The plot of Our Town is rather simple. In fact, some readers say there is no plot, that what passes for
a story is simply a few anecdotes illustrating life in Grover's Corners. Straightforward as it is, the story
has always had great appeal. After all, where would novels and plays be, where would movies and
television be, if you didn't have stories about people falling in love and getting married?
This simple story begins at daybreak. Act. I is Daily Life. The Stage Manager tells you that you are in
Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, in 1901. He tells you a bit about the town and points out the homes of
the two families you will see most of, the Webbs and the Gibbses. Then the people begin to appear. Dr.
Gibbs comes home from delivering twins. The mothers call the children to breakfast and get them ready
and off to school. Then the two mothers stop for a bit of gossip while they work.
The Stage Manager interrupts with some more information about the town, and then the children
come home from school. Emily Webb promises to give George Gibbs some help with his homework. Back
to the Stage Manager for some information about other people in the town, and then it's evening, and you
can hear the choir practicing at the Congregational church. George and his father have a
"serious" talk, and Mrs. Gibbs tells her husband the gossip about the drunken organist, Simon
Stimson. The town constable comes by to check that all is well, and the Stage Manager calls an end to this
typical day in Grover's Corners.
The Stage Manager tells you that Act II will be Love and Marriage. It isn't much of a surprise to
discover that George and Emily are the ones who will marry. The Stage Manager interrupts, as usual, this
time to take you back to a scene from George and Emily's courtship and the Gibbs' reaction to George's
plans. Then, after a few more philosophical observations, the Stage Manager takes you to the wedding,
and everyone is happy.
Act III opens in the graveyard, and the Stage Manager tells you that nine years have passed. A new
grave is being prepared, and you soon discover that Emily is the one who has died. She joins the dead
already resting in the graveyard, including her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs, but she is still restless. Despite
all the warnings, she chooses to go back, to see her twelfth birthday. But it's too painful. She can't stand
watching everyone pay so little attention to Life and flees back to her place among the dead. Night comes
to Grover's Corners, and the Stage Manager wishes the audience a good night, too.
[Our Town Contents]
Wilder knew a great deal about the theater, both its literary history and its practical problems. He had
a number of friends who were actors or directors, and he knew that part of any play would be created by
them. Instead of viewing this as a drawback- actors distorting his work of art- he thought of it as an asset.
The actors collaborated with the playwright in creating the finished performance.
A few years after Our Town, Wilder wrote:
Characterization in a play is like a blank check which the dramatist accords to the actor for him to fill
in- not entirely blank, for a number of indications of individuality are already there, but to a far less
definite and absolute degree than in the novel.... The dramatist's principal interest being the movement of
the story, he is willing to resign the more detailed aspects of the characterization to the actor.
In Our Town, the actors have plenty of room for their own characterizations to fit in, because Wilder
has created types rather than individuals. George, Emily, and all the people in Grover's Corners are never
very distinctly individual. This means that when you read or see the play, you can keep saying to yourself,
"Oh, yes. I know someone like that. He's just like so-and-so." More important, you can say to
yourself, "I know what he's feeling. I've felt like that myself."
By keeping characterization at a minimum, Wilder also warns you that what is important here is
ideas, not personalties; universals, not individuals.
- THE STAGE MANAGER
The most important character in the play is the Stage Manager, who has no name and has only a
minor role in the flow of the story. Yet he has by far the longest part in the play, the most speeches, and
he is always on the stage.
He speaks in a folksy manner, just chatting with the audience, making homey observations and
sounding very commonsensical. He may sound unsophisticated, but his ancestry as a character goes way
back to the chorus in ancient Greek drama, and he has relatives in medieval and renaissance plays as
In ancient Greece, plays first appeared as part of religious festivals. They were very stylized and
ritualistic. Important in each play was the chorus, generally a group of neutral observers who commented
on the action and told the audience about events that happened offstage. The chorus frequently advised the
audience how they were supposed to react to events on stage and reinforced the moral message of the
play. Characters serving a similar function can also be found in the religious plays of the Middle Ages.
