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Our Town Thornton Wilder

The following entry presents criticism of Wilder's play Our Town (1938).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, Our Town may be the most popular American play ever written. It explores traditional American values of religion, community, family, and the simple pleasures of life, while employing...

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Our Town Thornton Wilder

The following entry presents criticism of Wilder's play Our Town (1938).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, Our Town may be the most popular American play ever written. It explores traditional American values of religion, community, family, and the simple pleasures of life, while employing innovative elements such as minimalist stage sets, a Stage Manager who narrates and controls the action, and a character who speaks from the grave. Although the setting, characters, and events are commonplace, Our Town addresses such universal themes as mortality, the human condition, and the value of everyday life. In his preface to Three Plays Wilder wrote, “Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death. … It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” Our Town may be the most frequently staged American play of the twentieth century. It is continually in production at regional, community, and college theaters, was filmed with most of the original Broadway cast, and has been televised more than once.

Plot and Major Characters

In Our Town, the central role belongs to the omniscient Stage Manager, who narrates the action, jokes with the audience, and, through his philosophizing, explicitly connects the people of the small New Hampshire town of Grover's Corners with the universe as a whole. The play features minimal props and scenery, while the characters function as symbols rather than fully developed individuals. In the first two acts, entitled “Daily Life” and “Love and Marriage,” the Stage Manager traces the quotidian existence of the Webbs and the Gibbses, two families who are united by the marriage of their children, George and Emily. “Daily Life” follows the families from morning to evening on an ordinary day in May 1901. The mothers cook breakfast and supper; the fathers go to work and come home; the children go to school and return. Family members interact; the milk and newspaper are delivered; the weather is discussed; the town drunk is pitied. “Love and Marriage” takes place on George and Emily's wedding day three years later, with a flashback to their encounter at the drugstore soda fountain when they first acknowledged their feelings for each other. The third act, “Death,” takes place nine years later. Emily Webb, who has died giving birth, arrives at the town cemetery, where other deceased members the community sit quietly in chairs. Unlike the others, who have grown detached from earthly concerns, Emily longs to return to Grover's Corners, and so obtains the permission of the Stage Manager to relive her twelfth birthday. However, the experience becomes too painful when, knowing the future, she attempts to savor each trivial moment with her family but cannot because between “it goes so fast. We barely have time to look at one another.” Returning to the dead, Emily bids farewell to “new-ironed dresses and hot baths” before expressing the central moral of the play that human beings must “realize life while they live it.”

Major Themes

Our Town is often placed in the tradition of American folk literature that focuses on small-town life. Grover's Corners is a typical American small town and its inhabitants are average, ordinary people who lead prosaic lives. The spare sets reinforce the unexceptional quality of the setting, plot, and characters. This minimalism renders the characters allegorical rather than individualized and the setting commonplace rather than specific. In this way the ordinary and mundane are invested with a timeless quality, and the events of the plot are transformed into universal experiences. The primary theme of Our Town is humanity's failure to appreciate every precious moment of life. This is stated most clearly by Emily as she returns to her grave, asking the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” Emily's early death and nostalgia for her childhood further express themes of the precarious nature of life and the inevitability of death. Our Town thus addresses age-old questions of the human condition and the meaning of life. The play is ultimately life-affirming in its urging the audience to appreciate ordinary, everyday life in the face of mortality.

Critical Reception

Initially, Our Town was not well received. Wilder then altered the staging of the play to a bare-bones set and minimal props in order to emphasize the allegorical nature of the play, and it soon garnered favorable reviews and audience popularity. It ultimately ran for 336 performances in its debut production. Wilder was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for drama for Our Town, thus earning him recognition as a major American playwright. Champions of Our Town celebrate the play's focus on universal themes through allegorical theatrical techniques depicting archetypical characters and events. Detractors of the play criticize its bland sentimentality, underdeveloped characters, and failure to challenge the audience's received values. These two different perspectives on Our Town are partly a function of the degree to which a particular production or critic emphasizes its darker concerns with mortality and the fleeting nature of life, or its lighter, life-affirming elements. Recent critics have discussed the question of whether or not Our Town addresses themes still relevant to modern life.

Principal Works

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The Trumpet Shall Sound 1926

The Angel That Troubled the Waters, and Other Plays 1928

The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden 1931

The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act 1931

The Merchant of Yonkers: A Farce in Four Acts 1938; revised as The Matchmaker, 1955

Our Town 1938

The Skin of Our Teeth 1942

A Life in the Sun [also produced as The Alcestiad] 1955

Bernice 1957

The Wreck of the 5:25 1957

Plays for Bleecker Street 1962

Pullman Car Hiawatha 1964

The Cabala (novel) 1926

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (novel) 1927

The Woman of Andros (novel) 1930

We Live Again [with Maxwell Anderson, Leonard Praskins, and Preston Sturges] (screenplay) 1934

Heaven's My Destination (novel) 1935

Our Town [with Frank Craven and Harry Chandlee] (screenplay) 1940

Shadow of a Doubt [with Sally Benson and Alma Reville] (screenplay) 1943

The Ides of March (novel) 1948

The Eighth Day (novel) 1967

Theophilus North (novel) 1973

American Characteristics, and Other Essays (essays) 1979

Criticism: Author Commentary

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SOURCE: Wilder, Thornton, and John Franchey. “Mr. Wilder Has an Idea.” In Conversations with Thornton Wilder, edited by Jackson R. Bryer, pp. 31-3. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

[In the following interview, originally published in the New York Times on 13 August 1939, Wilder discusses the initial reception of Our Town by rural audiences, as well as his own experiences performing the role of the Stage Manager.]

Perhaps what the dons label in their seminars “pleasurable recognition” is only a phrase, after all, or at best a mere vanity. Playwright Thornton Wilder, who used to find the term good enough currency in his own classrooms at Chicago University, has a word or two on that very subject.

With a three-week invasion of the Codfish circuit wherein he found himself a playwright-player in Our Town immediately behind him, Professor Wilder admits that none of the eminent success of the tour is due to the denizens of the replicas of Grover's Corners in which the piece was exhibited.

“What I noticed,” Mr. Wilder hastens to explain, “was that the Summer visitors at Cohasset, Dennis and Stockbridge seemed as interested in Our Town as the Broadway audiences. But the village residents trooped away in profound disappointment veiled by a traditional politeness.

“It's not difficult to understand,” Mr. Wilder continues, “if you stop a while and give the matter some thought. Village people, after all, regard the theatre as an exotic place to which one goes for removal as far as possible from daily life. It is only natural that they regard a play without scenery as a betrayal of the theatre. They, too, in their imaginations—even as did the city dwellers—reconstructed Grover's Corners, but the depiction of children going to school in the morning, returning in the afternoon, choir practice on Friday night and all the rest is so immediate a reconstruction of their daily life that they cannot derive from it the pleasure of recognition. This recognition, apparently, must contain an element of surprise, some slight variant. Summer visitors, on the other hand, seem to have found it an enhanced attraction of the play that they emerged from the theatre to find themselves among the white houses and picket fences of a real-life Grover's Corners.”

Beyond this single disenchantment, Mr. Wilder was in excellent fooling when the interloper discovered him at Dennis, an e-pluribus-unum tenant of a lordly white house across the street from a thriving cemetery. He was sporting white duck trousers, shoes ibid, green hose and a blue shirt open at the neck, all in all innocent of sunburn.

How did he like the business of playing—the lead role no less—in his own magnum opus?

I like it tremendously—after my performance is over. My lines I memorized in agony and my daily stint I face with brave resolution. At heart, I'm no actor. Still, there are certain universal truths that a dramatist can only learn with his feet on the boards. Happily my role is more that of commentator than a participant in the action. This, of course, gives me elbow room to cover up my shortcomings as an actor.

A dramatist as actor learns not only many things in stage procedure, effectiveness and ineffectiveness, but also acquires a sense of the vitality of the word and the image, a truism, perhaps, but one able to be digested by a true actor or actress.

Was Mr. Wilder working on a new play for the Fall trade?

I can't talk about that. You see that's bad luck. No, let's put it this way: there are many mental hazards which surround writing.

Would it be farce, perhaps, like the late Merchant of Yonkers, which never managed to catch on?

Mr. Wilder ventured, emphatically, that it would not. There were too many impediments standing in the way. For one thing the drama overlords who man the review columns were not sympathetic, apparently, to true farce. Not that Mr. Wilder objected to their convictions. Perish the thought. As a playwright, he made quick to explain, he was much more interested in trafficking with plays that were seen and heard. Closet drama he leaves, with his blessings, to his ex-brethren of the cloisters.

Without any warning the conversation veered suddenly in the direction of James Joyce and Finnegans Wake:

“There is a great book. I hope you've read it.” And Mr. Wilder was off to get his copy. He was back in a jiffy with a formidable text which he opened politely, pointing out countless annotations done in a steady, blue hand in the margins:

Mr. Joyce only reaffirms my feeling that the twentieth century has a new concept of narration. My experience with Our Town convinces me that the notion of time as immutable and consecutive action is not the only one. In Our Town time was scrambled, liberated.

What I cannot at all share is the belief that events begin to have a significance only at that moment when the curtain goes up or a writer launches his opening paragraph; or that the significance has come to a full stop at the instant the curtain drops or finis is written.

Does it seem vague? Well, let me illustrate what I am trying to do in my plays. I am searching for a new form in which there will be a perpetual counterpoint between the detailed episode of daily life—the meal, the chat, the courtship and the funeral—and the ever-present references to geological time and a distant future for the millions of people who have repeated these moments.

Mr. Wilder paused to light a cork-tipped cigarette.

“I know you're wondering why,” he said. “And I'll tell you. The twentieth-century mind recognizes that mankind is not the center of the universe and at the same time is frightened by the sense of the countless repetition of all human vicissitudes. This, I think, has caused a new sense of emphasis in narration.”

The bell in the village clock boomed twelve o'clock noon and Mr. Wilder got up. He smiled.

“Don't get me wrong,” he said. “I still have a profound respect for time and chronology. I get hungry at noon with amazing regularity.”

And he was off.

Hap Erstein (review date 23 November 1990)

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SOURCE: Erstein, Hap. “Remarkable Our Town Dispenses Its Wisdom.” Washington Times (23 November 1990): E1.

[In the following review of the Washington, D.C., Arena Stage production of Our Town, Erstein praises Wilder's play for its wisdom and humor, and applauds this production for bringing out the darker, bolder elements of the play.]

There are plays so brimming with wisdom, humor and Americana that community-theater groups and high-school drama societies embrace them eagerly. As a result, most professional companies tend to shy away from these oft-seen treasures.

Thornton Wilder's Our Town fits this bill. And yet, fortunately, Arena Stage keeps returning to it. In this, the stage's 40th season, the current production is the company's fourth offering of the play. Arena may have a weakness for this homespun look at life and death in Grover's Corners, N.H. (pop. 2,642), but the presentation that opened Wednesday evening is a tower of strengths.

Chances are you have seen—or been in—one of those well-meaning amateur productions that encrust Our Town with a patina of sentimental goo. If so, that is all the more reason to see the small-town tale played for all its darker, bolder values as director Douglas C. Wager renders them.

Yes, the first act still seems to spring full-blown from a Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post. And yes, the second-act soda-fountain scene where teen-agers George Gibbs and Emily Webb discover they were meant for each other is still one of the sweetest statements of young love ever placed on a stage.

But it is in the third act, set in a hillside cemetery and in the afterworld, that Wilder's grip takes hold. Of course it is a play about love and marriage. More than that, though, it is a haunting meditation on accepting death and letting go of life.

If the broad outlines of Our Town are rather conventional, one might also forget how much Wilder was a theatrical experimenter. In his inspired creation of the narrating Stage Manager and the character's folksy interplay with the audience, the author exuberantly chipped away at the “fourth wall” barrier between production and patrons.

Nowhere is that more easily accomplished than in the intimacy and informality of the four-sided Arena.

In part because this play is one of the centerpieces of Arena's 40th anniversary season, it features the welcome return of two past members of the Arena family. Robert Prosky, a veteran of 23 seasons here and two previous stints as Wilder's Stage Manager, embraces the role with an easygoing, seemingly effortless lack of guile.

