Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

Our Town's off-Broadway warm-up shows met with cool reception in 1938, but New York critics, spearheaded by Brooks Atkinson, built up a favorable response that was matched by public enthusiasm and a run of 336 performances. It is, without question, the most produced play in American theater. Scarcely a day has passed since its opening in 1938 that Our Town has not been performed somewhere in this country—in productions from professional revivals to community theaters to colleges and high schools. Why? There is no scenery; the actors dress in everyday clothing for the early 1900s; there is no sex or violence; there's not even any harsh language. Yet there is something in this play that draws people to it year after year.

John Mason Brown remarked in his Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show that "Mr. Wilder's play involves more than a New England township. It burrows into the essence of the growing-up, the marrying, the living, and the dying of all of us who sit before it and are included by it.... It is not so much of the streets of a New England Town he writes as of the clean white spire which rises above them." This is the kind of play, Brown continued, that "[makes] us weep for our own vanished youth at the same time we are sobbing for the short-lived pleasures and sufferings which we know await our children." Wilder gives his audience precise geographical coordinates, as well as an entire Venn diagram of its imaginary location. But "Mr. Wilder's place is laid in no imaginary place. It becomes a reality in the human heart."

Renowned dramatist Arthur Miller remarked in The Atlantic Monthly that Our Town is a play that is "poetic without verse," and that uses traditional family figures as a prism through which is reflected the author's basic idea—"the indestructibility, the everlastingness, of the family and the community, its rhythm of life, its rootedness in the essentially safe cosmos despite troubles, wracks, and seemingly disastrous, but essentially temporary, dislocations."

Arthur H. Ballet argued in an essay in English Journal that Our Town is a carefully constructed drama, actually a trilogy. Like its Greek predecessors, Our Town is concerned with the great and continuing cycle of life; out of life comes death and from death comes life. This cycle is man's closest understanding of eternity, his finest artistic expression of what he senses to be a mission and a purpose. The fears and faith of the play "ring true" because they are common experiences. Our Town brilliantly shows that life is a paradox, and that human beings retain their faith that in death, too, there is life and a greater understanding.

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