The Stage Manager has the same kind of role that would be filled by a minor character who is the narrator of a short story or novel. His main function is to provide exposition. He introduces most of the other characters by their names and tells the audience something about them. One advantage of this rather unusual dramatic device is that the characters do not have to go through the usual rigamarole of addressing each other by their names so that the audience will know who they are. The characters are not forced to provide much in the way of exposition disguised as conversation. They just live their lives.
The Stage Manager differs from the typical minor-character narrator of a short story or novel in that he is omniscient. He not only knows all the people and all about their business, but he knows what is going to happen to them in the future. Here is an example. Joe Crowell, Jr. is delivering the morning paper, as everybody in the audience can see. It is early in Act I.
Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there. Joe was awful bright—graduated from high school, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin' to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.—All that education for nothing.
The Stage Manager tells us that the day is May 7, 1901. Joe is still a kid. But the Stage Manager can tell us that he died in World War I, which America entered in 1917. His prescience has an uncanny effect. He is talking about the past, present and future all at the same time. The boy we are watching delivering his papers is already dead. Time is treated differently in Our Town. It seems as if past, present and future are all somehow the same.
The Stage Manager strikes us as being a small-town philosopher as well as a manager and narrator. He has the ability to move in and out of people's homes and even to listen to the dead men and women conversing at the town cemetery. In Act II we learn that his name is Mr. Morgan and he owns the town drugstore, where he makes ice-cream sodas for Emily Webb and George Gibbs. This is the present, but it is also the past. Emily and George will be married. Emily will die in 1913 and join the other dead townspeople at the cemetery. But she will return to Grover's Corners briefly in 1899 on a sentimental journey which proves to be a heartbreaking disappointment. It is easy to see why the Stage Manager, who knows everything about the future and remembers everything about the past, is needed to hold this play together. Thornton Wilder recklessly violates Aristotle's unities of time, place and action, but the audience does not have the slightest trouble following or understanding what is happening, thanks to the Stage Manager.