Indeed, until naturalism began to predominate on the stage in the nineteenth century, characters in
plays frequently addressed the audience directly in asides. Everyone assumed that if you were in the
audience you knew you were watching a play. Wilder uses the Stage Manager to make this idea clear in
Our Town. The constant intervention of the Stage Manager, his halting of the action, his moving back and
forth in time, make it clear that what you are watching is not "reality" in the naturalistic
One of the major questions you will have to answer for yourself as you read this play is how much
importance you should give to the Stage Manager. Is he a genial old codger, a sort of Spirit of Grover's
Corners, giving you a somewhat sentimental picture of Life in small-town America? Is he the spokesman
for the author's views? Is he speaking seriously about "the meaning of life"? Does he
represent God? Wilder was a religious writer, though not dogmatic. In the play, the Stage Manager has
the power to move time backward and forward, and he knows what is yet to be. Although he is always
there, the living characters never seem to be aware of his existence.
- EMILY WEBB
Emily is the daughter of the editor of the town newspaper. She marries George Gibbs and dies giving
birth to their second child. She is the girl who grows up during the course of the play, both in age and
understanding. In Act III she has the famous life-affirming speech, "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful
for anybody to realize you." At the end, speaking of the living, she says, "They don't
understand much, do they?"
Emily's speeches at the end of the play are so obviously important that they suggest that you should
have been paying special attention to her all through the play. And it's hard not to pay attention to her.
From her first appearance she's so full of enthusiasm audiences find it impossible not to like her. And the
very familiarity of her emotions make them all the more real. Was there ever an adolescent who could
look at the moonlight unmoved? Is there anything strange about a girl who's jealous of a boy's love for
sports? Did any bride ever approach her wedding without a last minute moment of panic?
When you first see Emily, she's a schoolgirl having breakfast and engaging in a bit of one-upmanship
with her younger brother. She's proud of the fact that she does well in school and daydreams about being
a great lady. But she can't keep it up too long with George, and her conversation with her mother shows
that what she would really like is to be beautiful. Come evening, she tries to help George with his
homework- it obviously isn't very helpful help- but what she really wants to do is dream in the moonlight.
In short, she's a young girl growing up.
In Act II you see that she is a bit miffed with George, who has been ignoring her for baseball. But
once she gets a hint that he loves her, she is perfectly willing to overlook his failings and rank him with
such "perfect" men as her father and his. When it comes time for her wedding, she has a
moment of panic, when being Daddy's Little Girl seems so much safer than being a grownup wife and
mother. But the moment passes, and she does grow up.
In Act III, Emily undergoes the third step in her metamorphosis, moving from life to death. But is the
change a loss or a gain? She always seemed particularly aware of the world around her, yet when she
returns to her twelfth birthday, she is overwhelmed by all that she and those she loves ignored all the time.
- GEORGE GIBBS
George, the son of Dr. Gibbs, is the boy next door who marries Emily. If she is a typical American
girl, he is a typical American boy- or at least what many people think of as typical. He is nice and polite,
though not too bright; loving, but not very good at expressing his emotions; and perfectly happy to stay
down on the farm.
He goes through the same stages of growing up that Emily does, but he's always lagging a bit behind
her in maturity as well as in math. While Emily is acting out the great lady, he's tossing a baseball, too
shy to talk to her except by "accident." He wants to be a farmer when he grows up and can't
imagine having any trouble doing the work on a farm, though he still has a bit of trouble getting around
to chopping wood for his mother at home. And he isn't hypnotized by the moonlight until Emily points it
out to him.
When it comes to courting Emily, he's more than a little tongue-tied (not an unusual state of mind for
a young person in love). But Emily, who has no trouble telling George what's wrong with him, also has
no trouble understanding what he means, even if he can't manage to actually say that he loves her.
In Act III George doesn't say a word, but he has his most powerful scene when he throws himself on
Emily's grave. Once more, Emily has gone before him- she has died, and she also understands more than
George and Emily aren't rebels; they don't want to change the world. They get along well with their
parents and aren't troubled by a generation gap. They're "normal" and "typical"
and "nice"- perhaps you'll find them a bit idealized. The boy and girl next door fall in love,
marry, and live happily until death parts them. It's an old story, and it's been told many times because it
happens to so many people. If you can understand how George and Emily feel, if you can identify with
them, then Wilder has at least partially succeeded in what he was trying to do.
- DR. FRANK GIBBS
The kindly country physician, Doc Gibbs is also the loving husband and kindly father who can scold
his son and raise his allowance at the same time. He seems to know about and like everyone in town. He
has sympathy for the town drunk, and won't either condemn him or interfere. Doc Gibbs is perfectly
happy at home in Grover's Corners and has no desire to travel any farther than Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
where he can reexamine the famous Civil War battlefield.
