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Our Town
Thornton Wilder

THE STORY, continued


During the intermission the audience sees the stagehands rearrange the set. Three rows of folding chairs are put on the right side of the stage, facing the audience. These represent graves in the cemetery.

One of the reasons Our Town continues to be so popular with amateur groups is the ease with which it can be produced. There is very little expense involved. No elaborate sets or costumes are needed. And the simplicity of the empty stage, with the chairs being used to fill a variety of functions, is a striking visual metaphor about life.

But the ease of production is not the only reason for the play's popularity. Our Town shows us ourselves as we would like to believe we live. Life appears simple and pure. Almost everyone is good- natured and reasonably happy. Simon Stimson is the only character who has a terrible problem, and you never get to know him.

People like to believe that the picture Our Town represents is the way life is or can be. By setting the play in the relatively recent past, Wilder touched upon a common human feeling of nostalgia. The past frequently seems better than the present. Where were you even five years ago? Were you happier, younger, with fewer problems, with larger dreams for the future? The combination- life as we would like it to be, set in a simpler (and better) time than our own- has enormous appeal.

If Wilder had shown too much of Stimson's tale, you would be distracted from a story about George and Emily's innocence.

If Wilder had set the story further in the past, you might have difficulty relating to the lives of the characters. But everyone has walked home from school with friends- or thinks that's the way life should be. Wilder is showing us a picture of ourselves that we like to see. Audiences want to think the play represents the essence of life.

As the intermission ends, some of the actors enter and sit in the chairs. Mrs. Gibbs and Simon Stimson sit in the front row. A seat at the end remains empty. In the second row is Mrs. Soames. Wally Webb is in the third row.

NOTE: According to Wilder's stage directions, the dead "do not turn their heads or their eyes to right or left, but they sit in a quiet without stiffness. When they speak their tone is matter-of-fact, without sentimentality." Wilder wants the audience to notice that the dead have lost their emotional attachment to the living. Later, you will understand that even this becomes a comment on what it means to be alive.

The Stage Manager takes up his usual position, and when the house lights go down he begins to speak. Nine years have gone by this time. And this is a different part of Grover's Corners, "an important part," on a hilltop. He talks about the beauty of the setting and points out the oldest graves, belonging to the "strong-minded" settlers. Genealogists, paid by people who want to be certain they have colonial ancestors, visit the graves. "Wherever you come near the human race, there's layers and layers of nonsense," he says. Then he points out the Civil War veterans. "New Hampshire boys... had a notion that the Union ought to be kept together, though they'd never seen more than fifty miles of it themselves.... And they went and died about it."

Wilder is pointing out that humans are both silly and noble. There is no such thing as "either/or" when it comes to understanding the human race. It contains all possibilities.

Finally, the Stage Manager points to the actors sitting on chairs. Mrs. Gibbs, who worried so about her husband, is dead. So are Simon Stimson, Mrs. Soames, and Wally Webb.

NOTE: At the beginning of the play, the Stage Manager mentioned the deaths of several characters, including Mrs. Gibbs. It wasn't upsetting because you hadn't met them yet. And he didn't talk about every character's death. Now, learning about the death of Mrs. Gibbs and of Wally causes a pang. You've met them. They aren't just names any more. Why do you think Wilder has done this? You may recall the question, "How's it going to end?" Wilder wants you to realize that most people go through life asking such questions when they know the answer perfectly well. Everyone is going to die. Yet everyone acts as if death is unexpected.

Wilder uses the Stage Manager to state some other beliefs. "We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names.... That something has to do with human beings." There is, he says, something within each one of us that lives on beyond our own life force. is he talking about the soul? The Stage Manager says that all the great thinkers throughout history have been saying it, but people have trouble remembering the idea. "We all know," says the Stage Manager. Is he right? Do we all know? Does Wilder think we all know?

NOTE: Wilder has been accused of being too much like a teacher, hitting you over the head with his message. Do you think this is a valid criticism? Or is the sugarcoating of humor and emotion thick enough to make the message go down easily? Or is Wilder raising questions rather than insisting on certain answers?

In one of the most lyrical passages in the play, the Stage Manager describes how the "earth part" of people is burned away after death and the "eternal part" comes out. The part that attaches people to the earth, memory and personal identity, has to disappear. (This is why the actors in the chairs speak and behave passively. The earth part of them is burning out.) It is not that the dead cease to care about the living; they hardly remember what it was to be alive. Do you suppose that this is the perfection that people talked about earlier in the play?