Mr. Prosky begins the evening as himself, with a charming communal introduction. Then he slips into a rustic sports jacket and a New England accent to begin the play. We are in the palms of his hands for the next 2 1/2 hours.

Chances are they were describing Mr. Prosky as “avuncular” when he was in high school—the first time he ever played the Stage Manager, as he informs us. If he was destined for older character parts before his time, the reverse of that coin is the radiant Christina Moore, who probably will be able to play ingenues for the rest of her life.

As Emily Webb, this diminutive performer is thoroughly captivating and entirely believable as a teen-ager perhaps half her actual age. Her Emily is poised and full of self-assurance, which makes her unsteady, soda-fountain voyage into uncharted recesses of the heart all the more endearing. Later, when Emily trespasses over the border between the living and dead for one last visit to Grover's Corners, pain and confusion is registered movingly on the actress's face.

David Aaron Baker plays George Gibbs as a young man giddily in love. His George is no match for Emily in intelligence and he is reduced to being even sillier in her presence. The two of them perched atop ladders, moonstruck in the New Hampshire night, is another of the production's memorable images.

Of the large supporting cast, Halo Wines (Mrs. Gibbs) and Tana Hicken (Mrs. Webb) have their roles and their families firmly under control. Although some of the company's New England accents take a back seat to Mr. Wager's culturally blind casting approach, the look of this diverse Grover's Corners helps deepen the universality of Our Town.

Scenically, Thomas Lynch's design is pure simplicity—a quilted floor, wooden chairs around the perimeter and leafy tree branches in the sky. Our Town was intended to draw on our imaginations and Mr. Lynch refuses to upstage that resource.

Instead, sound effects executed by Mr. Prosky's quartet of “assistant stage managers” provide aural images. Shadowy lighting by Allen Lee Hughes foreshadows the play's darker side. The authentic period costumes by Marjorie Slaiman recall that earlier era without evoking nostalgic sentimentality.

As the Stage Manager says, he plans to include a copy of the play in a cornerstone for the new Grover's Corners bank. This, of course, is Wilder immodestly but accurately predicting the lasting power of his creation.

By the time Arena Stage celebrates its 80th anniversary, chances are the company will have presented Our Town a few more times. But it is unlikely that it will better this heartfelt, direct and transcendent production.

T. H. McCulloh (review date 2 April 1993)

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SOURCE: McCulloh, T. H. “A Striking Production of Our Town.Los Angeles Times (2 April 1993): F21.

[In the following review of the A Noise Within production of Our Town at the Glendale Masonic Temple in Glendale, California, McCulloh praises it as an enduring American play that expresses timeless and universal ideas. McCulloh further applauds the casting of a woman as the Stage Manager, a role traditionally played by a man.]

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is one of the more enduring American plays, for the very good reason that it doesn't mirror real life but becomes a symbol for reality. The world Wilder creates never existed, in spite of anyone who insists that there ever was such a thing as “the good old days.”

It would be hard to find a better staging of Wilder's classic than this one conceived by A Noise Within at Glendale Masonic Temple. The poetic richness and human wisdom of Wilder's writing reverberate within the simplicity of his chosen form, which introduced American theater to the wonders of what can happen when the “fourth wall” is broken down. The play doesn't date, even though it describes events in a small New Hampshire town just after the turn of the century. Like Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, the ideas in the play are timeless and universal.

“Our Town” is Grover's Corners, seeing its first few automobiles, just beginning to become aware that there is a big world outside of town and still leaving its front doors unlocked. The townspeople have heard about burglars but haven't seen any yet. They, particularly the Gibbs and Webb families, haven't yet gone through a series of horrific wars and a chain reaction of social upheaval. They're comfortable in their microcosm, unaware that—like the old South—it will soon be gone with the wind.

Co-directors Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott keep the play's three sections—a typical day, love and marriage, and death—deeply burnished like old snapshots, as they move through the chiaroscuro of David M. Darwin's masterly lighting. Susan Doepner's authentic period costumes look genuine, and dialect coach Nike Doukas places the characters squarely Down East.

The company is extraordinary. Donald Sage Mackay seamlessly and easily ricochets from pre-teen to teen to adult as George, the young man who sees no future except to marry his Emily and settle on a local farm. Hisa Takakuwa's Emily is just as affecting. They're especially touching in the famous soda fountain scene.

Emily Heebner and Michael Keys Hall as George's parents, and Anna Miller and Robert Pescovitz as Emily's, couldn't be more on target. With Mackay and Takakuwa, they find humor in moments that are often glossed over. Jack L. Harrell's organist Simon Stimson is notable for the subtlety of his inebriation during a late-night stagger, and Matt Foyer's milkman Howie Newsome becomes a notable vignette.

Leading the cast is Deborah Strang as the Stage Manager, a role usually played by a man. It's a wonderfully inventive choice, and Strang, with just the faintest hint of wisdom from a later day, pulls it off with great panache.

Malcolm Johnson (review date 23 July 1994)

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SOURCE: Johnson, Malcolm. “Acting Lapses Undercut This Our Town Revival.” Hartford Courant (23 July 1994): D8.

[In the following review of the Williamstown Theater Festival production of Our Town at Williams College, Johnson describes Wilder's play as an essential American play that has endured the test of time. He criticizes this production, however, for undermining the strengths of the play through poor acting.]

Even in a less than perfect revival, Thornton Wilder's Our Town remains the essential American play, a sentimental yet thoughtful and philosophical look back to the innocent opposite end of our century.

Peter Hunt, the gifted artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, would seem an ideal choice to stage Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play. Since taking command of the prestigious summer operation on the campus of Williams College, Hunt has successfully brought half-forgotten American theater pieces back to life: John Brown's Body, Inherit the Wind and last season's brilliant Counsellor-at-Law. His background as a lighting designer singularly qualifies him to direct Our Town, which calls for a bare stage to emphasize that this, after all, is a play.

Yet, from the start of Hunt's production, something feels wrong. Although there is no traditional box set, the cloud-lit upstage cyclorama does not create anything like the same effect as the atmospheric back wall, with its racks of radiator pipes, associated with the original production.

Another problem arises not long after James Whitmore's genial Stage Manager takes the stage and begins to walk about, describing the people and topography of Grover's Corners, N.H. When Whitmore ambles upstage to indicate the streets of the small, turn-of-the-century New England village, his voice drops to near inaudibility. And as Our Town moves forward through its three acts, the problem recurs. While Whitmore's strong instrument only grows fainter as he moves away from the downstage playing area, the voices of lesser actors become muffled or garbled.

Whitmore makes a fine Stage Manager, hearty, humorous and twinkling of eye. His age gives him a knowing quality. But like others in the company, he projects an air of incipient tragedy from the start.

In this Our Town, too many of the characters seem all too aware that Emily Webb Gibbs will be dead by the time the third act rolls along.

The coming trouble can be felt most keenly in the performances of Emily's mother, Mrs. Webb, and mother-in-law-to-be, Mrs. Gibbs, played respectively by the lovely Laurie Kennedy and the severe Molly Regan. In light of modern thinking, both seem to have conceived their characters as kitchen drudges, furiously miming a variety of morning chores with fussy but unpersuasive details that cry out to be cut back. Here and elsewhere, less would truly be more.

And from the first morning in their kitchens, Kennedy seems wistful and doomed to die young, and Regan seems utterly puritanical—right out of The Crucible.

Neither woman relates convincingly with her husband or children. There are no real families here, just under-rehearsed actors. James Judy does fairly well by newspaper editor Mr. Webb, at least projecting some tender, confused, fatherly feeling for his daughter Emily and ruminating on his bemused feelings about the world. John Bennett Perry's Dr. Gibbs is a counterpart to Regan's Mrs. Webb, very strict and detached, more 17th century than 20th.

As for the kids who fall in love and lose each other, Calista Flockhart works up a histrionic Emily, whose model seems to be Lillian Gish under D. W. Griffith's Victorian attentions, while Sam Trammell underplays George Gibbs to the point of near invisibility.

The powers of Wilder's simple but superbly compact and feeling writing carry the play through, and Hunt's staging and Whitmore's fine transformations to a drugstore owner and a minister sweep the play forward effortlessly. But even a striking and poignant moment—as when Emily, clad in white, slips from the mourners huddled beneath their black umbrellas—is undercut by Rita B. Watson's costume. Why, we wonder for a moment, was she laid to rest in her wedding dress?

T. H. McCulloh (review date 9 December 1995)

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SOURCE: McCulloh, T. H. “Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary in Our Town.Los Angeles Times (9 December 1995): F4.

[In the following review of the Fullerton College production of Our Town at the Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, McCulloh praises Wilder's script as insightful, powerful, affectionate, and poignant.]

Thornton Wilder's Our Town is arguably the greatest American play of the 20th century.

There are reasons for that. Wilder worked in an atmosphere of heightened creativity in the period between the two World Wars. Not only did he write a play about the lives of ordinary people in non-urban, pre-television America, but he did it with insight and immense affection. Wilder also told his tale of growing up and growing old in the small rural town of Grover's Corners, N.H., in what was considered a startling manner when the play opened on Broadway in 1938. It took place on a bare stage, without props or scenery—the point being that it was the text that mattered, not the fancy dressing.

In his staging at Fullerton College's Bronwyn Dodson Theatre, director Robert Jensen has chosen to include some bits of scenery, such as sections of picket fence and a couple of tables for the families to sit at. It doesn't damage the power and poignancy of the script, but it seems a bit odd, since he hasn't included the horse that milkman Howie Newsome (Charles L. Rogers) leads on and off stage, or the newspapers that paperboy Joe Crowell (Nathan Jones) throws onto porches. Plus there's the distraction of most of the cast coming onstage to move things about.

The additions are unnecessary. Jensen's use of projections on a rear scrim, including indications of time of day, place and weather, work just fine to set the scenes.

And, truthfully, Jensen's staging would work even without the projected images. He understands the shape and shadings in the script, and his rhythms throughout are impeccable. Vocal coach Stephnie Sparrow has given the young cast a good sense of the flat New Hampshire accent, and Jensen's use of Aaron Copeland's incidental music (written for the film version of Our Town) adds to the small-town aura of the production.

Although some of the actors are inclined to overplay the stereotypes, the cast generally treats the text with honesty and sincerity. Ken Jaedicke, as undertaker Joe Stoddard, makes much of digging the grave in Act III, when actually undertakers are not gravediggers, and he tries too hard for caricature rather than character. Jennifer Morales, fine in other ensemble roles here, is ludicrous as the learned Professor Willard, who gives statistical information about the town. The actress unfortunately plays the role for laughs, with much mugging and a lack of dignity that would alarm someone like Professor Willard. Morales is also pantomime coach for the production; unfortunately, she has some doorknobs positioned at shoulder level, and other imaginary props in odd places.

The production belongs to Melanie Baker as Emily Webb, the girl and later young woman who is Wilder's image of innocence and faith in the good things life offers. Especially in her farewell speech, Baker gives a gentle and warm performance. Joseph Arnold is George Gibbs, the boy who grows up next door to Emily and finally realizes they are meant for each other. Their soda fountain scene, in which that discovery is made, is difficult to play, yet they do it with sweetness and understanding. Arnold's performance thrives on the few colors he gives it, just enough to create the image of small-town contentment.

Jennifer Gordon and Chad McFarlane succeed in giving Emily's parents the right shadings and a sincere feeling of real family; Mrs. Webb is especially rich in detail. As George's parents, Jennifer Harrison and Ramsey Warfield are quite credible. Rogers as Howie Newsome and Jones as Joe Crowell are realistically characterized and truthful.

The most important ingredient in Wilder's world is the Stage Manager (Michael M. Miller), who narrates the story and sometimes steps into a character. Miller gives a fine, textured and insightful performance, with just enough of a cynical edge, a gracious sense of humor and an able handling of the role's long monologues.

Arthur H. Ballet (essay date 1956)

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SOURCE: Ballet, Arthur H. “Our Town as a Classical Tragedy.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 74-82. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1956, Ballet asserts that Our Town is a “modern American Tragedy,” following a tradition that stretches back to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.]

