Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
This three-act play chronicles typical episodes in the life of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, beginning in 1901 and ending in 1913. In the first act, called by the Stage Manager “The Daily Life,” Grover’s Corners is set forth in minute detail, including the locales, history, geography, and demographics of the area, to create a backdrop of small-town America against which the lives of its citizens are played out. Thornton Wilder’s focus is on a single day, May 7, 1901, as two prominent neighboring families, the Gibbses and the Webbs, go about their daily lives. George Gibbs is more interested in baseball than in helping his mother chop wood, to the chagrin of his father. Emily Webb, a star student in high school, agrees to give George hints about his algebra problems. Toward day’s end, Simon Stimson’s drinking is the talk after choir practice.
The Stage Manager calls the second act “Love and Marriage.” The tender and awkward courtship of George and Emily at Mr. Morgan’s soda fountain concludes with George deciding not to go off to State Agriculture College but to stay in Grover’s Corners in order to be with Emily. The Stage Manager as minister performs their marriage, which town gossip Louella Soames thinks is the nicest wedding she has ever seen. Wilder prepares the audience for the grim final act with the Stage Manager’s commentary on the course of life: “The cottage, the gocart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford, the...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Grover’s Corners. Fictional New Hampshire town that is the setting for the entire play. The depiction of this small village is primarily dependent upon the descriptions given by the pivotal character of the stage manager. He explains that the town is “just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes.” He goes on to describe what a typical morning sky looks like in Grover’s Corners, with its “streaks of light” and the morning star still shining brightly within it. The effect of the stage manager’s words is both cinematic and hypnotic; it accomplishes what mere scenery could not. Through his words, the audience sees, as if they are behind a moving camera, the heavens that look down upon the town, the town’s busy streets and communities, and even more specific spots, such as the stores the townspeople frequent and the schools their children attend.
Finally, when the stage manager approaches the table and chairs that serve as the Gibbs house and points to the spot that is to be Mrs. Webb’s garden, vine and flower-covered trellises are rolled out “for those,” he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “who think they have to have scenery,” and the audience then focuses on the individual lives that are to be examined in this play, rather than on superfluous details.
Main Street. Street at the heart of...
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Invention and Growth
During the time period of the play, 1901 to 1913, America saw many industrial advances. One that features prominently in the play itself is the introduction in 1908 of Henry Ford's Model T automobile. The Stage Manager, in his opening speech in Act Three, mentions that "farmers are coming to town in Fords." The horse and buggy days are gone, even for the fictional town of Grover's Corners.
Organized baseball had its first World Series in 1903 and the sport soon earned the nickname of "The National Pastime." Scouts from the professional teams would travel to rural areas looking for talented athletes. Though none of these scouts appear in the play, much mention is made of George Gibbs's skill as a pitcher.
The Progressive Movement
When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, The Progressive Era in American society began. The Progressives believed that the irresponsible actions of the rich were corrupting both public and private life in the country. In order to change this, regulations had to be instituted to create a more balanced and efficient society. Even though the country was relatively stable economically, the social spectrum ranged from the opulently wealthy to the tragically poor. Jacob Riis, a photographer, documented the plight of these disenfranchised Americans. In an effort to eliminate child labor, Lewis Hine...
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When Our Town was first performed in 1938, Thornton Wilder was better known as the Pulitzer prize-winning (1927) author of a novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Unhappy with most of what he was seeing on the American stage, Wilder decided to introduce a different approach to theater. He explains his idea in the preface to Three Plays by Thornton Wilder (Bantam, 1958):
Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theater. I ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented there . . I felt that something had gone wrong with it [the theater] in my time and that it was fulfilling only a small part of its potentialities.
Our Town was considered innovative for its time because of the experimental techniques Wilder incorporated into the play. The Stage Manager, a character both inside and outside the play, narrates the action. He comments to the audience on the present, the past, and the future. He is bounded by the limits of time, and, yet, he stands both beyond and outside it. In addition, there are no props, background scenery, or designed sets—just chairs, two tables, two step ladders, and two trellises ("scenery for those who think they have to have scenery," as Wilder explained). Action that normally would involve the use of props is mimed by the actors. This approach carried a great deal of risk at a time when...
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Compare and Contrast
Turn of the Century: Most schoolteachers were women. If they wanted to marry (like Joe Crowell's teacher in Act One), they had to resign their teaching positions. In rural communities, teachers often lived with local families during the school year.
1930s: As the country struggled with unemployment during the Great Depression, teaching positions were prized jobs for both single and married women. More men joined the ranks of teachers, mostly at the upper grade levels. Rural areas still had one and two-room schoolhouses.