Now the living appear. One is Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, and the other is Sam Craig, a local boy who moved out west- to Buffalo (a comic reminder of how small a small town can be).

Like the first two acts, this one begins in the morning. But there is no train whistle, no milkman, no newspaper boy. And the exchange of news this time is about the dead. As Sam looks at the graves, Joe fills him in on what has happened. Today's funeral is for Sam's cousin, a young person. You don't know right away who it is. When Joe says that she died in childbirth, you suspect that it was Emily, though you can't be completely sure until Mrs. Gibbs tells you.

Dying in childbirth was not uncommon before the need for sterile conditions was realized. (In the same way, Wally's burst appendix was invariably fatal before the discovery of antibiotics.) But if all Wilder wanted was to have Emily die, he had plenty of other options. By having her die in childbirth, he emphasizes the cycle of life that has been appearing all through the play- birth, marriage, death, birth, marriage, death, over and over again.

The funeral procession enters and moves to the back of the stage on the left, most of them under umbrellas.

NOTE: This scene has been described as one of the most moving in modern drama. Try to envision the bare stage. On one side near the front are the dead sitting in white chairs. They stare forward passively. Diagonally across the stage, the mourners huddle under large, black umbrellas, almost hidden from sight, trying to cope with the death of someone they love.

The dead talk among themselves. Mrs. Soames, still chatty, remembers Emily, "one of the brightest girls ever graduated from High School." Remember Joe Crowell, the newsboy? Back in Act I the Stage Manager mentioned that he was "awful bright." He died in World War I, though. "All that education for nothing." Nobody, however, suggests that Emily's brightness went to waste. Is that because she married and had a child, repeating the cycle? Or is it because she was a woman? Does Wilder think that being bright isn't very important? What do you think?

As the group by the grave sings "Blest Be the Tie that Binds," Emily comes to take her place among the dead. The choir was singing that same hymn when Emily and George talked from their windows in the moonlight, and sang it again when Emily and George got married. Sung for the last time at Emily's funeral, the hymn has acquired a powerful emotional impact. But the impact is on the audience, not the dead, not even Emily. Already she feels as if her life had taken place thousands of years ago. To distract herself from the funeral, she begins to tell Mrs. Gibbs about the farm, and about the barn she and George built with the money Mrs. Gibbs left them.

You may remember that in Act I, Mrs. Gibbs was going to sell a piece of furniture to raise the money for a trip to Paris. She never did take the trip, and eventually left the money to George and Emily- her "legacy" really did become a legacy. There are a variety of ways you could interpret this. Does Wilder want you to regret that Mrs. Gibbs never did what she most wanted? Is he saying that people don't take the risks that would allow them to discover something new, and that this is one of the things that makes life so tragic? Or is he saying that the yearning for something new makes people dissatisfied because they fail to appreciate what they do have? Or is he saying that there is no difference between places?

Emily continues to talk about her Life. When she looks at the mourners, she suddenly realizes that they don't appreciate being alive. "They're sort of shut up in little boxes," she says. Abruptly her thoughts shift to her other child. "My little boy is spending the day at your house," she tells one of the dead. She doesn't quite realize yet that the dead aren't interested. Emily still feels as if she is one of the living, and it bothers her that they look so troubled.

Suddenly, Emily realizes that she could return to earth to relive her life. She senses it and although the dead try to discourage her, she persists. The Stage Manager admits that she can return, but she is warned that it will be painful. She will not only live her life again, but she will see herself living it, and she will know the future.

NOTE: As we have seen, Wilder was influenced by the Greeks. In an earlier novel, The Woman of Andros, set in ancient Greece, a woman tells the story of a dead young man who is allowed to revisit the earth. He must, however, pick the most uneventful day in his life. Wilder was obviously fascinated by the idea of the dead returning to life. Many myths and legends deal with this theme. Movies and television are also fond of the idea. Have you ever seen any movies or television shows that use this theme? Why do you think it has been so appealing?

Emily still can't understand why returning to earth will be so painful, but heeding the warnings of the dead she picks a day that was not too important, her twelfth birthday.

The Stage Manager describes the day the same way he opened the first act. "February 11th, 1899. A Tuesday." Since Emily wants the whole day he says, "We'll begin at dawn." This is a haunting echo of the way the day began in the first two acts. Suddenly, you are back on Main Street. This is the strangest wrench in time yet. All through the play you have been existing in two time periods at once- the present and Grover's Corners time. Now you are in three time periods at once- your own present, Emily's past, and Emily's timeless existence in death.

