Study Guide

Our Town

by Thornton Wilder

Our Town Essay - Our Town, Thornton Wilder

Our Town, Thornton Wilder

Introduction

Our Town Thornton Wilder

The following entry presents criticism of Wilder's play Our Town (1938).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, Our Town may be the most popular American play ever written. It explores traditional American values of religion, community, family, and the simple pleasures of life, while employing innovative elements such as minimalist stage sets, a Stage Manager who narrates and controls the action, and a character who speaks from the grave. Although the setting, characters, and events are commonplace, Our Town addresses such universal themes as mortality, the human condition, and the value of everyday life. In his preface to Three Plays Wilder wrote, “Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death. … It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” Our Town may be the most frequently staged American play of the twentieth century. It is continually in production at regional, community, and college theaters, was filmed with most of the original Broadway cast, and has been televised more than once.

Plot and Major Characters

In Our Town, the central role belongs to the omniscient Stage Manager, who narrates the action, jokes with the audience, and, through his philosophizing, explicitly connects the people of the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners with the universe as a whole. The play features minimal props and scenery, while the characters function as symbols rather than fully developed individuals. In the first two acts, entitled “Daily Life” and “Love and Marriage,” the Stage Manager traces the quotidian existence of the Webbs and the Gibbses, two families who are united by the marriage of their children, George and Emily. “Daily Life” follows the families from morning to evening on an ordinary day in May 1901. The mothers cook breakfast and supper; the fathers go to work and come home; the children go to school and return. Family members interact; the milk and newspaper are delivered; the weather is discussed; the town drunk is pitied. “Love and Marriage” takes place on George and Emily's wedding day three years later, with a flashback to their encounter at the drugstore soda fountain when they first acknowledged their feelings for each other. The third act, “Death,” takes place nine years later. Emily Webb, who has died giving birth, arrives at the town cemetery, where other deceased members the community sit quietly in chairs. Unlike the others, who have grown detached from earthly concerns, Emily longs to return to Grover's Corners, and so obtains the permission of the Stage Manager to relive her twelfth birthday. However, the experience becomes too painful when, knowing the future, she attempts to savor each trivial moment with her family but cannot because between “it goes so fast. We barely have time to look at one another.” Returning to the dead, Emily bids farewell to “new-ironed dresses and hot baths” before expressing the central moral of the play that human beings must “realize life while they live it.”

Major Themes

Our Town is often placed in the tradition of American folk literature that focuses on small-town life. Grover's Corners is a typical American small town and its inhabitants are average, ordinary people who lead prosaic lives. The spare sets reinforce the unexceptional quality of the setting, plot, and characters. This minimalism renders the characters allegorical rather than individualized and the setting commonplace rather than specific. In this way the ordinary and mundane are invested with a timeless quality, and the events of the plot are transformed into universal experiences. The primary theme of Our Town is humanity's failure to appreciate every precious moment of life. This is stated most clearly by Emily as she returns to her grave, asking the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” Emily's early death and nostalgia for her childhood further express themes of the precarious nature of life and the inevitability of death. Our Town thus addresses age-old questions of the human condition and the meaning of life. The play is ultimately life-affirming in its urging the audience to appreciate ordinary, everyday life in the face of mortality.

Critical Reception

Initially, Our Town was not well received. Wilder then altered the staging of the play to a bare-bones set and minimal props in order to emphasize the allegorical nature of the play, and it soon garnered favorable reviews and audience popularity. It ultimately ran for 336 performances in its debut production. Wilder was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama for Our Town, thus earning him recognition as a major American playwright. Champions of Our Town celebrate the play's focus on universal themes through allegorical theatrical techniques depicting archetypical characters and events. Detractors of the play criticize its bland sentimentality, underdeveloped characters, and failure to challenge the audience's received values. These two different perspectives on Our Town are partly a function of the degree to which a particular production or critic emphasizes its darker concerns with mortality and the fleeting nature of life, or its lighter, life-affirming elements. Recent critics have discussed the question of whether or not Our Town addresses themes still relevant to modern life.