In the short history of American literary criticism, there has been a continuous search for “the great American drama.” It is the purpose of this essay to continue this search by exploring the qualifications for this signal honor of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. It is hoped that, since Our Town continues to be widely read and performed in educational and professional theatre, new light may yet be shed. … Either educators, directors, and the general theatre-going public have been deceived by the play, or they must come to terms intelligently with it if they are to continue presenting it in the theatre or the classroom.

As a beginning, it might be observed that literary and moral implications assumed, all important drama in the history of the theatre has had popular appeal. Great theatre is neither closet drama, which is to be read effetely by connoisseurs, nor is it avant-garde drama, which is to be relished by bored or malcontent sophisticates. That drama which through the years has gained in literary and theatrical respect and security has always appealed to the then-current theatre-going audience. For example, the great plays of Sophocles not only won literary laurels but were the popular plays of their day, drawing on the entire citizen-population of ancient Athens. Likewise, Molière was both an actor and a playwright who knew how to succeed in the difficult art of pleasing a living, popular audience. And, of course, William Shakespeare's dramas were the “smash hits” of their own days. Elizabethan audiences and critics went so far as to view the Bard as a hack who turned out popular but unimportant plays for the general amusement. They looked elsewhere to now-forgotten dramatists for “great drama.” However, it is not suggested that all popular drama is necessarily important or significant, but merely that great drama has been popular theatre.

Attention must be turned next to those playwrights who have appealed to the general American audience. The criterion that the drama must have stature, significance, and literary importance before it may be considered rules out long-run plays like Tobacco Road, Life with Father, and Mister Roberts. Four playwrights remain for consideration. Eugene O'Neill undoubtedly was the greatest of the American innovators and experimenters in the theatre. His finest plays, now that they may be viewed in perspective, seem to have been his “sea plays,” which at best are fragmentary vignettes. His pretentious, longer attempts have been disappointing as literature and as theatrical fare. Second, Tennessee Williams has enjoyed almost unprecedented success as a playwright, but closer observation reveals that his best efforts have been devoted to a minute examination of neurotic Southern women. The resultant appeal seems to lie in Williams' sensitive and sensational portraiture without further implication or significance.

The third leading playwright is Arthur Miller, whose rugged but “safe” social protest of the '40's and the '50's has undoubtedly been enormously popular in the theatre, but whose plays lose their significance when carefully examined for what they have to say. The Death of a Salesman, for example, has been justifiably called by one critic a “sententious snivel” rather than the significant American tragedy to which it has pretensions. All three playwrights seem to appeal to some segments, but they have not had the lasting and universal qualities which stir not only imagination but intelligent reflection as well.

The fourth playwright is Thornton Wilder, who, according to a recent poll of playwrights in The Saturday Review, is, interestingly enough, American dramatists' own choice as their favorite living playwright.

Where, then, is the appeal of Wilder's Our Town? Frank M. Whiting, in An Introduction to the Theatre, points out that the play has qualities beyond its novelty:

… it is an honest and revealing portrait of small-town American life. It has been criticised as sentimental, but American life is sentimental; Emily, George, and the others give us a far more genuine insight into twentieth-century American living than do the studies of neurotics, gangsters, and sexually frustrated.

It is necessary, however, to go beyond this, to qualify “sentimentality,” and to consider the play as a modern American tragedy. …

OUR TOWN AS CLASSICAL DRAMA

Our Town is a carefully constructed drama, following the precepts of classic drama with certain justified modifications. Actually it is a trilogy. Act One may be thought of as a separate play dealing with The Daily Life, Act Two examines Love and Marriage within the totality of its act structure, and Act Three expands the first parts of the trilogy into a complex of eternity where the mystery of life is culminated in death.

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 trilogy, thus considered, admirably re-interprets this concept in modern terms and language and form, finding its roots in what is probably the finest drama of all time: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.

The use of the stage manager as a chorus is another manifestation of close attention to the classic structuring of the drama. The chorus-stage manager serves as the human link with the audience and personifies the milieu of society. Joining the audience with the events presented in the spaceless and timeless stage, he explains and interprets, fills in, and establishes the background for each episode. He is, however, more than just a narrator. Abandoning the modern concept of the impersonal, almost mechanical commentator, Wilder has returned to the kind of choric voice so effective in Greek tragedy. The stage manager represents the observing community; he is biased, sympathetic, informed, and concerned. His calmness in the face of both joy and disaster is never construed into passivity. The most lyric passages of the play are assigned to him, and this is quite rightly conceived by the playwright, for, as the agent of the human community in the drama, what occurs within the play makes a difference and must be sensitively considered.

At the same time, the stage manager subtly introduces a note of patience and understanding which is essential if the action is to have a meaning above that of a sentimental or emotional orgy for the entertainment of the audience. His interruption of the action, his interspersed observations, and his serious but twinkling control of the progress of the play all serve to prevent over-identification, which would destroy the higher implications of the play.

Then, too, there is the classic simplicity of the setting. Left to the imagination, it avoids realism of time and place which would devoid the play of its larger application. Returning to a theatrical tradition ranging from Athens to Elizabethan England, it returns also to a plane of imaginative rather than realistic reproduction and soars above mundane distractions of actuality. In addition, and still within the classic tradition, Wilder employs asides, soliloquies, choric interludes, short scenes, and frank theatricalism to heighten and expand his basic theme.

Some producers of the play … have attempted to “enhance” the production by adding suggestive or stylized scenery. It would seem that they have failed to grasp the fundamental reason for Wilder's elimination of conventional scenic devices in the first place. It is not a trick or “gimmick” to make the play sensational; on the contrary, Wilder, like his classic predecessors, was aware of the inherent scenery of the theatre itself. He chose deliberately, and with great sensitivity to the whole meaning of his own play, to utilize the theatre as the setting, for he wished to examine theatrical reality. This is by no means an easy thing to do. The theatre is not reality, of course; it is a life of its own but only insofar as it is a selective, sensitive, active and reflective image of the world beyond the theatre's walls. Wilder was aware of this function of the theatre, and he has made use of it and accentuated it by eliminating scenic devices beyond the physical theatre itself.

OUR TOWN AS TRAGEDY

Still, none of these structural details are in themselves enough to enable one to call Our Town a tragedy. Aristotle, in his Poetica, established tragedy as a “purgation through pity and fear” and as an “ennoblement” as well as the picturization of the fall of a great man. At first glance, Our Town appears to fall short of such ambitious purposes. The very simplicity and “ordinariness” of the drama seem to make a mockery of higher purposes. There are, however, deeply significant actions beneath the surface which do indeed fulfill Aristotelian definitions.

Death is the fear-agent employed as a catharsis. The audience witnesses the fall of the smallest of God's creatures: a young mother who becomes aware of the tragedy of life, and who finally is ennobled by death to understand how wonderful life is:

EMILY:
Good-by, good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners … Mama 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. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
STAGE Manager:
No. The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Tragedy, in its finest sense, need not and should not be “sad.” It should rather be elevating, should point the way to a higher level of understanding of man as a creature revolving in the cosmos. By these Aristotelian standards, then, Our Town approaches significance as a tragedy.

WILDER'S MANIPULATION OF TIME AND PLACE

Wilder has, by careful dramaturgical manipulation of time and place, established the play quite properly in perspective. A few examples should illustrate this operation. In Act One, after the daily life has been exemplified in its simple dignity and zest, George and his younger sister, Rebecca, are sitting at night looking out of an upstairs window when Rebecca tells of a girl friend's letter from her minister:

He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: 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.

In Act Two, the stage manager stops the action of the wedding to reflect on the timeless eternity which surrounds man at each moment in his search:

The real hero of this scene isn't on the stage at all, and you know who that is. It's like what one of those European fellas said: every child born into the world is Nature's attempt to make a perfect human being. Well, we've seen Nature pushing and contriving for some time now. We all know that Nature's interested in quantity; but I think she's interested in quality, too … and don't forget the other witnesses at this wedding—the ancestors. Millions of them.

And a final example of Wilder's time and space manipulation is the stage manager's soliloquy in the cemetery, opening Act Three. Time has passed, changes have been made, death and life have continued their endless cycle:

Now I'm going to tell you some things you know already. You know'm as well as I do; but you don't take'm out and look at'm very often. I don't care what they say with their mouths—everybody knows that SOMETHING is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that SOMETHING is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. (After explaining that the actors sitting on stage in chairs are “dead” and that they are waiting, he continues.) … And what's left? What's left when memory's gone, and your identity, Mrs. Smith?

Not only is the issue joined directly to the audience, but the level of the drama aspires toward an ever-increasing expansion of the scope of the play as a statement of faith in the microcosm, Man.

THE APPEAL OF OUR TOWN

Assuming that audiences have been aware, however subconsciously, of these complexities within the drama, they do not explain the enduring and affectionate appeal of the play. And it will be remembered that earlier in this examination the criterion of popularity as well as significance was established for determining “great drama.” Our Town is prima facie a popular play; eighteen years of professional and amateur production have not dimmed its lustre as an audience-getter or its appeal as a drama to be read and studied in classrooms throughout the world.

Our purpose here is not to prove that the play is popular but to attempt to determine why it is popular. Lamentable though it may be, people do not go to the theatre to hear sermons or to be told that the only truth they can comprehend is that the end of all life is death and that in death they will achieve life. Our Town has other appeals, some immediately apparent and some quite deceptive. The daily life has the appeal of familiarity: school, with its triumphs and lessons to be learned; the routine of cooking meals and shelling peas; young, unselfish love in the village drugstore; human fear, as with George and Emily on their wedding day; and the homely verities of human existence, as when Dr. Gibbs confesses that on his wedding day he worried how he would ever find enough to talk about with his young wife. The familiarity of this daily life, as so expertly sketched in Our Town, releases the audience's skepticism and induces a sense of suspended disbelief. If Our Town does not reflect life as it really is, at least it suggests what the daily life should be like, and the audience approves.

Also present is the sentimentality already referred to, but it is without sententiousness; it has romance without romanticism, and innocence without naïveté. The fears and the faith reflected are without melodramatic trappings, and are sincere reflections of the innermost strivings of the human spirit. In short, they “ring true” because they are common experiences.

Attention finally must return to that quality which, however morbid its surface may seem, recognizes a quiet, resigned sense of justice in the inevitability of death itself. Throughout life, man is surrounded by this knowledge. In the play, old age, a burst appendix, childbirth, and alcoholism all contribute to the final end. But the audience is never repelled by this concept; it learns, as Emily must, to accept the life cycle, which not only is as it is, but is as it has to be and should be.

Any attempt to separate “content” or “theme” from “form” or “structure” is a purely academic one and seldom worth the effort. In any literature worthy of consideration at all, theme and structure are one and the same thing, determining each other. Questions of suitability and compatibility are largely matters of individual taste. With masterly strokes, Wilder has joined both the form and the content into an inseparable entity which both appeals and instructs. The audience engages in a struggle resulting both in pity and fear but ultimately culminating in an ennoblement through acceptance and understanding.

Thus, it would appear that Our Town is not only an important drama but also a significant one, for it has much to relate without pretensions. The “common folk” in the play very directly refute the concept of the mediocre average or perfect being. The simple yet effective language is appropriate not only to the characters involved but to the ideas expressed. The prose-poetry which Wilder has chosen is without the modern falsification of poesy. The dramatic conflicts and tensions are devoid of melodramatic clichés or the cinematic “happy endings” which betray life itself. There is no drama worthy of the name without conflict and action, but Wilder has elevated both of these ingredients. Life and death are part of a whole and yet in constant conflict, as are love and hate (witness the exquisite “drugstore scene” in Act Two). The resultant entities are both honest and profound.

In closing, it should be noted that the critics have been wrong before, and so has the popular audience. Each play must stand on its own merits. Our Town is a work which cannot be ignored merely because it is popular. The final condemnation of this play by those who do not approve of it has been that it is inconsistent, that the first two acts are comic and the third is tragic. This is in a sense true; and obviously in contradiction of Aristotelian principles. However, life is both “the human comedy” and “the incredible fate” of man. There is joy mingled everlastingly with despair. In his sanest moments, man is aware of how fleeting both the joy and the despair are. He knows that the end of the human comedy is the awakening into “the undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

As Our Town quite brilliantly shows, life is a paradox, and so it is not amazing that man paradoxically retains his faith that in death, too, there is life and a greater consciousness. Like Oedipus before her, Emily finds a place in dramatic literature as a tragic figure of enormous dimensions, for in her blindness, or death, she gains the true ability really to see and understand.

