From the very beginning of the play, the illusion of the invisible wall is abolished and the audience sees an empty stage in half light. After some time, the Stage Manager appears and begins placing a table and chairs on stage. Not until the lights dim and the audience is left in total darkness does the Stage Manager—director, puppeteer, and illusionist—speak. He functions as an all-knowing citizen of Grover’s Corners: He manipulates time by re-creating the past and revealing the future, interrupts the dialogue of the characters, invites questions from the audience, provides information, at times fills the roles of other characters, and philosophizes about the meaning of life. He is the central figure of the play, full of simple wisdom and unself-conscious humor. He is a spellbinder, appealing to audiences and readers of all ages.
An element of Our Town that must be attractive especially to young people is the simplicity and directness of the language. Wilder was a master of colloquial speech who did not resort to too many rhetorical devices. His diction and syntax are easily understandable without being in the least monotonous. In fact, much variety of tone is evident in Our Town. One can consider, for example, Dr. Gibbs’s statement to his wife about a father-son relationship that “there’s nothing so terrifying in the world as a son. The relation of father to a son is the damnedest, awkwardest—. I always come away feeling like a soggy sponge of hypocrisy.” One may also note George’s earnest outcry before the wedding—“Ma, I don’t want to grow old. Why’s everybody pushing me so?”—and Emily’s beautiful farewell to the world—“Good-by, Grover’s Corners . . . Mamma and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking . . . and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths . . . and sleeping and waking up.” Finally, there are the Stage Manager’s poetic remarks on the cemetery and the profound peacefulness of the dead: “Yes, an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down up here. People just wild with grief have brought their relatives up to this hill. We all know how it is . . . and then time . . . and sunny days . . . and rainy days . . . ’n snow . . . tz-tz-tz. We’re all glad they’re in a beautiful place and we’re coming up here ourselves when our fit’s over.”
Perhaps the clearest clue to the meaning of Our Town is the address that a young girl receives on a letter from her minister: “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” Grover’s Corners, the little town where nothing extraordinary ever happens, is a microcosm of all towns and its people are prototypes of all people. The universal appeal of this play, for young and old alike, rests largely in the recognizable nature of its characters. With few exceptions, they are static. Wilder had a profound knowledge of human cognition, knowing that people come to understand others not through sequential actions over extended periods of time but rather in isolated episodes when any change in appearance and behavior is subtle if noticeable at all.
Because Emily dies and people age, Our Town could have been a darkly pessimistic play, but it is not. In this play, people generally need other people, and the daily business of life is carried out not alone but with others. As Mrs. Gibbs says, “People are meant to live two by two in this world.”
Our Town presents life’s archetypes—school, first love, marriage, child rearing, aging, death—without being maudlin. Rather, the play affirms a kind of Emersonian self-reliance that is ultimately optimistic. “Everybody has a right to his own troubles,” Dr. Gibbs says. The Stage Manager in his role of minister talks about the underlying goodness and oneness of nature. Our Town, in title and substance, affirms that people are not alone. Perhaps that is the ultimate source of its universal appeal.