Principal Works

The Trumpet Shall Sound 1926

The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays 1928

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden 1931

The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act 1931

The Merchant of Yonkers: A Farce in Four Acts 1938; revised as The Matchmaker, 1955

Our Town 1938

The Skin of Our Teeth 1942

A Life in the Sun [also produced as The Alcestiad] 1955

Bernice 1957

The Wreck of the 5:25 1957

Plays for Bleecker Street 1962

Pullman Car Hiawatha 1964

The Cabala (novel) 1926

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (novel) 1927

The Woman of Andros (novel) 1930

We Live Again [with Maxwell Anderson, Leonard Praskins, and Preston Sturges] (screenplay) 1934

Heaven's My Destination (novel) 1935

Our Town [with Frank Craven and Harry Chandlee] (screenplay) 1940

Shadow of a Doubt [with Sally Benson and Alma Reville] (screenplay) 1943

The Ides of March (novel) 1948

The Eighth Day (novel) 1967

Theophilus North (novel) 1973

American Characteristics, and Other Essays (essays) 1979

Criticism: Author Commentary

SOURCE: Wilder, Thornton, and John Franchey. “Mr. Wilder Has an Idea.” In Conversations with Thornton Wilder, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 31-3. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

[In the following interview, originally published in the New York Times on 13 August 1939, Wilder discusses the initial reception of Our Town by rural audiences, as well as his own experiences performing the role of the Stage Manager.]

Perhaps what the dons label in their seminars “pleasurable recognition” is only a phrase, after all, or at best a mere vanity. Playwright Thornton Wilder, who used to find the term good enough currency in his own classrooms at Chicago University, has a word or two on that very subject.

With a three-week invasion of the Codfish circuit wherein he found himself a playwright-player in Our Town immediately behind him, Professor Wilder admits that none of the eminent success of the tour is due to the denizens of the replicas of Grover's Corners in which the piece was exhibited.

“What I noticed,” Mr. Wilder hastens to explain, “was that the Summer visitors at Cohasset, Dennis and Stockbridge seemed as interested in Our Town as the Broadway audiences. But the village residents trooped away in profound disappointment veiled by a traditional politeness.

“It's not difficult to understand,” Mr. Wilder continues, “if you stop a while and give the matter some thought. Village people, after all, regard the theatre as an exotic place to which one goes for removal as far as possible from daily life. It is only natural that they regard a play without scenery as a betrayal of the theatre. They, too, in their imaginations—even as did the city dwellers—reconstructed Grover's Corners, but the depiction of children going to school in the morning, returning in the afternoon, choir practice on Friday night and all the rest is so immediate a reconstruction of their daily life that they cannot derive from it the pleasure of recognition. This recognition, apparently, must contain an element of surprise, some slight variant. Summer visitors, on the other hand, seem to have found it an enhanced attraction of the play that they emerged from the theatre to find themselves among the white houses and picket fences of a real-life Grover's Corners.”

Beyond this single disenchantment, Mr. Wilder was in excellent fooling when the interloper discovered him at...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Criticism: Our Town (1938)

Hap Erstein (review date 23 November 1990)

SOURCE: Erstein, Hap. “Remarkable Our Town Dispenses Its Wisdom.” Washington Times (23 November 1990): E1.

[In the following review of the Washington, D.C., Arena Stage production of Our Town, Erstein praises Wilder's play for its wisdom and humor, and applauds this production for bringing out the darker, bolder elements of the play.]

There are plays so brimming with wisdom, humor and Americana that community-theater groups and high-school drama societies embrace them eagerly. As a result, most professional companies tend to shy away from these oft-seen treasures.

Thornton Wilder's Our Town fits this bill. And yet,...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

T. H. McCulloh (review date 2 April 1993)

SOURCE: McCulloh, T. H. “A Striking Production of Our Town.Los Angeles Times (2 April 1993): F21.