NOTE: In the directions for Our Town, Wilder calls for the side of the stage to which Emily moves when she visits her family to be very brightly lit. He thought of it as "the brightness of a crisp winter morning." Imagine the dead seated in pale light while the other side of the stage is flooded with bright light. The dead are present, but they do nothing, they do not even react, while the "living" go busily about their activities.

Using the same tone in which he introduced earlier scenes to the audience, the Stage Manager tells Emily that her mother will be coming down to make breakfast. You watch a scene you have seen twice before, but this time it is different. All your attention is focused on Emily. She has become the most important figure in the play, for she has taken the human journey that everyone takes. You have seen her life, and Wilder wants her now to embody your emotions and reactions. Emily watches Grover's Corners and you watch Emily. Both of you are coming to an understanding of what all those moments in Act I and Act II were really about.

Emily sees Howie Newsome, the milkman, come down the street, and then the constable. "But he's dead; he died," she cries. Her mixture of tenses harkens back to the opening of the play.

What Wilder has been building toward is clear. Emily now carries with her an understanding of past, present, and future time. Wilder thinks that events that happened in the past or those that haven't happened yet- no matter how trivial- are important and deserve attention. The tiniest moments of everyday life are full of the essence of being alive.

NOTE: Some critics say Our Town is really a modern-day myth. Myth has its roots in the most basic beliefs of a people and presents a supernatural event as a way to interpret or understand a natural event concerning humanity or the cosmos. Characters and setting in myth are recognized as not necessarily real but as representing reality. For example, the myth of "King Midas and the Golden Touch" is not about a real king but about greed and its effects on people. Do you agree that Wilder is creating a myth in Our Town?

Emily tries to call to her mother and is struck painfully by how young her mother looks. Then Emily calls out that she can't find her hair ribbon. Now that she says exactly what she said fourteen years ago, her mother can hear her.

NOTE: Keep in mind what the Stage Manager told Emily about revisiting her life- she will not only see it, she will also be a part of it. The actress who plays Emily must say these lines like a twelve- year-old, but must also somehow manage to remain isolated while standing in the midst of the scene. Mrs. Webb is so busy making breakfast that she doesn't notice anything odd about her daughter's behavior. When this scene is played there is not even the table and chairs that served as props in the first two acts. The pantomime that Mrs. Webb and the others perform while Emily watches has a dreamlike quality to it.

Mr. Webb comes down the street and Emily whispers, "Papa." She is beginning to understand. Watching her parents, she can hardly bear the fact that they are so young and beautiful. Remember the conversation Emily had with her mother while stringing the beans? Then she didn't really want to hear about her mother's youth. Now both of you and she can appreciate the moment that was wasted. Wilder says that when you understand death, the small moments in life become precious.

It all becomes increasingly unbearable for Emily as she goes into breakfast and sees the presents from her family and George. She cries out to her mother that she is dead and reminds her of all that has happened. Now, at this moment, while we're happy, she says, "Let's look at one another." But of course Mrs. Webb can't hear her and doesn't look.

Emily can't stand it any longer. "It goes so fast," she says. "We don't have time to look at one another." She begins to cry. The bright light fades. Mrs. Webb disappears.

Now comes Emily's famous farewell to the world, ending with, "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you." Now Emily knows what the dead understand. She returns to her place among the dead. "Human beings," she says, are "blind people."

Simon Stimson picks up on the idea of blindness and embellishes it into the most bitter speech of the play. He remembers people in ignorance, trampling the feelings of others, "always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another.... Ignorance and blindness."

Is this the way life seemed to you, looking at the people in Grover's Corners? Most of them seemed fairly loving and considerate. Why is Simon here, giving this speech? Mrs. Gibbs immediately responds, "that ain't the whole truth and you know it." But instead of explaining, she turns to the stars. Or is that an explanation in itself?

George appears and throws himself on Emily's grave. This time Emily is no longer upset because he is troubled and unhappy. She only says, "They don't understand, do they?" (See illustration.)

The Stage Manager slowly draws a black curtain across the scene- the first time a curtain has been used in the play. But when he begins to talk it's about the Grover's Corners you're used to, with most people asleep and a train going by. Then there are the stars and earth's place in the Universe. There's no life on all those stars. Only this one is "straining away all the time," so that "every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest." And then he tells the audience, "You get a good rest, too."

The cycle is complete. The play began with morning, with people getting up, and ends at night, with people going to sleep. It began with birth and ends with death. It began with trivialities and ends with eternity.



ECC [Our Town Contents] []

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