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ACT SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
NOTE: The section indications, given below, have been inserted by the writer of the guide in order to more easily discuss the three acts of the play, each of which is quite lengthy.
Act I, Section 1
The first act begins with the Stage Manager strolling onto the stage and introducing himself as the director of the play. He then explains that the setting is Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, a small ordinary town just across the Massachusetts line. Included in its boundaries are six churches, a train station, a post office, a jail, and Polish town, filled with minorities. The time is early morning on May 7, 1901.
The Stage Manager points to a place on the stage, which he says is Doc Gibbs' residence; two arched trellises will symbolize the house in case the audience feels it "must have some scenery." Then, the Stage Manager points out the location of the home next door. It belongs to the family of Charles Webb, the editor of the local, bi-weekly newspaper. He next focuses on the town's cemetery, which dates back to the late seventeenth century. The Stage Manager states that nobody remarkable has ever been buried there.
Since the townspeople tend to sleep late, there are lights coming from only one small cottage, where a Polish mother has just delivered twins. Young Joe Crowell, the paperboy, is also up and ready to make his route. Suddenly the 5:45 train to Boston awakens the town. Soon the Stage Manager sees Shorty Hawkins getting ready to flag the train. He also sees Doc Gibbs coming down from Main Street after delivering the Polish babies.
In a dramatic parody of theatrical convention, Thornton Wilder's play begins without any set or dialogue. Instead, the Stage Manager saunters onto an empty stage, dressed in plain clothes and looking like an ordinary person. He begins to talk directly to the audience, describing the landmarks of Grover's Corners. The entire play will take place in this small New England town during the first decade of the twentieth century. During the opening scene of the play, the Stage Manager puts a few things on the stage to make a set for those in the audience who think they have to have some scenery. Wilder is obviously criticizing those realistic plays of his time that are filled with elaborate sets and stilted dialogue.
During the course of the play, the Stage Manager will serve as the narrator, as well as acting as various characters in the dramatic action. In some ways, he functions like the Greek chorus, serving as a liaison between the actors and the audience and commenting on the action that takes place on stage. Because he is able to explain the timeframe of the play, the action shifts between past and present, with several flashbacks actually acted out. The play also advances forward in fast motion; in fact, between Acts I and II, three years pass, and between the second and third acts, nine years pass.
In his explanations, the Stage Manager makes it perfectly clear that the audience is sitting in a real auditorium, while viewing a piece of drama that is totally fictitious. Ironically, by its conclusion, the play has become more "real" in spirit than the so-called "realistic theater." The Stage Manager also invites the emotional attention of the audience. He hopes that they will become so absorbed in the drama that they forget the theater's environment.
It is important to note the affect of the lack of scenery in the play. When the Stage Manager only gives verbal descriptions of the places in Grover's Corners, the audience is forced to imagine the appearance of the houses, the school, the jail, or the train station. In the process, the people in the audience picture their own hometowns and make the play become more universal. Grover's Corners truly becomes "our town" or everyman's town.
By the end of the first section of the play, the key families of Grover's Corners have been introduced. Frank Gibbs, the town doctor, is seen returning from Polish town, where he has delivered twin babies. Charles Gibbs is also discussed. He is the editor of the local newspaper, and young Joe Crowell is the paperboy. From the very beginning of the play, Wilder makes it clear that this small New Hampshire town is quite ordinary in its appearance and in its inhabitants.