[In the following review of the A Noise Within production of Our Town at the Glendale Masonic Temple in Glendale, California, McCulloh praises it as an enduring American play that expresses timeless and universal ideas. McCulloh further applauds the casting of a woman as the Stage Manager, a role traditionally played by a man.]

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is one of the more enduring American plays, for the very good reason that it doesn't mirror real life but becomes a symbol for reality. The world Wilder creates never existed, in spite of anyone...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Malcolm Johnson (review date 23 July 1994)

SOURCE: Johnson, Malcolm. “Acting Lapses Undercut This Our Town Revival.” Hartford Courant (23 July 1994): D8.

[In the following review of the Williamstown Theater Festival production of Our Town at Williams College, Johnson describes Wilder's play as an essential American play that has endured the test of time. He criticizes this production, however, for undermining the strengths of the play through poor acting.]

Even in a less than perfect revival, Thornton Wilder's Our Town remains the essential American play, a sentimental yet thoughtful and philosophical look back to the innocent opposite end of our century.

Peter Hunt,...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

T. H. McCulloh (review date 9 December 1995)

SOURCE: McCulloh, T. H. “Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary in Our Town.Los Angeles Times (9 December 1995): F4.

[In the following review of the Fullerton College production of Our Town at the Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, McCulloh praises Wilder's script as insightful, powerful, affectionate, and poignant.]

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is arguably the greatest American play of the 20th century.

There are reasons for that. Wilder worked in an atmosphere of heightened creativity in the period between the two World Wars. Not only did he write a play about the lives of ordinary people in non-urban, pre-television America, but he did it...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Arthur H. Ballet (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Ballet, Arthur H. “Our Town as a Classical Tragedy.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 74-82. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1956, Ballet asserts that Our Town is a “modern American Tragedy,” following a tradition that stretches back to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.]

In the short history of American literary criticism, there has been a continuous search for “the great American drama.” It is the purpose of this essay to continue this search by exploring the qualifications for this signal honor of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. It is hoped that, since Our Town...

(The entire section is 2987 words.)

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Fergusson, Francis. “Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder, and Eliot.” In Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, edited by Martin Blank, pp. 61-71. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1956, Fergusson compares the use of allegory by Thornton Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, and T. S. Eliot, focusing especially on Wilder's Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth.]

I

A number of contemporary playwrights, of whom Brecht, Wilder and Eliot are among the most accomplished, are now writing some form of allegory. They reject the tradition of modern realism, perhaps because little remains to be done with...

(The entire section is 5306 words.)

George D. Stephens (essay date February 1959)

SOURCE: Stephens, George D. “Our Town as a Failed Tragedy.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 83-92. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in Modern Drama in February 1959, Stephens argues against characterizing Our Town as a tragedy and concludes that the play's popularity is due to its folksiness and appeal to nostalgia.]

In our longing for an unattainable perfection, perhaps it is to be expected that the attempt to find “the great American novel” and “the great American drama” should continue. But ours is a nation of great size and remarkable variety; it poses a complex...

(The entire section is 3427 words.)

Helmut Papajewski (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Papajewski, Helmut. “Our Town.” In Thornton Wilder, translated by John Conway, pp. 91-108. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1968.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in German in 1961, Papajewski examines Our Town in the context of an American literary tradition focused on small-town life. Papajewski explores Wilder's adaptation of this literary archetype to theatrical production in Our Town.]

Wilder's first major play appeared in 1938. He had occupied himself with the drama before that, but the results at most were tentative: one-act pieces that ran to just a few pages in length, and adaptations of foreign plays such as...

(The entire section is 5895 words.)

Winfield Townley Scott (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Scott, Winfield Townley. “The Charm of Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 148-54. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Scott asserts that the tone of understatement in Our Town contributes to its universal appeal.]

