkey.com   
Google
  Web Search Our Message Boards   

All Contents Copyright © 1997-2004 PinkMonkey.com
All rights reserved. Further Distribution Is Strictly Prohibited.


About Us
 | Advertising | Contact Us | Privacy Policy | Home Page
This page was last updated: 5/9/2017 8:51:55 AM