Francis Fergusson (essay date 1956)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5306

SOURCE: Fergusson, Francis. “Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder, and Eliot.” In Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, edited by Martin Blank, pp. 61-71. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1956, Fergusson compares the use of allegory by Thornton Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, and T. S. Eliot, focusing especially on Wilder's Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth.]

I

A number of contemporary playwrights, of whom Brecht, Wilder and Eliot are among the most accomplished, are now writing some form of allegory. They reject the tradition of modern realism, perhaps because little remains to be done with direct reflections of contemporary life: the pathos of the lost individual or the decaying suburb has been done to death since Chekhov. They do not seek some form of theater-poetry based on folk forms or myths or rituals, or on symbolism on the analogy of the symboliste poets, as so many theater artists did in the twenties. They seek to use the theater in the service of their consciously worked-out moral or philosophical ideas. They do not, however, write thesis plays à la Brieux, in which some scheme of social reform is openly debated and “proved” on the stage; nor do they write Shavian intellectual farces, in which the point is in the game of ideas itself. Their aim is not discussion in any sense, but teaching: they use the stage, the characters, and the story to demonstrate an idea which they take to be the undiscussible truth. The truths which Brecht, Wilder and Eliot propound are very different; but they all write allegory according to the literal definition in the Oxford Dictionary: “speaking otherwise than one seems to speak.”

One must be very detached from the contemporary theater and its audiences in order to write allegory of this kind. Brecht, Wilder and Eliot do not expect their audiences to share their intimate perceptions, whether “realistic” or “poetic.” Such detachment is the natural result of the failure of the art theaters of the twenties. After World War I much of the creative energy of the theater went into small theater groups which tried to build special audiences like those of ballet, chamber music or lyric poetry. Playwrights who worked for such groups tried to cultivate their art first and their audiences second; they were encouraged to embody their visions in the theater medium as directly as possible. In that context the thought-out indirectness of allegory seemed cumbersome and artificial. But the contemporary allegorists despair of the effort to recruit an audience of connoisseurs. They accept the commercial theater (especially Wilder and Eliot) as the only theater we can have; and the problem they set themselves is to use that nonconducting medium—necessarily indirectly—for their didactic purposes.

All three of these allegorists are extremely conscious of what they are doing. One can study their philosophies not only in their plays but in their theoretical writings, and all of them have written technical studies of playwriting which reveal the knowing methods they use in making their plays. But in other respects they are dissimilar and unrelated. Each of them has followed a lonely road to his achievement, and speaks through the stage as though he were alone with his undiscussible truth. For that reason it is something of a tour de force to consider them together, as though they were voices in a dialogue; as though they were devoting their thought and their art to some common enterprise in the modern theater.

Nevertheless they all seek with some success to address the mysterious modern crowd; their plays may run at the same time in the same city. And all of them are obliged to come to terms with the theater itself, stage, actors, and audience; and the art of handling those elements, though seldom studied in its full scope, is not unknown. Brecht, Wilder and Eliot seek to work out new theatrical forms, and Brecht owes much of his peculiar force to his direct defiance of the tradition. But one may patiently put them back into relation to the tradition by enquiring what they do with the inescapable elements of plot, characterization, language, and the conventions of make-believe. In this way one can, I think, find a basis for comparing them and for estimating the meaning of the present trend toward allegory. …

II

The philosophy which Thornton Wilder presents in his plays, especially the two most famous, Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, is at the opposite pole from Brecht's. Brecht is exclusively concerned (like Barth in his “Theology of Crisis”) with his obsessive vision of the emergency of our time. His Marxism is in essence partisan, and his theater lives by conflict. Wilder on the other hand tries to take his stance above all parties; he preaches the timeless validity of certain great old traditional ideas, and his theater is almost devoid of conflict, wooing its audience gently. Wilder's philosophy—that of a most cultivated man—is more sophisticated than Brecht's and more subtly presented. But on the evidence of the plays I think one can call it a sort of religious Platonism: deistic, but not more Christian than Unitarianism or Ethical Culture.

Brecht has paid his respects with characteristic vigor to those writers who even in our time reiterate the eternal verities: “It is true,” he writes in Fünf Schwierigkeiten, “that Germany is falling into barbarism, and that rain falls downward. Many poets write truths of this kind. They are like painters who decorate the walls of a sinking ship with still lifes.” If he read Wilder's still lifes he would characterize them in just such scornful terms. And as one turns from Brecht to Wilder one must be struck with the sudden quiet, and wonder what relevance these plays have to the actual texture of our lives. Yet Wilder's plays succeed at least as well as Brecht's in holding a modern crowd for two hours in the theater, and Wilder's art is at least as knowing, forewarned and forearmed, as Brecht's.

A very early play of Wilder's, perhaps his first, was produced by the American Laboratory Theatre in 1926, and has, I think, never been printed. It is a heavy allegory about a householder (God) who goes away on a journey, leaving his servants in charge. When he returns he finds that they have been faithful or unfaithful in various ways, and rewards them accordingly. This play is appropriately entitled The Trumpet Shall Sound, and it reveals Wilder's philosophy and his allegorical art at a crude, early stage. The distance between it and Our Town measures his extraordinary growth as technician. We have some of the experiments and finger exercises he did in the next eight years: his short plays, his adaptation of A Doll's House, his translation of Obey's Viol de Lucrèce, and his valuable technical essay, “Notes on Playwriting.” On the evidence of the plays it appears that Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Obey, and in general the literary and theatrical great of “Paris in the twenties” have been his masters. But his art has been very little studied: we marvel at his results, but have not investigated his stage magic. This essay can therefore be no more than a preliminary exploration.

Our Town is Wilder's masterpiece to date. His nostalgic evocation of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, at the turn of the century, is fed, more than any of his other works, with the sources of poetry: old, digested memories and associations. The atmosphere of the little town convinces before all thought, as poetry does. But at the same time a New England village before World War I is a natural illustration of the faint religious humanism which Wilder wants to present allegorically. The Stage Manager-Lecturer directs our attention to the protagonist (the town) and the narrative sequence from the cradle to the grave. By the end of Act I it is evening, and we have heard Blest Be the Tie That Binds sung offstage by the Ladies' Choir and then whistled by Mr. Webb. George and Rebecca Gibbs, as children, are leaning out an upstairs window enjoying the moonlight:

REBECCA:
I never told you about that letter that Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. … He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
GEORGE:
What's funny about that?
REBECCA:
But listen; it's not finished: The United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; The Earth; The Solar System; The Universe: The Mind of God—that's what it said on the envelope.

This passage was perhaps inspired by the very similar address which young Stephen Daedalus writes in his geography book; but it works beautifully at this point in the play, and the moral—that we live, whether we realize it or not, in the Mind of God—emerges naturally from the context of old-fashioned village childhood. In Act II Wilder uses the terrors and sentimental tears of a long-past marriage to suggest the same idea more gently; and in Act III he uses Emily's funeral and her ghostly return to earth on her fourteenth birthday for the same purpose: to present Grover's Corners sub specie aeternitatis. In the whole play the homesick vision and the Platonic-religious teaching work harmoniously together.

Wilder's “Notes on Playwriting” show that, like Brecht, his art of allegory is completely knowing. Like Brecht again, he stresses the conventional, make-believe quality of the stage—in opposition to the realists' “illusion”—for the purposes of allegory. All theater “lives by convention,” he writes, and “a convention is an agreed-upon falsehood, a permitted lie.” … “The convention has two functions: (1) It provokes the collaborative activity of the spectator's imagination; and (2) It raises the action from the specific to the general. … The stage continually strains to tell this generalized truth and it is the element of pretense that reinforces it.” That is an excellent description of the way the theatrical conventions of Our Town work. The bare stage and the Stage Manager who directly addresses the audience or tells the actors what to do enlist the audience in make-believe: induce it to imagine the little town waking up, years ago, in the dark of early morning. At the same time the frank theatricality of these conventions warns us not to take the characters too seriously as people: they are presented only by make-believe, as half-playful illustrations of a “generalized truth.” It is this “generalized truth”—that we exist in the Mind of God—which we are to watch for, and when we get it we shall have the whole point and message of the play.

Wilder maintains, in his “Notes,” that all drama is essentially allegory, “A succession of events illustrating a general idea,” as he puts it. “The myth, the parable, the fable are the fountainheads of all fiction,” he writes, “and in them is seen most clearly the didactic, moralizing employment of a story. Modern taste shrinks from emphasizing the central idea behind the fiction, but it exists there nevertheless, supplying the unity to fantasizing, and offering a justification to what otherwise we would repudiate as mere arbitrary contrivance, pretentious lying, or individualistic emotional association-spinning.” This radically Platonic view of poetry—that its only justification is that it may be a means of teaching moral truth—might be disputed at some length. But I suppose it must be the belief of all three of our contemporary allegorists; Brecht would certainly agree in principle, for his plays are very obviously constructed as “a succession of events illustrating a general idea.” But it is worth noting that Brecht's “truth” is the opposite of Wilder's—which suggests that moralizing is no more immune than poetry to the human weakness for arbitrary contrivance, pretentious lying, and individualistic emotional association-spinning.

In the art of both Brecht and Wilder plotmaking is basic, for the plot, while presenting the story, must be at the same time a demonstration of the idea. Wilder relies on plotting even more than Brecht; by its means, he explains, the playwright controls stage, actors, director and designer for his purposes. “He learns to organize the play in such a way that its strength lies not in appearances beyond his control, but in the succession of events and in the unfolding of an idea, in narration.” He accomplishes precisely this feat by means of the plot—the succession of events—in Our Town. It is primarily the narrative sequence from morning to night, from the cradle to the grave, through the marriage to the funeral, which carries the play; and it is this sequence also which continually leads to the idea. Brecht arranges his plots in such a way as to present onstage only struggles; he avoids all pathos on the ground that it would demoralize the audience which he is grooming for the Revolution. But Wilder, in the interest of his opposite philosophy, bases the three acts of his play precisely upon the pathos of the great commonplaces of human life, birth, marriage and death; and he shows no conflict at all.

The plot with its unfolding idea is so effective, in Our Town, that it almost makes the play go without reference to the individual lives of its people. But not quite: the stage is after all not the lecture platform; one must put something concrete upon it. “Because a play presupposes a crowd,” Wilder writes, “the dramatist realizes that the group mind imposes upon him the necessity of treating material understandable by the greater number.” It is apparently in accordance with this principle that he has selected the concrete materials of Our Town: the characters, which are clichés of small-town life rather than individuals; the language they speak, which (in spite of its authentic New England flavor) is distressingly close to that of plays written for high schools and Sunday schools, or to the soap operas of radio, or to vapid “family magazines.” If one looks at a few passages from the play apart from the movement of the plot—George and Emily absorbing their cherry phosphates, or George having his tearful talks with his father-in-law to be—the effect is embarrassingly stale and pathetic. It is evident that Wilder himself is not much interested in George or Emily. He hardly imagines them as people, he rather invites the audience to accept them by plainly labeling them; as sentimental stereotypes of village folksiness. They are therefore understandable by the greater number, and they serve to present the story and illustrate the moral. But they betray, I think, the worst weakness of Wilder's type of allegory. The distance between the life onstage, which the audience accepts because it is so familiar in this sense, and the idea which the author has in mind is too great. The “greater number” blubbers at the platitudes of character and situation, while the author, manipulating his effects with kindly care, enjoys the improbable detachment of the Mind of God.

André Obey's Noah is akin to Our Town in several respects; I even think it possible that it may have given Wilder some of the clues for his play. Our Town is based on the “world” of small-town Protestantism at the turn of the century, and Noah upon the “world” of French peasant religion. Both plays therefore owe some of their appeal to nostalgia, and when Noah is played one can hardly “get” it without an effort of sympathy which may be called sentimental. But once we make-believe that vanished world, we get a vision of human life which is full of the weight of experience. The imagined characters are intensely alive; we see at every moment how Noah is groping and struggling. It is his experience which leads us to the idea—or rather the vision—which the play presents. At the end we are made to feel what Noah's faith has cost him, and therein lies the strength and the authority of the play. But the dreamy situation of Our Town does not cost anyone anything, and that, I think, is why the idea may strike us as sentimental and pretentious. The idea is clear; in a sense it is appropriately illustrated in the atmosphere and the customs of Grover's Corners. But it is not incarnate in the characters and the language which make up the actual texture of the play.