As Our Town literally begins, Wilder sets in motion the little wheel of daily doings. This is the only wheel there is in most plays and fictions; it turns upon the events presented. So here, it spins with normal activities, the comings and goings and the conversations, weaving a special era and place and a particular people (though by the way...

(The entire section is 2516 words.)

Malcolm Goldstein (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Goldstein, Malcolm. “Universality in Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 101-08. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Goldstein asserts that the universal appeal of Our Town may be attributed in part to the common, everyday settings, characters, and events depicted in the play.]

Wilder was no stranger to the New York theater before the opening of Our Town. His prior record had included three productions: the off-Broadway presentation of his The Trumpet Shall Sound in 1926, the unsuccessful Broadway showing of André Obey's Lucrece in 1932 in...

(The entire section is 2570 words.)

Donald Haberman (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Haberman, Donald. “Our Town as Allegory.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 60-65. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1967, Haberman analyzes Our Town as an allegorical work in the manner of the medieval morality play Everyman.]

Characterization and narration, in Thornton Wilder's theater, are inextricably bound. The two are related not merely as a matter of being consistent to a single style; their unity and Wilder's use of it determine the style, for his practice is to give over psychological characterization in favor of an arbitrary and artificial arrangement of events....

(The entire section is 1821 words.)

Jan Austell (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Austell, Jan. “Characters in Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 94-100. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1968, Austell examines Wilder's creation of ordinary, typical characters in Our Town as a means of expressing universal experiences and values and exploring fundamental truths about human life.]

Before we discuss the individual characters in Our Town to determine what each actor should try to accomplish in his role, let us consider the extent to which Wilder has developed them. Each one, with the possible exception of Mrs. Gibbs, has essentially the...

(The entire section is 2502 words.)

Michael A. D'Ambrosio (essay date October 1971)

SOURCE: D'Ambrosio, Michael A. “Is Our Town Really Our Town?” English Record 22, no. 1 (October 1971): 20-22.

[In the following essay, D'Ambrosio explores the timeless, universal theme of “man's failure to appreciate life” as expressed in Our Town. D'Ambrosio concludes that this “prophetic” play continues to be relevant to today's youth and is important for teachers to introduce to their students.]

Thornton Wilder's search for a value “for the smallest events of our daily life” was crystallized with the writing of Our Town, considered a paean to everyday living and its potentialities. One doesn't read or view or teach the play for...

(The entire section is 1190 words.)

John V. Hagopian and Arvin R. Wells (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Hagopian, John V., and Arvin R. Wells. “Deficiencies in Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 155-63. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1971, the authors interpret Our Town as a sentimental comedy, loosely constructed, superficially philosophical, and deficient in its characterization.]

Our Town is not in any traditional sense a drama at all; it has neither plot nor conflict, neither complication nor climax. By its abandonment of setting and by its use of the Stage Manager as intermediary between the play and its audience, it gives the appearance of belonging...

(The entire section is 3105 words.)

Donald Haberman (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Haberman, Donald. “‘Preparing the Way for Them’: Wilder and the Next Generations.” In Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, edited by Martin Blank, pp. 129-37. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Haberman examines the legacy of Our Town to modern theater.]

I should be very happy if, in the future, some author should feel … indebted to any work of mine.1

Thornton Wilder probably speaks for every writer when he hopes some work of his might prove useful to a writer who comes after. One of the signs of vitality of writing is its appearance in some new shape or...

(The entire section is 3132 words.)

Bert Cardullo (essay date September 1998)

SOURCE: Cardullo, Bert. “Whose Town Is It, Anyway? A Reconsideration of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.CLA Journal 42, no. 1 (September 1998): 71-86.

[In the following essay, Cardullo asserts that, despite its outward display of experimental theatrical technique, Our Town fails to question or challenge traditional values regarding family, nation, and religion.]

It has long seemed to me that Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938) has two flaws at its center that have never been adequately addressed by critics, if addressed at all. The first has to do with the play's implicit argument that the cause of man's unhappiness is not his failure to achieve or...

(The entire section is 5062 words.)