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Our Town
Thornton Wilder


THE PLAY

THE PLOT

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]


THE CHARACTERS

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 well.

    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 sense.

    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 he does.

    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]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

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 specific lives.

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 characters.

"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.

THEMES

The following are major themes of Our Town.

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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

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 situation.

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.

  1. Wilder wanted to make clear that we are all ordinary people by having all his characters speak in ordinary language.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 rehearsal.

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 STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES


ECC [Our Town Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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