In spite of this weakness Our Town is a “natural” for Wilder and his philosophy: the basic inspiration is propitious, the remembered village and the idea to be taught do harmonize. But in The Skin of Our Teeth Wilder set himself an even more difficult problem: that of presenting his religious Platonism in an urban context, and at a time—the beginning of World War II—of general crisis. In that play both the theatrical virtuosity and the weakness, or limitation, of Wilder's kind of allegory are very clear.

Wilder is reported to have received the inspiration for Skin at a performance of Hellza'poppin, an extravaganza in the corniest style of old-fashioned vaudeville. But Campbell and Robinson, who attended the opening of Skin just after they had completed their Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, demonstrated in two well-documented articles in The Saturday Review that the play is a simplified dramatization of Joyce's mysterious work. There is probably no one but Wilder with enough imagination and enough understanding both of Joyce and of vaudeville to combine the two. But now that the work is done we can see what a brilliant notion it was to translate Joyce's dreamlike and ironic meditation on the eternal recurrences of human history into the ancient jokes, irrational horseplay and shameless sentimentality of burlesque. Burlesque provides Wilder with his “material understandable to the greater number,” an urban folksiness corresponding to the village folksiness of Our Town; and Finnegans Wake suggests a plot-scheme and an abstract cast of characters to give narrative and rational form to the whole.

The plot of Skin is closely analogous to that of Our Town. The protagonist is Humanity, which corresponds to Grover's Corners. The three major crises on which the three acts are based, the Ice Age, the Flood, and War, correspond to Our Town's Birth, Marriage and Death. Just as Birth, Marriage and Death must be suffered by all villagers, and recur in every generation, so the crises in Skin are felt as common, similar, and recurrent ordeals, which must be suffered in every generation. Skin, like Our Town, is essentially a pathos, with little conflict—and that little unconvincing. The moral of the tale is the same: we have our being within the eternal verities, or the Mind of God. Thus at the end of Act I, when the Antrobus household in Excelsior, New Jersey, is getting ready to survive the Ice Age, Antrobus insists on saving Moses, Homer and the nine Muses (who are bums on the streets of New York) “to keep up our spirits.” Moses and Homer each quote a bit from their works, in Hebrew and Greek respectively; and then all join in singing Tenting Tonight. At the end of Act II the Flood provides a more sinister hint of the truth behind our heedless lives (like the marriage in Our Town); and at the end of Act III bits from Spinoza, Plato, Aristotle and Genesis are quoted by members of the backstage staff. The quotations proclaim the intellectual love of God, and are supposed to be thought of as hours of the night, from nine to midnight, passing over our heads like the stars: an effect very much like the one in Our Town, when George and Rebecca are seen in the moonlight, with stars beyond, and beyond that the Mind of God.

All of this works very well in the theater, when “the greater number” is there to guffaw at the scenery when it leans precariously, the wise cracks aimed at the peanut gallery, and the racial jokes in the cozy style of Abie's Irish Rose; or to grow still and dewy-eyed when the old familiar tunes are heard. But if one happens to be feeling a little morose—smothered perhaps by so thick an atmosphere of sheer warm-heartedness—or if one tries the experiment of reading the play in cold blood, the marriage of Plato and Groucho Marx may fail to appeal. It is too evident that the “material,” the actual texture, of the play, is a pastiche. The language is a collection of clichés, the characters unfused collections of familiar labels. Antrobus, for instance, consists of old jokes about the suburban householder, the middle-aged philanderer, and the Shriner on a binge, but he is also labeled the inventor of all human culture. The combination has no imaginative or intellectual unity at all. It is amusing and good-natured to set Moses, Homer and the nine Muses to singing Tenting Tonight, but what does Wilder's “greater number” get out of this reassuring effect? The austerity of the Ten Commandments, or tearful associations with last summer's bonfire at Camp Tamiment?

A reading of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth suggests that Wilder's extraordinary freedom and virtuosity in the theater is gained through eluding rather than solving the problem which most playwrights feel as basic: that of embodying form and meaning in character and language. If he had addressed himself to that problem in Skin, Antrobus, as the father-pilot of the race, would have had to sound a little more like Spinoza and a little less like George F. Babbitt. But Wilder has seen how it is possible to leave the “greater number” in peace with the material understandable to it, and Plato in peace in the supratemporal realm of the Mind of God. He is thus able to be “for” Plato (as politicians of every persuasion are for Peace, Freedom and Prosperity), and at the same time devote his great gifts to entertaining the crowd or “group mind.”

This type of allegory is perfectly in accord with the Platonic kind of philosophy which it is designed to teach. The great Ideas are timeless, above the history of the race and the history of actual individuals. Any bit of individual or racial history will do, therefore, to “illustrate” them; but history and individual lives lack all real being: they are only shadows on the cave wall. It may be part of Wilder's consciously intended meaning that the material understandable to the greater number—comic-supplement jokes, popular tunes—is junky and illusory. That would be one explanation of the bodiless and powerless effect of his theater, as compared, for instance, with Brecht's. Brecht's vision is narrow and myopic, but a sense of the reality (at however brutal a level) of individual experience is truly in it. Brecht's philosophy is, of course, a philosophy of history, and leads him naturally to sharpest embodiments in the temporal struggle. But Wilder's philosophy lacks the historic dimension, and its intellectual freedom is therefore in danger of irrelevancy, pretentiousness and sentimentality.

Wilder's art, as I pointed out above, has not yet been critically digested or expounded. Wilder occupies a unique position, between the Great Books and Parisian sophistication one way, and the entertainment industry the other way, and in our culture this region, though central, is a dark and almost uninhabited no man's land. Partly for that reason, his accomplishments must seem rather puzzling and paradoxical. The attempt which I have been making, to take him seriously as allegorizing moralist, may be much too solemn. His plays belong in the theater; they have their proper life only there, like the tricks of a stage magician. When the man pulls the rabbit out of the hat, the glamour of the occasion suffices: it is inappropriate to enquire whether he has really materialized a new creature, or only hauled out, by the ears, the same old mild vegetarian pet. …

III

It is the peculiarity of the kind of allegory represented by Brecht, Wilder and Eliot that the author assumes the truth and the acceptability of the moral to be taught. It is this which distinguishes contemporary allegory from the old-fashioned thesis-play, in which the thesis is directly discussed and supposedly proved to the satisfaction of all parties to the dispute. Thus Brecht assumes his Marxian doctrine as something his audience can get through apothegmatic references, signals instantly clear to those who know. And in analogous ways Wilder and Eliot assume their Platonic or religious philosophies, reminding their audiences of the ancient truths rather than arguing, or trying to induce a fresh perception. All three allegorists, in other words, write “as if” their audiences were with them: this attitude is the basis of their didactic strategies.

But in order to teach that way in the theater, each playwright must put on the stage some aspect of human life, some mode of action, which his audience will recognize, and which at the same time harmonizes with the idea to be taught. All of them would presumably accept Wilder's dictum, that the basis of the playwright's art is in “the unfolding of an idea”; yet each one, in the necessary effort to bring life to the stage, instinctively “imitates an action.” In each case the action of the play is the connecting link between the audience and the author's ideas. And I believe that the action is a better index of the actual spiritual content of the plays than the ideas which the playwrights wish to teach.

Thus Wilder writes “as if” we were all good-hearted home folks together (his diagnosis of the assumption underlying our popular entertainment): “I don't think the theater is a place where people's feelings ought to be hurt,” says Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. And in Our Town we read, in the “serious talk” that George and Emily have in their late teens:

EMILY:
I always expect a man to be perfect and I think he should be.
GEORGE:
Oh … I don't think it's possible to be perfect, Emily.
EMILY:
Well, my father is, and as far as I can see your father is. There's no reason on earth why you shouldn't be too.
GEORGE:
Well, Emily … I feel it's the other way round. That men aren't naturally good; but girls are. Like you and your mother and my mother.

George and Emily, like Sabina and the other characters in Wilder's two plays, are trying to “feel good,” and it is that action which the audience sympathetically imitates, sharing its Sunday school righteousness and its smiling tears of delicious embarrassment. Wilder counts on the analogy between this bathetic attempt to feel good and the action recommended in the classic counsel: “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Through this analogy he proposes to remind us of the Good, the True and the Beautiful in the Mind of God. But the analogy, if it exists, is extremely remote; and the idea, if one tries to apprehend it at any sort of adult level, is not incarnate in the action. It remains a bodiless allusion, hardly appropriate to the squirms and sniffles we indulge in while feeling good with George and Emily.

Brecht, approaching the modern crowd from an opposite angle, writes “as if” we were all condemned to the single-minded pursuit of material satisfaction, nimbly filching each other's shirts (and wives) in the myopic old game of pleasure and power. The idea he wishes to teach—by allusion—is the Marxian Utopian idealism; but what gives his plays their carrying power is again the least common denominator of action. It is the sardonic hilarity of the squabble that we share and enjoy.

Eliot is of course a far more serious and searching moralist than Wilder or Brecht. And the plan of The Confidential Clerk calls for a more balanced, varied and comprehensive composition of analogous actions leading to the perception of an order, rather than to a mere idea. The action, according to plan, would be “to discover what I really wish for.” At the bottom of the scale would be Sir Claude, with his timid, snobbish diagnosis of his wishes; at the top, Colby, when he finally sees that his true wish would be obedience to God. But in order to establish contact with the audience he has in mind Eliot is obliged to write “as if” we were all brought up in good society, careful in matters of taste, keeping a stiff upper lip for politeness' sake; embarrassed by metaphysics. And on this basis, he, like Wilder, can realize only a very reduced version of the action his plot calls for. What we actually see and feel in that drawing room are plausible types endeavoring to formulate their dim wishes within the limits of social convention. And in the ensuing conversations there is little to choose between Colby and Sir Claude: the action, thus circumscribed, is so narrow that the difference between salvation and damnation is hardly perceptible. The hierarchy Eliot wishes to teach is present only as it is somewhat artificially alluded to in talk.

Wilder and Eliot both seek to teach certain ideas derived from the central religious-humanistic tradition, and in thinking over their results one is led to wonder—rather idly, perhaps—what it would take to reincarnate the ancient vision. Eliot speaks, in his essay on Baudelaire, of “the adjustment of the natural to the spiritual, of the bestial to the human, and the human to the supernatural.” One can see how this formula might apply to Lear, for example: the natural, the spiritual, the bestial, the human and the supernatural are all present with the weight and authority of experience; all alive with the imagined lives of the characters and their relationships; all “adjusted” to one another in countless suggestive ways. But one cannot see how, even if a genius like Shakespeare were available, any such comprehensive picture of human nature and destiny could be squeezed into our show shops. Eliot and Wilder do not, of course, make the attempt. Their plays are designed in accordance with their diagnoses of the “group mind” of the contemporary theater. Therein is their originality, and also their technical interest and their significance as signs of the times. It is discouraging to find that they connect with their audiences only by way of nostalgia, flattering daydream, or “wish”—finding thereby no way to incarnate their meanings, teaching only by concepts and allusion.

Brecht's plays do not have this bodiless quality. His materialistic philosophy does not connote the problem of “incarnation”: you might say that his characters are all “carne,” and that the destructive half of his revolutionary creed—each thing meeting in mere oppugnancy—is brilliantly realized in his theater. But the other half, the Marxian Utopia, is at least as unrealized as Eliot's and Wilder's moral and religious ideas. If one regards Brecht as a Marxian idealist one may feel in his work as well as in that of Wilder and Eliot, the force of Yeats's nightmare:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The aims of those who seek to make an allegorical form for the modern theater, in order to teach the group mind indirectly, by way of some mode of action which they can recognize and accept, would seem to be natural and right. But it is hard to see how this effort can get much farther in our theater as it is. Brecht, Wilder and Eliot, with their varied talents and their extraordinary technical resourcefulness, have shown us what is possible in that line.

