Influenced both by German expressionism and by the French “purism” of Jacques Copeau and others, Wilder opens the play on a bare stage, allowing the audience to visualize the (nonexistent) scenery as it is evoked and described by the omnipresent Stage Manager.
The Stage Manager is surely one of Wilder’s most memorable and masterful creations, a paternal and even godlike figure whose homespun speech and easygoing manner lend an air of simplicity and naturalness to what is, in fact, a rigorously structured, carefully contrived three-act play.
Set initially in 1901, the play telescopes in time to 1904 and eventually to 1913, ostensibly depicting everyday life in the mythical town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Although almost all conditions of life are portrayed, the spectator’s attention is gradually directed toward George Gibbs and Emily Webb, who eventually will fall in love and marry.
Because of its range, the role of Emily provides an excellent challenge and showcase for aspiring young actresses, which may account for much of the play’s popularity with amateur and student groups.
The play’s principal appeal, no doubt a function of its deceptive simplicity, is the ease with which the spectator is invited to identify with the characters portrayed. Just barely sharper than flat stereotype, the villagers of Grover’s Corners help to remind spectators of what makes Americans different from other people; the play’s setting, meanwhile, serves to remind them of a simpler life-style which, even by 1938, had retreated behind the mists of nostalgia.
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 analysis of the devices Wilder uses to subordinate the theatrical illusion of reality and to emphasize the examination of ideas.