- MR. CHARLES WEBB
Mr. Webb is the editor of the local newspaper, and his hobby is studying Napoleon, not the Civil War.
Otherwise, he's very much like Doc Gibbs. You see them both as fathers and husbands, and as kindly and
tolerant citizens of Grover's Corners. Both of them manage to keep their sense of humor, even under the
strain of their children's wedding. You may feel the speeches of one could easily be spoken by the other.
- JULIA HERSEY GIBBS
Mrs. Gibbs is Doc Gibbs's wife and the mother of George and Rebecca. And that's what she is, a wife
and mother. She worries about her husband's health, she worries about her children's health, and wonders
how her son George will ever remember to put on warm clothes once he's married. She spends her life
taking care of others. Although she has a dream of visiting Paris, with some money she could get by
selling a family heirloom, she leaves the money to George and Emily, who use it to build a new barn and
buy a cement drinking fountain for the animals. Even at the end, she is in a sense taking care of Emily,
giving her advice about her new existence.
- MYRTLE WEBB
Like her neighbor Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb is a wife and mother, taking care of a husband and
children. Her distinction is that she was once the second prettiest girl in town. But that is not really any
more important to her than going to Paris is to Mrs. Gibbs. Many readers find the two women, like their
husbands, virtually interchangeable. You probably can't tell them apart by their speeches. What kind of
comment does Wilder seem to be making about women with these two characters? Is it different from the
kind of comment he is making about men with Doc Gibbs and Mr. Webb?
- REBECCA GIBBS AND WALLY WEBB
Rebecca is George's younger sister, and Wally is Emily's younger brother. You never know very
much about them as personalities. You only see them as children having typical squabbles with their
siblings. Wally dies young, on a boy scout trip, and Rebecca marries and moves to Ohio.
- SIMON STIMSON
The church organist who drinks too much, Stimson has the distinction of being the only person you
meet in Grover's Corners who is unhappy. Doc Gibbs refers to the sorrow in Stimson's Life, but never
tells you what it is. Stimson doesn't fit in, but you never know why. Ultimately, he hangs himself, and in
the graveyard at the end, his words are the only bitter comments about life.
- LOUELLA SOAMES
Mrs. Soames, the town gossip, has plenty to say about Simon Stimson's misconduct (all of it bad).
But she's also an enthusiastic wedding guest, and among the dead she is still a chatterbox. In contrast to
Stimson, she remembers that life was wonderful as well as awful.
- JOE CROWELL AND SI CROWELL
Joe and later his brother Si are the town's newspaper boys, appearing early in the morning. Neither is
very enthusiastic about marriage, which deprives the world first of a schoolteacher and later of the town's
best baseball player. You are told that Joe is very bright, but dies in France during World War I. You
never see much of either boy, however.
- HOWIE NEWSOME
Howie and his horse Bessie deliver the milk and the gossip every morning. In small towns, the
milkman was a traditional carrier of local news, since he stopped frequently at almost every house. Howie
is friendly and chatty.
- JOE STODDARD AND SAM CRAIG
In the last act of Our Town, Joe Stoddard and Sam Craig replace the newsboy and the milkman.
Instead of bringing news of Life, they bring news of death. Joe is the undertaker, and Sam is a local boy
who had moved away. Between them, they fill you in on recent deaths and their effect on people in the
town. They have little individuality.
- CONSTABLE WARREN
You never hear of any crime in Grover's Corners to keep Constable Warren busy. Instead, he watches
over the safety of the townspeople, making sure boys like Wally don't start smoking, and making sure
Stimson gets home safe and sound without noticing that anyone is watching him. You'll probably see
Constable Warren as a benign spirit taking care of the town.
[Our Town Contents]
You could say that Our Town has two settings. One is the town of Grover's Corners. The other is the
stage on which the play is being performed. You can't ignore either one.
Grover's Corners has a very specific location. It's not just in New Hampshire, for the Stage Manager
also gives you its latitude and longitude. For an imaginary town it has a very exact place on the globe. It
has a history as well. Not a history of great men- the Stage Manager says the town never had them- but a
geological and anthropological history, taking you hundreds of millions of years into the past.
The Stage Manager also gives you a date for the first act- May 7, 1901. This is the good old days. It
was even the good old days in 1938 when Our Town was first performed- the days before the national
economy dominated most every part of the country, before World War I transformed the world. But again
it is a very specific date, just as it is a very specific location.