George D. Stephens (essay date February 1959)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3427

SOURCE: Stephens, George D. “Our Town as a Failed Tragedy.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 83-92. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in Modern Drama in February 1959, Stephens argues against characterizing Our Town as a tragedy and concludes that the play's popularity is due to its folksiness and appeal to nostalgia.]

In our longing for an unattainable perfection, perhaps it is to be expected that the attempt to find “the great American novel” and “the great American drama” should continue. But ours is a nation of great size and remarkable variety; it poses a complex problem for the writer who attempts to synthesize and interpret its life for us. Though this is doubtful, considering the nature of art and our subjective reaction to it, in time a work may appear which will by overwhelming weight of opinion be awarded the title of “the greatest.” Meanwhile, this search sometimes leads to extravagant claims.

Such a claim, which seems unwarranted in view of the limits of the play set by the author, has been made for Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Professor Arthur H. Ballet, writing in The English Journal of May, 1956, finds in Our Town “the great American drama.” This judgment seems to have been encouraged by the continuing popularity of the play as evidenced in performances, mainly in college and community theatres, and by discussion in critical and academic circles. Cited also is the choice of Wilder as their “favorite living playwright” by a group of American dramatists polled in The Saturday Review.

It is not my purpose to denigrate Our Town, which is, within the limits of its subject, form, and point of view, an interesting and valuable play. But one must challenge the claim that it is the greatest American play; that it is an outstanding tragedy; and that Emily is “a tragic figure of enormous dimensions.” Necessarily this discussion will have to take the form, in part, of an examination of Professor Ballet's article.

According to his analysis, Our Town is like classic tragedy in several respects. Structurally it is a trilogy, with each act serving as a separate play; Act Three expands “the first parts of the trilogy into a complex of eternity where the mystery of life is culminated in death. Like its Greek predecessors, Our Town is concerned with the great and continuing cycle of life … man's closest understanding of eternity, his finest artistic expression of what he senses to be a mission and a purpose. The trilogy, thus considered, admirably reinterprets this concept in modern terms and language and form, finding its roots in what is probably the finest drama of all time: Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.” The Stage Manager, who serves as chorus, is further evidence of affinity with classic drama: “[He] represents the observing community … his serious but twinkling control of the progress of the play [prevents] over-identification, which would destroy the higher implications. …” There is, also, a classic simplicity in the setting. “Returning to a theatrical tradition ranging from Athens to Elizabethan England, [the play] returns … to a plane of imagination rather than realistic reproduction and soars above mundane distractions of actuality. …”

At first glance, in this interpretation, Our Town falls short of accomplishing the purgation and ennoblement called for by Aristotle as essential effects of tragedy; but further analysis shows that death “is the fear-agent employed as a catharsis,” and Emily, “the smallest of God's creatures, a young mother who becomes aware of the tragedy of life,” is ennobled by death “to understand how wonderful life is. …” Further, Wilder establishes Grover's Corners as a part of the cosmos, thus pointing the way to “a higher level of understanding” of the rôle played by man. In accord with Aristotelian standards, therefore, the play is “elevating” and “approaches significance as a tragedy.”

Admittedly the play is sentimental. Frank M. Whiting (An Introduction to the Theatre) is quoted: “It [Our Town] is an honest and revealing portrait of small-town American life. It has been criticized as sentimental, but American life is sentimental; Emily, George, and the others give us a far more genuine insight into twentieth-century American living than do the studies of neurotics, gangsters and the sexually frustrated.” However, Professor Ballet believes this sentimentality is “without sententiousness; [the play] has romance without romanticism, and innocence without naïvete.” Finally, although the criticism that the first two acts are comic and the third tragic is “in a sense true, and obviously in contradiction of Aristotelian principles … Life is both ‘the human comedy’ and ‘the incredible fate’ of man.” And the conclusion is: “As Our Town quite brilliantly shows, life is a paradox, and so it is not amazing that man paradoxically retains his faith that in death, too, there is life and a great consciousness. Like Oedipus before her, Emily finds a place in dramatic literature as a tragic figure of enormous dimensions, for in her blindness, or death, she gains the true ability to see and understand.”

The foregoing, I hope, represents the essential aspects of the article. In summarizing, probably I have done it less than justice, but I have tried to give it as accurately as possible in this abridged form.

THE MOTIVATING IDEA OF EACH ACT

It is questionable whether Our Town can be called tragedy at all in any worthy definition of the term. Surely it does not fit Aristotelian standards; or, to put it another way, it is not like Greek tragedy. The three acts are like the separate plays of Aeschylus' Oresteia in not much more than that Wilder divided his play into three acts and gave each a theme or motivating idea. Consider the Oresteia: each play, while essential to the great whole, is complete within itself, with carefully built up situation and plot, characterization in variety and depth, and conflict leading to a solution. Imaginatively we participate in and are moved by the power and beauty of Agamemnon and the other plays because in each Aeschylus has created the details of a complete story.

Act One of Our Town, illustrating or symbolizing The Daily Life of Grover's Corners, could not possibly stand alone as a complete play, nor could the other acts. More than a third of Act One, in fact, is comment of a sociological or historical nature. Through the Stage Manager, who acts as both commentator and participant—and as such he has a function similar to that of the Greek chorus—and others, we are given selected information about this small New Hampshire town as it was in the early part of the twentieth century. (Incidentally, the Stage Manager and the scenery, or lack of it, are reminiscent of the Chinese theatre, with which Wilder is known to be familiar.) Employing short, episodic scenes, Wilder focuses on two middle-class families, the Webbs and the Gibbs, who are evidently meant to be typical of such small-town American people. His emphasis is on social relationships rather than on individual character, on the town rather than on Mrs. Gibbs or George or Emily.

Act Two, entitled Love and Marriage, carries on the story of the town by giving further information and, more important, by concentrating on the two young people who create a family and thus insure the town's continued existence. Wilder establishes a somewhat deeper emotional involvement with his characters than in Act One by his skillful description of love, courtship, and marriage, but again George and Emily are not sharply and deeply individualized. They are, and are meant to be, symbols of youth; they are abstractions or forces clothed in words. “People were made to live two-by-two,” says the Stage Manager, emphasizing the social relationship.

Act Three, extending the story through death into eternity and so raising it to a universal plane, is the principal basis for the claims made for the play as significant tragedy. In death Emily discovers, as have the other dead, that the living are troubled and blind, and that life is short and sad. In considerable part Wilder focuses on Emily to illustrate these truths, but again her character, as an individual, fails to acquire depth. She is still only one of the group who are given much attention and who, all of them together, living and dead, symbolize the persistence of human life as it exists in the community. The cycle of life persists, the life of the town, a small but significant part of mysterious eternity. In short, Emily is not the protagonist of the play; the protagonist is the town itself.

THE PLAY'S EXPRESSIONISM

The expressionist form chosen for the play is well adapted to the author's purposes. In “The Family in Modern Drama” (The Atlantic Monthly, April, 1956), Arthur Miller suggests that realism is the best medium for presentation of “the primarily familial relation,” expressionism for “the primarily social relation.” He cites Our Town as an example of the latter. While I can think of dramatists who use expressionism successfully to interpret individual and family relationships (Strindberg, Pirandello, O'Neill, for instance, and to a certain extent Miller himself in Death of a Salesman), I agree that expressionism is well adapted to emphasize social ideas or forces. More obviously symbolic than realism, more “theatrical” in that it does not seek primarily to produce an illusion of reality, expressionism forces the audience into a more intellectual or objective attitude.

However, such objectivity does not, I believe, provide a strong medium for tragedy. While he is involved in society, the individual must be the hero and the victim of tragedy. Oedipus and Hamlet and Lear are in part symbolic, but more important, they are multi-dimensional, fully realized personalities. They “come alive,” as they must do to provide the emotional involvement necessary for the tragic reaction. I am aware of the presentational or symbolic quality in Greek tragedy; in a sense, the technique was similar to that of modern expressionism. We, of course, cannot know just what the reaction of the Greek audience was, but it must have been conscious of the actors as larger than life-size, as symbolic figures. At the same time, I cannot believe that it did not also participate in the fortunes of the tragic characters as representatives of living people; it must have recognized universal human qualities in them, rejoiced and suffered with them. Else why should Aristotle name terror and pity as productive of catharsis? The last plays of Aeschylus, and certainly the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, were, as all tragedy must be, basically realistic. From story, from what happens to the characters, comes meaning, come terror and pity and beauty. And what stories the Greeks told!

EMILY AS A PATHETIC FIGURE

Through the continual intervention of the Stage Manager, Wilder never allows his audience to forget that it is witnessing a symbolic presentation. But no one can feel about a town as he does about a person. Insofar as he focuses on his people, Wilder involves his audience with them emotionally as well as intellectually; but it is not a strong, complex involvement. Emily is simple and superficial; she typifies the sweet, innocent girl who progresses normally through adolescent awakening into courtship, marriage, and early death in childbirth. The sketchiest comparison with Oedipus, Electra, Medea, Hamlet, Lear, or for that matter Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman, Blanche of A Streetcar Named Desire, or Mio of Winterset, shows how far she falls short. The tragic protagonist, fully realized as an individual, is involved from beginning to end in an impossible struggle with fate, circumstance, or society, with his antagonists, himself, and death—doomed to failure but perhaps finding or projecting, after immense suffering, a kind of reconciliation or enlightenment. To him, what must be, cannot be; what cannot be, must be. Emily does not struggle; things merely happen to her. Her fate is the common one, and it evokes a gentle sadness. She is pathetic, not tragic.

Is Emily ennobled, and the audience or reader “elevated,” by her understanding of “how wonderful life is”? What she as a character understands mainly, it seems to me, and this only after death, is that the living are ignorant and troubled and that life is short and sad. She is made to say, “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” Perhaps this is true, but it is hardly either profound or elevating. (Indeed, one might suppose that there are people who understand, while still living, something about the nature of life: evidently Wilder himself does.) True, in the play as a whole Wilder apparently wishes to illustrate the paradoxical nature of life: persistent and wonderful as well as short and troubled. But again, the context chosen, and therefore the effect produced, is not that of tragedy; it is, rather, that of gentle nostalgia or, to put it another way, sentimental romanticism.

GROVER'S CORNERS AS A ROMANTIC SETTING

The assertion that Our Town is of the romantic genre is defensible on several counts. One notes that Wilder chooses fantasy in Act Three to convey the full measure of his meaning, basing his presentation on the romantic assumption that there is an existence after death. What other play highly regarded as tragic, of the past or contemporary, calls on such fantasy? Tragedy shows the agonies of its people in this life, draws its meaning and its catharsis from experience in the here and now.

Further, the picture of small town or village life—again, Our Town's theme and chief preoccupation—owes much to the nineteenth-century American sentimental myth of the beautiful people of the beautiful village, a myth scotched once for all, one would have thought, by the likes of Edgar Watson Howe, Harold Frederic, Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner. Significantly, Wilder chooses the pre-World War I decade for his time, a simpler, more peaceful era, one that can be seen by an American audience through a nostalgic haze evoked by memories (or illusions) of “the good old days in the old home town.” The picture of Grover's Corners and its people is highly selective: omitted are mean, sordid, cruel, generally unpleasant details. These are wholesome, pleasant, average or normal, “good” people; and wholesome, pleasant, average or normal, “good” things (including death) happen to them. It is, as Emily says, “a very nice town”—too nice, from a rational and realistic point of view. There are, as Frank Whiting points out, no neurotics, gangsters, or sexually frustrated people; deleted, in fact, are sex (except the romantic variety), violence, cruelty, poverty. Even the town problem, Simon Stimson, who comes drunk to direct choir practice and finally (we are told, not shown) kills himself, is treated with admirable (and therefore sentimental because it is unconvincing) understanding and tolerance by his fellow citizens.

What we have here, then, is substitution of secluded garden for world. (In contrast, Shakespeare has Mercutio outside the garden cracking bawdy jokes about girls at the same time that Romeo and Juliet are making ecstatic love.) It is true that Wilder takes pains to establish Grover's Corners as part of the universe, or “the mind of God,” as he puts it. The town, he seems to be saying, is integral with a process which is permanent, orderly, and good. Assuredly the play is a statement of faith in man. During the wedding the Stage Manager stops the action to comment on the eternity of which man is part: “And don't forget the other witnesses at the wedding—the ancestors. Millions of them.” He also says, “… every child born into the world is nature's attempt to make a perfect human being.”

