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Our Town
Thornton Wilder




He [Wilder] hardly imagines them [the characters] as people, he rather invites the audience to accept them by plainly labelling them; they are sentimental stereotypes of village folksiness. They are therefore understandable by the greater number, and they serve to present the story and illustrate the moral.

This type of allegory is perfectly in accord with the Platonic kind of philosophy which it is designed to teach. The great Ideas are timeless, above the history of the race and the history of actual individuals. Any bit of individual or racial history will do, therefore, to "illustrate" them; but history and individual lives lack all real being: they are only shadows on the cave wall.

Francis Fergusson, Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder and Eliot, 1956


Wilder has always been on the side of life and life is seen to be most directly affirmed through love. Love, then, is his most persistent theme and it has been for him an inexhaustible subject.

Robert W. Corrigan, "Thornton Wilder And The Tragic Sense of Life," 1961


Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante's Purgatory). It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place. The recurrent words in the play (few have noticed it) are "hundreds," "thousands," and "millions." Emily's joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday present- what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived, who are living and who will live? Each individual's assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. And here the method of staging finds its justification- in the first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables; but when Emily revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birthday, the very chairs and tables are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind- not in things, not in "scenery."... The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.

Thornton Wilder, American Characteristics And Other Essays, 1979


The vision Wilder offers of the human condition in Our Town is essentially tragic. It is a picture of the priceless value of even the most common and routine events in life and of the tragic waste of life through failure to realize the value of every moment. Unaware of the value of life, the people of Grover's Corners live their lives banally and seldom get beneath or above the surface of life.

The artistic problem basic to Our Town is that of showing that the events of life are at once not all they could be because they are taken for granted- but are priceless.... By relating the ordinary events in the lives of these ordinary people to a metaphysical framework that broadens with each act, he is able to portray life as being at once significant and trivial, noble and absurd, miraculous and humdrum.

Rex J. Burbank, Thornton Wilder, 1978


If he [Wilder] did away with scenery and relied on a stage manager to set his stage, it was because the human heart was his real scene. It was the heart of the community which he laid bare.

In the thirties, tingling as they were with social consciousness, there were those who complained.... They could not believe in Our Town because it lacked brothels, race riots, front-page scandals, social workers, agitators, and strikes. The passing years, however, have only proved Mr. Wilder's correctness in writing as he did. His subject had no datelines. His interest was not what gets into the public prints. It was what each of us must live with in private. Man's spirit was his business; man's spirit and evocations of those small-important incidents which test us in our daily living.

John Mason Brown, "Wilder: Our Town," 1949


By recalling past time, Wilder has, in the three acts of his play, created his own time separate from that time of the audience which ticks away each minute. He has presented in recognizable sequence birth, marriage, and death, events analogous to the cycle of life of any member of the audience.... The repeated shifts in time are reminders that all parts of life's sequence are in operation for any number of people at any time. It is the force of memory that is always in the present tense. This memory, juggling all the events at once like a circus performer, keeps the action in the eternal now on stage.

Donald Haberman, The Plays of Thornton Wilder, 1967


The problem Wilder set for himself was to find a language recognizable as ordinary middle-class speech but still able to convey feeling and meaning. The dialogue is the speech of anyone, and that is the point. Cliches are cliches precisely because they are so very true on an elementary level. The absence of scenery and properties and the exploitation of the stage as stage both permit the cliched dialogue and prevent it from being merely banal. The commonplace in such speech is returned to its pristine truth, as though it were being uttered for the first time, and the simple truth of family living is given new life.

Donald Haberman, The Plays of Thornton Wilder, 1967


The meaning of life is revealed in living- hot bath water as well as great festivals- and that living must be done with an awareness that it can cease at any time. Life must not be lived as though it were a mere passage to something better. It cannot be embraced with reservation. The sorrow is that there is no permanence.

Donald Haberman, The Plays of Thornton Wilder, 1967

[Our Town Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[Our Town Contents]



Brown, John Mason. "Wilder: Our Town." Saturday Review of Literature, August 6, 1949, p. 34.

Burbank, Rex J. Thornton Wilder. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1978.

Corrigan, Robert W. "Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life." Educational Theater, October 1961, pp. 167-173.

Fergusson, Francis. "Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder and Eliot." Sewanee Review, Fall 1956, pp. 544-73.

Fuller, Edmund. "Thornton Wilder: The Notation of a Heart." American Scholar, September 1959, pp 210-217.

Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Goldstone, Richard H. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975.

Grebanier, Bernard. Thornton Wilder. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.

Haberman, Donald. The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1967.

Harrison, Gilbert S. The Enthusiast. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.

Kuner, M.C. Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972.

Stresau, Hermann. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1971.


    The Cabala, 1926 novel
    The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927 novel
    The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays, 1928
    The Woman of Andros, 1930 novel
    The Long Christmas Dinner and Other Plays in One Act, 1931
    Heaven's My Destination, 1935 novel
    The Merchant of Yonkers, 1939 play
    The Skin of Our Teeth, 1942 play
    Our Century, 1947 play
    The Ides of March, 1948 novel
    The Alcestiad, with a Satyr Play, The Drunken Sisters, 1957
    The Eighth Day, 1967 novel
    Theophilus North, 1973 novel
    American Characteristics and Other Essays, 1979


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