At the same time you should note that the play is called Our Town, not A Town. This is where the
bare stage comes in. Wilder uses it to make clear that he is really talking about everyone's town, just as he
is talking about universal feelings and emotions, about human life in general, rather than about a few
Wilder knew that every person who lives encounters birth, love, and death. You know it, too. By
stripping the stage of the trappings of naturalism, the realistic scenery and costumes generally found on
the stage then (and now), Wilder emphasizes the symbolic nature of the play, its location, and its
"When you emphasize place in the theater," Wilder said, "you drag down and limit
and harness time to it." By not having the stage represent any one specific era, the play transcends
any particular time and represents all times.
Wilder had some definite notions about the nature of time. One of the major differences between a
novel and a play, he pointed out, was that a novel takes place in the past, but a play always takes place in
the present. Although it may be 1901 in Grover's Corners, it is also today on the stage whenever the play
is being performed.
The following are major themes of Our Town.
- THE IMPORTANCE OF LOVE
Love is mentioned often in Our Town, and it is illustrated many times. The major characters all love
one another, and as the play progresses you are given examples of different types of love.
In Act I you see family love and friendship. Parents and children love each other and neighbors love
each other, just as ideally they should. In Act II, you see romantic love, culminating in marriage, again as
ideally it should. In Act III you see the kind of love that is perhaps hardest to understand, spiritual,
selfless love, love that expects no return.
- THE CONTINUITY OF HUMAN LIFE
Over and over in the play you are reminded of the repetition of the cycle of Life. The play begins with
the birth of twins in Polish town and ends with Emily's death in childbirth. Yet she leaves another child
behind, a part of her, just as she goes to join her predecessors in the graveyard on the hill.
Notice the Stage Manager's comments throughout the play. He continually refers to things that
happen over and over, to the ways people behave, generation after generation. Look at his comments about
the wedding in particular. Can you see why he mentions both the ancestors and the future generations?
- THE BEAUTY OF LIFE
You'll probably find Wilder's enthusiasm for life the most obvious theme in Our Town. He said that
the play is "an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life."
This theme seems the most important reason for the play's popularity. At the same time, it is responsible
for most of the criticism that attacks the play as being overly sentimental.
Is the play a valid celebration of the beauty of life? Does Wilder successfully point out the marvels of
everyday existence that are ignored by most people and realized only sometimes by poets and saints? Or is
the play a sentimental cop-out? Has Wilder made it easy to talk about the wonders of life by omitting the
problem of evil from his play? Keep these questions in mind as you read the play.
- THE MEANING OF LIFE
Wilder is often considered a religious writer, and Our Town is considered by many to be a religious
play. Can you see why? Consider how often churches are mentioned, how often you hear religious hymns
being sung. Is this just one of the realistic details put into the play? Probably not. After all, there was
probably a general store in a town like this, too, but Wilder doesn't mention one.
We mentioned the interpretation of the Stage Manager as God in The Characters section. You might
also look at his speech at the beginning of Act III. "Everybody knows that something is
eternal," he says. Wilder may not say what the meaning of life is, but he certainly seems to suggest
that there is a meaning.
- THE UNIVERSAL VS. THE PARTICULAR
Here you have to deal with a question about the nature of reality. In Our Town, Wilder seems to be
forcing the reader or the audience to see the characters as representing human nature in general. Do you
remember Rebecca's speech about her friend's letter, with the address giving her a place in the universe?
Did you notice how often the words "hundreds" and "thousands" and
"millions" are used in the play? These details suggest that the characters should be understood
as part of a greater reality, as part of human existence, not just as part of Grover's Corners. Can you think
of any other devices Wilder uses to give a larger context to the play?
- THE NATURE OF TIME
Wilder thought of past, present, and future all existing at the same time, though people can only see
one moment of it at a particular instant. In Our Town, however, he shows different times existing
together. For example, when you walk into the theater, the man who turns out to be the Stage Manager is
standing there in the present, but he tells you that it is 1901. Later, he interrupts the wedding
preparations to send the characters back to their courtship. You'll want to reflect on the importance of this
idea in the play.