This is the view of romantic naturalism: with Newtonian and Cartesian rationalism as distant base, strained through the idealistic sensibilities of Rousseau, Kant, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Emerson, Whitman, and sentimentalized by the Victorians. It recalls the lines from Pippa Passes, “God's in his heaven, / All's right with the world!”—which did not represent Browning's feeling but which have come to stand for the smug optimism of some of his middle-class contemporaries. By suggesting this idea, Our Town acquires depth and dimension; but it is not thereby raised to the status of tragedy. The universe includes Grover's Corners, but Grover's Corners does not include the universe. That is to say, the reading of life here is heavily weighted with sentimental optimism; Our Town ignores a complex of knowledge revealed to us through experience, reason, and science.

The affirmations of tragedy, its statement of faith in man's strength and courage, are not like the bland assurance of this play. Tragedy is stern, beyond tears. Man endures in spite of capricious, incredible and unendurable fate or circumstance; in spite of guilt and weakness; in spite of enormous, soul-shattering pain. In his dilemma the tragic protagonist understands little or nothing about the forces which are destroying him—until, perhaps, a glimmer of light appears as he faces death; yet he is defiant or at least stoical. Esdras' speech at the end of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset has the spirit of tragedy:

… this is the glory of earth-born men and women, not to cringe, never to yield, but standing, take defeat implacable and defiant, die unsubmitting. …

… in this hard star-adventure, knowing not what the fires mean to right and left, nor whether a meaning was intended or presumed, man can stand up, and look out blind, and say: in all these turning lights I find no clue, only a masterless night, and in my blood no certain answer, yet is my mind my own, yet is my heart a cry toward something dim in distance, which is higher than I am and makes me emperor of the endless dark even in seeking!

In questioning the claim that Our Town is tragedy of a high order I do not, as I have said, wish to deny that it has considerable interest and value. Certainly it has been popular. Professor Ballet is worried that it may be ignored merely because it is popular, and he is concerned to account for the popularity, for the “tragic complexities” of the play do not explain its affectionate appeal. This, he believes, rests on the picture of familiar daily life, showing “the homely verities of human existence.” He implies, though he does not directly say so, that the play gives us an idealized version of life: “If Our Town does not reflect life as it really is, at least it suggests what the daily life should be like, and the audience approves.”

THE POPULARITY OF THE PLAY

This is perceptive: Our Town is popular, in part at least, because it is not tragic. The American public has approved of it because of its charming, folksy presentation of simple, “good” people, its sentimentally idealized account of the small town. It projects a vision of a time and place which have vanished from the American scene, which never existed in fact—not just as shown in the play, at any rate—but which some people believe or like to think existed. So they view this symbolic picture of Grover's Corners through a mist of gentle, romantic nostalgia. Further, the optimistic assurance that this town has an enduring place in an orderly, meaningful universe, plus the statement of faith in man, carries strong appeal. In addition, the “truths” about life discovered by Emily and the others—that the living are blind, troubled, etc., are just such observations as would impress the average audience. Emily's pathetic death, popularly mistaken for tragedy, is evocative of tender feelings of pity. And finally, the expressionist technique, unusual or unfamiliar to many, adds an extra fillip of interest. It is not difficult to account for the play's popularity.

Within the limits of its purpose, subject, and form, certainly Our Town is a valuable contribution to the drama and culture of the United States. It is indeed worthy of respect and praise. However, I do not believe it is at present established as the greatest American play, and certainly it is not, in my opinion, a play which ranks with the great tragedies—not, in fact, a tragedy at all.

In his engaging article, “A Platform and a Passion or Two” (Harper's Magazine, October, 1957), Mr. Wilder writes: “And as I view the work of my contemporaries I seem to feel that I am exceptional in one thing—I give (don't I?) the impression of having enormously enjoyed it [life]?” Yes, but this is not, is it, the mental climate which produces a writer of tragedy?

Helmut Papajewski (essay date 1961)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5895

SOURCE: Papajewski, Helmut. “Our Town.” In Thornton Wilder, translated by John Conway, pp. 91-108. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1968.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in German in 1961, Papajewski examines Our Town in the context of an American literary tradition focused on small-town life. Papajewski explores Wilder's adaptation of this literary archetype to theatrical production in Our Town.]

Wilder's first major play appeared in 1938. He had occupied himself with the drama before that, but the results at most were tentative: one-act pieces that ran to just a few pages in length, and adaptations of foreign plays such as André Obey's Le Viol de Lucrèce.

Wilder's earlier attempts at drama had prompted in him reflections on literary theory. The plays of Obey offered many stimuli. The theatrical group to which Obey belonged, the Compagnie de Quinze, staged experimental plays in the years 1930 to 1936, and some of its members were also associated with the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier, which Wilder often visited. Obey was what Wilder very much aspired to be, an actor-manager. He had experimented with a variety of dramatic styles, and had employed themes not remote from Wilder's own. His Lucrèce was written in the style of Greek tragedy, with copious use of chorus and commentators, and his play Noé treated the theme of the Deluge.

The impulses that Wilder received through the French theater were enlarged by his foreign travel. This meant a great deal in the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties, for the European theater was then experiencing a great enthusiasm for experiment: the expressionist drama and the political play in Berlin, Pirandello's concept of the theater brought to the public, the people's play in Vienna.

A brief reference to these theatrical Wanderjahre of Wilder seems necessary if we are to avoid a distorted view of Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, which must be seen against the history of the contemporary theater. Both plays when they first appeared were judged by European critics primarily as experimental pieces, and some American critics too believed that Our Town owed its success to its “stunt quality.”1

In Europe many regarded Our Town as the prelude—in its form, or its disintegration of form, depending on one's point of view—to The Skin of Our Teeth. In the sequence of performances of Wilder's plays in Germany, The Skin of Our Teeth often preceded Our Town, and the audience viewed the latter play as a mild prelude to, or a mere part of the prehistory of, The Skin of Our Teeth.

Apart from its—admittedly important—formal aspect, Our Town does not represent anything positively new in American literature. Since Edgar Lee Masters treated it in lyric form in his Spoon River Anthology (1915), the small town has become one of modern America's favorite literary themes. It achieved an almost worldwide fame with Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt and Main Street, and it continued after Lewis to provide a ready illustration of boredom, banality, endless repetition—the very themes that largely determined the existentialist literature in America. In the small town, though there too man is concerned with the business of living, he is not so absorbed in the struggle for existence as he is in the large American city. The latter received its decisive treatment with Dreiser, after significant beginnings by Herrick, Crane, Poole and Howells.2

The small community that Wilder portrays in Our Town is of course one that is almost in a preserved state. The stage manager's comments place us in the year 1938, or the present, i.e., the time of the particular performance. But the actual life of this small town transpires between the years 1901 and 1913, so that the town is spared the effects of the most recent industrial trends. Today's small town—unlike the Grover's Corners of the play—has each its own daily police report and its own incidence of vice, and not just in the form of a drunkard like Simon Stimson. Simon is himself middle class, and the town society ignores or glosses over his frailty; many details about him we learn only after his death.

Though it was written at a time when sociology plays a great role in America as elsewhere, and though its title would lead one to expect matter of sociological interest, the play's strictly sociological side is not too important. In part that aspect is even treated ironically by the stage manager, in part it is handled by questioning and by interjected calls from members of the cast who are placed out in the audience. The figure of the rustic Professor Willard, with his pedantry and scientific circumlocution, underscores the ironic manner. Willard's statements on geology and demography lend of course a certain natural-science and social-science aspect to the content, but this is unquestionably not the dramatist's essential aim.

Now and again one can gather further sociological data from the action of the play, as for example the fact that this small New England town has a proletarian or semiproletarian Polish quarter with its own present or potential social problems. All this is, however, much less important than the world of the little man. That world definitely extends into the academic class, and indeed has in that class its model exemplification. In its external life it is strongly absorbed in its professional concerns. Yet it is not so lost in meditation but that its actions and especially its words bring home to the audience the little man's concern with the great questions of youth, marriage, and death, so that the observer—if he is not socially biased—can identify himself with these people. The play gains life thereby, though it is a life that seems much reduced by the absence of many of the external features to which the average playgoer is still very much accustomed.

His first surprise awaits him in the appearance of the stage itself, uncurtained and open. In this play bourgeois drama's box-sets are dispensed with. Furnishings are either eliminated or replaced by a few token articles of furniture that merely suggest to the audience's imagination that which is missing.

With such sets as these, Wilder showed his decided opposition to the traditional box-set stage. In this he was by no means alone; in Europe a movement against the box-set stage had begun with the advent of expressionistic drama about 1910. This current became noticeable in the American theater in the nineteen-twenties, first in the great dramas of O'Neill and then in the plays of Elmer Rice and some lesser-known authors. For a time, however, its influence remained rather limited.

Wilder repeatedly took issue with the traditional three-walled stage, particularly in an article that Longmans, Green & Co. subsequently published in the volume Three Plays. In this article Wilder tells how in the nineteen-twenties he lost his love of the theater, how he found the stage offerings unbelievable and regretted that the theater did not make use of its natural possibilities.3

These possibilities derived naturally from the purposes of drama, which must avoid outward features which distract and confuse, if the audience is to recognize in the play its own situation. As Wilder observes, it is no coincidence that in the nineteenth century the middle class avoided just this. It was because it hated the passions that it gave such a strong affirmation to the theater of illusion in the form of the box-set stage. For Wilder, on the other hand, the aim is to employ the illusion-destroying media of the drama and stage. Only by these means can the degagé audience, produced by the old-style theater, be eliminated.

Drama offers Wilder the opportunity to bring his literary anthropology to the fore. In his reflections on the principles of drama he also stresses this by reverting to the differences between the novel and the drama: the novel individualizes, the drama typifies. To be sure, the individual too has its significance in drama, but in addition there is the repetitive pattern which orients the audience to generalities.

The bare stage, which is ready for these essential things, is, therefore, one of Wilder's basic demands. In a modification of Molière's saying that a couple of boards and one or two passions were all he needed for a drama, Wilder asks for five square feet of planks and the “passion to know what life means to us.”4 In Our Town the props have been reduced to a minimum. A few chairs and tables serve as the kitchen, stepladders suggest different floors, and a plank serves as the bar. A few rows of chairs stand for graves. More rows of chairs, together with the projection of a small lancet window on the stage's back wall, represent the village church.

In all this the audience is not left in the dark as to the fact that many of these hints are merely aids for those persons who are lacking in imagination. The stage manager announces ironically that there is also a furnished stage for those who need that sort of thing. And the stage is completely without props when Emily returns to earth to re-live her twelfth birthday.

Accentuating the bareness of the stage is the fact that the usual activity of the actors has been replaced by pantomime. The drama of our time has helped revive this art; Brecht and Claudel have employed it in some of their plays. The French had the added advantage that in recent decades they had among their actors some outstanding artists of pantomime. Wilder became familiar with the significance of pantomime for the drama especially through the Oriental theater, in particular the Japanese Nô-plays, which found an interested audience in America.

What at first glance seems in Our Town to be a rather arbitrary experiment or whimsical primitiveness, are expressions of Wilder's dramatic concept, which takes issue with the technique of drama and stagecraft that has evolved in the theater.

Another illusion-destroying feature—as seen by the tradition-minded theatergoer—is the prominence accorded to the stage manager, with his many and varied functions in introducing, accompanying and concluding the play.

The drama begins with these words, spoken by the stage manager:

This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder; produced and directed by A. … (or: produced by A. … ; directed by B. …). In it you will see Miss C. … ; Miss D. … ; Miss E. … ; and Mr. F. … ; Mr. G. … ; Mr. H. … ; and many others. The name of the town is Grover's Corners, New Hampshire,—just across the Massachusetts line: longitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; latitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The time is just before dawn.5

These lines perform the function that the program does in the usual kind of play. They name the author, director, and actors, and the place and time of the action. But here again is an admixture of irony: the exact geographical location of Grover's Corners (“longitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; latitude 70 degrees 37 minutes”6) is given with a scientific pedantry that also emerges at other points of the play and is a gentle satire on a certain primitive kind of realism.