Today: Women still outnumber men in the teaching profession. Salaries have increased and people can support families on teachers' wages. In many rural areas, towns have been forced to give up their own schools and join with other towns to create a single regional school.
Turn of the Century: People lived and worked in the same location. No place was too far away that a person couldn't walk to it. Horse and buggy was the principal transportation.
1930s: Automobiles replaced the horse and buggy as the primary mode of transportation. The Great Depression forced mills and factories that once thrived in small New England towns to shut their doors, forcing people to either move away or to travel elsewhere to seek work.
Today: Thousands of people commute into Boston everyday from small towns in southern New Hampshire. Some drive their cars on mutli-lane...
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Topics for Further Study
Some other American writers did not look as kindly on the village m their works as Thornton Wilder did in Our Town. Look at the poems of Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson, the short stories of Sherwood Anderson, and the novels of Sinclair Lewis for different views of life in small town America.
Research the Progressive Movement in American politics at the turn of the century. Investigate the links between the Progressives and the Women's Suffrage Movement. Many small towns in New Hampshire were thriving manufacturing centers during the 19th century.
Research what life might have been like for the average 16-year-old in one of those towns at the turn of the century.
Some critics have complained that Wilder oversimplified life in turn-of-the-century America, depicting an idealized society that never existed in reality. What do you think Wilder's motivations were for creating such a town?
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What Do I Read Next?
Our Town was brought to the big screen in 1940 by producer Sol Lesser and director Sam Wood. Thornton Wilder received a writing credit for the screenplay. Frank Craven played the Stage Manager and also contributed to the screenplay. The film was nominated for Best Picture (losing to Rebecca). Ninety minutes, black & white, available from Nostalgia Home Video.
In September, 1955, NBC-TV Producers Showcase brought Our Town to the small screen with Frank Sinatra in the Stage Manager role, and Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman as Emily and George. This production introduced the song "Love and Marriage'' ["go together like a horse and carnage"]. Earlier appearances of Our Town on television were as part of these anthology series: Robert Montgomery Presents (NBC, April, 1950) with Burgess Meredith as the Stage Manager, and Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (ABC, December, 1950) with Edward Arnold as the Stage Manager. Not available on video.
A second adaptation of Our Town appeared on NBC in November, 1959, with Art Carney in the Stage Manager role. Not available on video.
NBC presented a third special adaptation of Our Town in May, 1977, with Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager and Glynnis O'Connor and Robby Benson as Emily and George. 120 minutes, color, available from Mastervision.
The most recent adaptation available on video is a 1989 TV version of the Tony Award-winning Lincoln...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Ballet, Arthur H. "In Our Living and In Our Dying" in English Journal, Vol XLV, no. 5, May, 1956, pp. 243-49. In this essay, Ballet considers Our Town in terms of its affinity with classical tragedy.
Brown, John Mason "Wilder's 'Our Town'" in his Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show, Viking, 1963, pp 79-84. A highly respected drama critic and editor for the Saturday Review during the 1940s, Brown wrote several critical studies of the American theater. In this assessment of Our Town, written in 1938 and later included in his Dramatis Personae (1963), he supports Wilder's rejection of contemporary political and social issues while praising his portrayal of such fundamental human concerns as death, love, and the passage of time.
Discovering Authors: Modules, Gale, 1996. A CD-ROM and online publication that contains biographical and critical information for Thornton Wilder (and hundreds of other authors). Particularly useful were hypertext links to critical articles.
Johns, Sally. "Thornton Wilder" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale, 1981, pp 304-19. This article presents an overview of Wilder's career, concentrating on his contributions to American theater.
Miller, Arthur "The Family in Modern Drama" in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol 197, no 4,...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Castronovo, David. “The Major Full-Length Plays: Visions of Survival.” In Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. A striking, intelligent, and convincing reading of Our Town as “American folk art.”
Corrigan, Robert W. “Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life.” In The Theater in Search of a Fix. New York: Delacorte Press, 1973. Finds that Wilder’s plays “fall short of tragedy” but argues that “no other American dramatist more fully affirms that miracle of life which so much modern drama would deny.”
Fergusson, Francis. “Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder, and Eliot.” In The Human Image in Dramatic Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1957. Still one of the best discussions of Wilder’s unusual dramatic technique and its relationship to the themes of his plays.
Haberman, Donald C. Our Town: An American Play. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A thorough examination of the play and its place in literary history. Attempts “to recover the play’s intellectual respectability and to demonstrate how solid and at the same time how revolutionary its stagecraft is.”
Wixon, Douglas Charles, Jr. “The Dramatic Techniques of Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht: A Study in Comparison.” Modern Drama 15 (September, 1972): 112-124. A thorough...
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