Our Town

Thornton Wilder wrote the play Our Town in 1938 and it won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

One distinguishing feature of the play is the minimal use of scenery and props. Only a couple of tables and ladders appear on stage at certain points. Actors mime cooking, eating, etc. According to Wikipedia, Wilder said, “I tried to restore significance to the small details of life by removing the scenery. The spectator through lending his imagination to the action restages it inside his own head.”

Another distinguishing feature is the Stage Manager. He’s the main character in the play and directs the action of everything else, but also speaks directly to the audience. He calls in a couple of experts for information and explains some of the things going on. He also plays a couple of parts, like the preacher officiating at a wedding.

The play takes place in the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, in 1901. The newspaper editor says it’s a “Very ordinary town if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller. But our young people here seem to like it well enough. Ninety per cent of ’em graduating from high school settle right here to live.”

The story is told in three acts: Act I, Daily Life, introduces the characters and feel of the town. The two main families are the Webbs and the Gibbs. Emily Webb and George Gibbs are neighboring teens who are just starting to notice each other.

Act II, Love and Marriage, takes place three years later on George and Emily’s wedding day.

The title of the final act, Death and Eternity, gives you a hint what happens there nine years later. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that one of the main characters dies. She wants to go back and spend one day of her past life. The other dead advise her not to, but she insists. As she looks at everything with new eyes, she wants everyone to slow down and savor it. “Oh earth,” she says, “you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” She asks the stage manager, “Do any human beings ever realize this life while they live it?—every, every minute?” He answers, “No . . . The saints and poets maybe. They do some” (p. 108).

The ending would almost seem a little depressing, except for the implied message that life goes too fast and we should savor time with loved ones while we have it.

A few observations that particularly stood out to me:

In Act I, the Stage Manager discusses all that the town is putting into a time capsule. He wants to put in a copy of the play because:

Y’know—Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of kings and some copies of wheat contracts . . . and contracts for the sale of slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney,—same as here. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and comedies they wrote for the theatre back then. So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone . . . so—people a thousand years from now . . .This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying (p. 33).

Of the two mothers in the main characters:

I don’t have to point out to the women in my audience that those ladies they see before them, both of those ladies cooked three meals a day—one of ’em for twenty years, the other for forty—and no summer vacation. They brought up two children a piece, washed, cleaned the house,—and never a nervous breakdown (p. 49).

Before the wedding, encouraging people to remember their twenties, the Stage Manager says:

You know how it is: you’re twenty-one or twenty-two and you make some decisions, then whisssh! you’re seventy: you’ve been a lawyer for fifty years, and that white-haired lady at your side has eaten over fifty thousand meals with you. How do such things begin? (p. 62).

Ironically, one of the dead says of the living, “They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?” (p. 96).

At the cemetery:

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . .everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being (pp. 87-88).

Reminds me of Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NKJV): “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”

I’ve never seen the play. I read the library book rather than listening to a performance because I wanted to read the stage directions. The play has been filmed a number of times, and some versions are on YouTube. Here’s a scene from a 1977 production with Robby Benson as George:

Have you ever read or seen Our Town? What did you think?

I counting this book for the classic play category of the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

7 thoughts on “Our Town

  1. I have not seen or read this play. I would like to see the production. I love how you read so many classics. Have a good day!

  2. I remember hearing about “Our Town” when I was a teen. I never did see the play or read the story but I seem to remember a part where a child has appendicitis and dies. My memory may be faulty here but it sounded sad and so I didn’t investigate further. It is a classic.

  3. I’ve never read it (interesting!), but I’ve seen it more than once as a play, although it’s been years. I remember it being so poignant. I definitely needed Kleenex!

  4. I read this annually with my juniors. At first the kids don’t know what to make of it – it seems so plotless. Then at the end when they realize that the plot is – Make the most of each day and savor all the details that we overlook – they really seem to absorb it. I even staged it one year when I was directing plays at our school.
    I know some of the theology is not really accurate (dead people talking etc.) but still loved the theme of the play.
    Here’s a link to some pics of the production we did: http://fromsinkingsand.blogspot.com/2008/11/big-success.html

  5. Pingback: June Reflections | Stray Thoughts

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