The most poignant use of flashback in Thornton Wilder's Our Town occurs in act 3, after Emily's untimely death. Emily joins the other deceased townspeople on stage, and she witnesses her own funeral. She begs the Stage Manager to let her go back in time, lamenting how people never appreciate the little things in their everyday lives until it's too late. The other dead try to persuade her to just accept her state and not try to go back to the past; it will be too painful. Emily insists, though.
She returns to her younger life, and there she is able to interact with her family on a fairly average day during her childhood. This act of "reliving" the past brings Emily great pain and makes her realize how "blind" people are as they sleepwalk through their lives, when they should appreciate and cherish every small moment. Wilder's choice to have a main character die and then also to relive a part of her life after death is very unconventional. Flashbacks are not frequently used in dramas because the action tends to take place over short periods of time and is played out on stage in front of the audience. Authors typically use flashback more in novels, where the form allows for more freedom of movement between past, present, and future. Wilder's flashback also reiterates and emphasizes themes of the play, such as the importance of everyday life and death as a natural part of the cycle of life.
The plays of Thornton Wilder represented a radical change in the field of drama in that they were representational rather than realistic. Not only were they non-sequential, they also addressed the audience and attempted to integrate the audience into the experience of the play. Thus, Wilder's plays forced viewers to be aware, in an unprecedented way, of the fact that they were watching a play. To this end, Wilder incorporated flashbacks into Our Town, delivered by the Stage Manager. The flashbacks serve as messages to the audience. They also help Wilder deviate from the linear structure of the play by allowing him to manipulate time.
Wilder challenges the idea that an audience (readers or viewers) must suspend reality and immerse themselves in the play, and thus, he uses flashbacks to connect the events of the play with the past and future events of the characters. He also uses them to link the constructed experience of the play with the life experiences of the viewers. The Stage Manager tells the audience about the future deaths of the characters, just as he tells the audience about the past relationship of Emily and George. By manipulating time, Wilder prevents readers from viewing the events of the play as real life and in isolation from their own lives. Rather, he wants viewers to recognize the messages of the play and assimilate them into their experience.
The play was first performed in 1938 and is presented from a modern, matter-of-fact, in-the-omniscient-present point of view. Thus, since everything that happens in the play begins in 1901 and ends in 1913, the whole play can be seen as a flashback. So the question really should be: are there flashbacks within the flashback? The answer is Yes.
There are two major flashback scenes in the play. The first flashback begins a bit after the beginning of the Second Act, the act called "Love and Marriage." The act begins on the morning of the rainy day that George and Emily are to be married. The Stage Manager stops the action in order to show/re-enact the day that George and Emily go on their first impromptu date and knew that they were meant for each other.
The second major flashback takes in the Third Act, in the graveyard. Emily has died in childbirth and, while she chats in wonder with the other dead people around her, she asks the Stage Manager if she can go back and live a day again. She is warned not to, but doesn't heed the others' advice. The flashback she is given is her twelfth birthday. In the end, the flashback is far too painful and real for Emily to bear, and she pleads to be taken back up to the windy hill and into her grave.