Style involves the way a writer uses language. Wilder was extremely conscious of the sounds and
beauty of words as he put them on paper. In fact, his earliest attempts at writing have been criticized
because they were "beautiful" but had no substance. As he matured, he outgrew his fondness
for "fine writing" and developed an ear for the "right" word. The right word is
not necessarily the beautiful one or the fancy one. It's the word that expresses exactly what you want to
say. For a playwright, it's the word that is exactly the one a particular character would use in a particular
Wilder was a very conscientious writer. This may be one of the reasons he wrote relatively little. In
Our Town he accomplishes something of a tour de force. The entire play is written in a dialect that was
not Wilder's normal speech. In his letters and essays he used far more formal language.
Why, then, did he write the play in this colloquial, folksy style? Part of the reason is obviously that
this would be the normal speech of the residents of Grover's Corners. But why make it the normal speech
of the Stage Manager as well? There are a number of possible reasons.
- Wilder wanted to make clear that we are all ordinary people by having all his characters speak in ordinary language.
- Wilder wanted to make it clear that the Stage Manager did not represent the author by having the
Stage Manager speak the language of Grover's Corners, not the language of a Yale graduate.
- Because the play is a celebration of everyday life, everyday speech is most appropriate.
Do any of these explanations appeal to you? Can you think of others?
When the play was being prepared for its New York opening in 1938, Wilder had frequent struggles
with its producer, Jed Harris. Wilder kept trying to defend his "beautiful prose," while Harris
argued that "prose doesn't play." Writing to a friend shortly before the opening, Wilder said,
"As long as his [Harris's] suggestions for alterations are on the structure they are often very good;
but once they apply to the words, they are always bad and sometimes atrocious."
Judging from the final result, Wilder must have won the battle over words. The language of the play
is simple, natural, and frequently very beautiful. What could be more effective than the simple and homey
images of Emily's speech as she bids farewell to the world?
POINT OF VIEW
The story in a novel is usually told either by a character, who acts as narrator, or by the all-knowing
author, the omniscient or partially omniscient narrator. For example, in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn,
Huck tells his own story, but in Charles Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, it is the omniscient narrator who
tells you, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." The narrator is important
because you only know what the narrator tells you, and the outlook of the narrator usually affects the way
you interpret the story.
In most plays there is no narrator. The evidence is placed directly in front of you, with no interpreter
telling you what it all means. Our Town is unusual. The play is narrated by the Stage Manager.
Wilder uses this character to give information about the town and its residents the way he would use a
narrator in a novel. The Stage Manager knows the past, present, and future. He knows what the characters
are feeling, and he tells you what to notice and why. He tells you what he believes is the truth.
But you have the same problem here that you have in a novel. How much of what the Stage Manager
says are you going to accept? You can obviously accept what he says about the town and its residents. But
do you also accept the philosophy he offers? Do you believe that love is as important as he says? Do you
think it's true that people miss the beauty of life? Do you agree that all people are connected in time?
Do you think Wilder intends you to accept what the Stage Manager says? Or is the Stage Manager
just another character with his own limitations?
FORM AND STRUCTURE
In contrast to the very conventional and traditional characters and story in Our Town, the structure of
the play frequently violates modern tradition and convention. As soon as you walk into the theater, you
know this will not be the kind of play you're accustomed to seeing. The curtain is up, and you're looking at
a bare stage, no scenery at all, just someone who looks like a stagehand dragging some tables and chairs
around. You couldn't be blamed for thinking that you've come on the wrong night- that the play is still in
Once the play begins, the Stage Manager often reminds you that it is a play. Even his title emphasizes
this. You are never allowed to think- at least for very long- that you are watching a slice-of-life, unique
events that could only happen once. You are forced to recognize that these characters and events represent
what the author sees as universal, not particular, truths. The form of the play has a definite purpose.
Some readers have also noticed the influence of Wilder's classical training. The similarity of the
Stage Manager to the ancient Greek chorus has been discussed in The Characters section of this guide.
Partly because the Stage Manager performs some of the functions of a Greek chorus, Wilder does not
divide acts into the scenes that are typical of modern plays. In addition, the play seems to follow the
three unities of Greek drama: unity of time, place, and action.
Unity of time usually means that the entire action of the play takes place within twenty-four hours. In
one sense, quite a bit of time is covered in Our Town, including shifts backward and forward. In another
sense, it all takes place in one day: Act I begins at daybreak and Act III ends at night, a single day of life.
As for unity of place, the location of the play doesn't change. It is all Grover's Corners (or, if you like,
it is all the stage of the theater). And the action is unified in that no subplots complicate the story. (Some
people say there isn't a real story at all. Do you agree with them?)
THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
[Our Town Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]
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