But in these comic didactic pedantries (including those of Professor Willard on geology) there is at the same time a kernel of significance for the play's broad design. It is that everything with which the play is concerned, though small in itself, is embedded in a great context: it is as old as stone, and is firmly placed in the order of the world and the universe.

Leaning casually against the proscenium pillar and smoking his pipe, the stage manager lets the professional people speak and supply the exposition. What was the function of dialogue in classical drama is here left entirely to the stage manager. In addition he has the task of announcing the individual acts and giving each its title. At the beginning of the Second Act he divides up the play as follows: “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This Act is called Love and Marriage. There's another Act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that's about.”7

By addressing the public directly, the stage manager destroys the usual separation between the stage and the audience. Just as in many novels the author, from his vantage point of knowledge, converses with his reader, so also the omniscient and omnipotent stage manager talks very familiarly with his audience. This familiarity is seen in his encouraging phrases and rhetorical questions and in the way he occasionally addresses the audience as “folks” or “friends,” a form of address that Wilder is rather fond of using in his own lectures. Occasionally the stage manager turns to a specific group in the audience; thus when a kitchen scene is played on the stage, he addresses the housewives. Nor is he the only character in this play who speaks directly to the public; the newspaper publisher Webb does too in his general discussion concerning the town.

Wilder would probably like best a full and spontaneous participation by the audience in various scenes of the play. This would mean an end to audience passivity and the liquidation of the old-style theater. Such attempts were also made by other authors at the end of the nineteen-twenties and the beginning of the thirties, but they foundered on the fact that today's audience is unsuited to such experiments.

In Our Town, to overcome the gap between the stage and the audience, players are concealed among the audience. Examples are the lady in the balcony who asks about alcoholism in Grover's Corners, the lady in the loge who inquires as to the state of culture there, and the class-conscious and argumentative man in the second balcony who poses deep politico-social questions.

In the staging of Our Town—and not only here—we see Wilder's efforts to eliminate the old barriers. Steps and gangways lead down into the audience, and these are used. The Elizabethan stage, especially the apron stage, may have given Wilder a number of ideas.

The stage manager has also to introduce the characters. In this role he is a kind of announcer, a figure that is not without its precedent in the theater, going back to the medieval plays. But in addition to his being an announcer, his words reveal a knowledge of the future fates of the characters in the play.

The stage manager has great power to arrange his world, but at the same time he is himself in this world. He speaks of “our town,” and his words are the usual American colloquial speech, with its easy careless informality. They put him on the same plane as the audience. Where it seems to him necessary, the stage manager takes the part of one of the characters. In the ballgame scene he is the admonishing Mrs. Hicks, at the double wedding he is the clergyman, and in the early love scenes between George and Emily he is the drugstore soda clerk.

The stage manager not only assumes these roles in the play; he also occasionally reflects upon them. Thus when he plays the clergyman, he remarks that in this role he would be better able to comment on the play. He then mentions the confusion of feelings which is usual at weddings and must be included in such a play.

In this wedding I play the minister. That gives me the right to say a few more things about it. For a while now the play gets pretty serious. Y'see, some churches say that marriage is a sacrament. I don't quite know what that means, but I can guess. Like Mrs. Gibbs said a few minutes ago: People were made to live two-by-two. This is a good wedding, but people are so put together that even at a good wedding there's a lot of confusion way down deep in people's minds and we thought that that ought to be in our play, too.8

The epic quality, to which the stage manager is already predisposed, and which is further accentuated in his character by the everyday plot, is made distinct in the very play itself by the stage manager's words we have just quoted. The play's surface—solid in the traditional theater—has taken on a transparent quality.

The special character of the play conducted by the stage manager is also brought out by his thanking the players after each scene.9 He signals to players from behind the scenes when he thinks they are exceeding the bounds of good taste, as when George's baseball teammates make suggestive remarks before the wedding.

More important is the question of what effect Wilder expects the structural change made in a play by the stage manager to have on the development of the drama of his time. Undoubtedly the stage manager relieves the dialogue of some of its burden, at least the burden of all those external things that the realistic problem drama had introduced in the nineteenth century. To the British and American reader, schooled by George Bernard Shaw, this innovation would naturally appeal. Freed from this ballast, the dialogue—especially in Our Town, can address itself especially to human relations. But Wilder does not treat these relations at all in the way that the old romantic and poetic drama did. In Wilder these human relations signify rather a kind of Christian anthropology.

Wilder, who began as a teacher, makes no secret of the fact that he would like to be a kind of praeceptor mundi—not with arrogance but humility, yet with all the decisiveness that now stands behind his conception of the world. The stage manager is also the didactic: ironic yet kind, forgiving and at the same time educating.

In another connection Wilder, telling of the origin of the stage manager within the framework of his own writings, called him a “hangover from a novelist technique.”10 This clearly is to say that the stage manager is an epic factor within Wilder's drama. Peter Szondi believes that the preliminary stage to this epic ego, in the development of the drama, was Strindberg's Ghosts, in which one of the characters from the start has knowledge of all the others. This figure corresponds to the epic, omniscient narrator in the novel.11 To mere drama—not to say bare drama—there is added a figure who enlarges and explains the view of things, and, at times, also verbally embellishes it. This figure, though it naturally tends to be illusion-destroying, also appeals to man's illusion when it is a question of clarifying his existence. The stage manager can even recall the dead to the land of the living—something that in The Woman of Andros only Zeus could do.

Apart from these things, the stage manager in Our Town introduces ordinary middle-class Americans who believe that they are leading an individual life, and who would like to create the same illusion in those around them. Of course, he does not bring this life with all its varied activities immediately into the metaphysical sphere—which in Wilder's opinion is not so easy to achieve—but rather brings them into relation with general values. It is therefore characteristic that he does not ask, “How did the love between George and Emily begin?” but rather “How do such things begin?”12 This question concerns a basic human condition and not an actual social situation.

The meaning of such a question, which appears simple enough, is illuminated by another element in the design of this play. If it smacked of paradox that a play designed to reduce drama to its most elementary parts had an epic element introduced into it, it is even more of a paradox that in a play which is apparently the product of hyper-modern experimentalism, the three classical unities are observed, even if not very strictly. The action of Our Town takes place entirely in Grover's Corners. There are no real subsidiary plots—the bare stage, to begin with, restricts any such possibilities, and the time is so skillfully distributed over the three acts that one gains the impression that the classical “unity of time” is still in effect. It is true that the three acts take place on three different days, but the entire play is so designed for effect that it begins with a cock-crow, and ends with the stage manager bidding the audience goodnight in something like the role of a night watchman.

The individual acts of the play and the simple human activities in them give us the schedule of life in this town. At 5:45 a.m. is the departing whistle of the early train to Boston; soon after that the deliveries of milk and newspapers; then the mothers get up to make the children's breakfast; and the children go to school.

All this is presented to us in an exceedingly familiar way by means of whistles, ringing of bells, and calling. Yet the end effect has a certain subtlety: the audience has the impression of the constant passage of a segment of time. But this span of time moves in small time units. The view of time expressed in this First Act of Our Town is elucidated by a passage in one of Wilder's early works. In Pullman Car Hiawatha the stage manager says that the minutes are gossips, the hours philosophers, and the years theologians. This is paralleled in a later phase of Wilder's works, in The Skin of Our Teeth, where each of the late hours is interpreted by means of a passage from Spinoza, Plato, or Aristotle.

The First Act presents the time of bustling activity. The stage manager looks on all this with his watch in his hand. But the instrument that is man's best aid in reckoning time gives him no idea of the reality of time itself.

In the First Act the passage of time plays the great role. In Act Two there is, at the beginning, a reference to this in the fact that the attrition of time is made good by new births. Nature is the great adversary of time: “Nature's been pushing and contriving in other ways, too: a number of young people fell in love and got married.”13 There was a certain hint of this kind also in Act One that Wilder may even have meant mischievously, when we are told on Dr. Gibbs' first appearance that he is returning from the delivery of twins. This notation, incidentally, shows the stage manager is having a positively confusing knowledge of time in all its phases. Dr. Gibbs is introduced in one act that takes place in the year 1901. At the same time, however, the stage manager reports in the past tense that Dr. Gibbs died in 1930 and that later a hospital in town was named after him. The stage manager, the sapient one, has the present, past and future time equally at his disposal.

The Second Act has, however, another function. In Act One the Gibbs and Webb families live self-contained lives side by side with each other. Now they are linked together by the wedding of their children. A lasting bond has been created, which will, however, as we soon learn, be broken by the death of one of the parties. Time is not only a stream constantly flowing in small units; it also creates things that are final.

The key image in the plot of Act Two was the long middle aisle leading to the altar. In place of the parallel action of two families there is common action. In the Third Act there is again separation. The rows of chairs indicating graves dominate one side of the stage.

Wilder further emphasizes this theme of community and separation—sometimes ironically—by having the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” played or sung four times. First it is sung in Act One by housewives at a church rehearsal. Then it is whistled by Emily's father when she tells him of the letter with the strange address. At the wedding of George and Emily (both of whom are very nervous before the ceremony) it is the choral hymn. Lastly, it is the hymn chosen for Emily's burial.

Finally, Wilder uses the play to illustrate his view of identity and time. It is precisely the interweaving of the everyday and the metaphysical world that serves to illuminate this question.

The entire play begins—as we saw—with a day that is not exceptional, indeed, a day of exemplary mediocrity; and the life of the characters has in its entire course nothing out of the ordinary, despite a few accents that are “of the hour.” We know soon after the play has begun how everything is going to end, not because the play treats a familiar literary fable, but because it is a treatment of our ordinary life. There are hardly any differences in this usual sameness in the course of world history: in remote antiquity it is the same as in New England, we are told.14 In its concrete details, and in its political behavior, daily life in the various periods of world history may have been different, but in its essential everyday manifestations it remains the same.

There were also so-called exciting factors for the generation living in the United States in the nineteen-thirties. The stage manager makes reference to the Versailles Treaty and to Lindbergh's flight across the ocean. But they are less important for evaluating the man of the time than is his everyday life, which determines him as an anthropological type. A play like Our Town which says something about this should be placed in the cornerstone of the new building when a new Bank of Grover's Corners is built, so that “people in those years from now will know a few simple facts about us.”

Among these “simple facts” are the banal statements that are here set forth, and the conversations which are so simple in their words and content but are also, through an unerring instinct, so effective on the stage. An example of this is the almost identical conversations on the weather of May 9, 1901, July 7, 1901, and February 11, 1899. Truisms such as “It is unnatural to be alone” are repeated over and over in a number of variations, for in the final analysis the truisms rule the day.

The usual trend of American drama in Wilder's time seems in this play to have completely altered its direction. The abnormal, which so often dominated the stage, is here replaced by an almost unrelieved normality.

The play is largely without effect if the audience is not willing to identify itself with the play's content. To one who does make this identification, the “little world” of American academic life is his world, in which the so-called “events” have only an illustrative force. It is strange enough that the members of such a world should still place a value on identity. But the consciousness of identity is at the same time the force that keeps them attached to the old, and makes them so often timid toward every change. Reality is for them a life-devouring power of custom.

Personal identity in this play is not very strongly individualized; the author's characters largely run to type. At the very start, through the agency of the stage manager, Wilder reduces any excessive expectations. From these first statements, the audience cannot expect to find any extraordinary people in this play: “Nice town, y'know what I mean? Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it—s'far as we know.”15 The complete mediocrity of this town is clear from the somewhat euphemistic term “nice town,” followed by the stage manager's rhetorical question as to an understanding between himself and the audience.

There are of course individual traits in George and Emily, but—as with Rebecca and Wally—they are made to typify youth; this is brought home to us all the more by the parallel scenes, in which almost the same words are used. The adults, too, have one common denominator: Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs in their almost complete absorption in their household cares, and Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Webb, who in their historical hobbies (the Napoleonic period, early American history) hardly differ from each other in any essential respect.16

But despite their extensive absorption in the type, the persons in the play continue to hold fast to their identity, which they lose only with death. Thereafter, to the outward eye, they continue to appear as bearers of one or another of the many Anglo-Saxon names—Gibbs, Webb, Hersey, etc.—until finally relegated to the alphabetical order of a cemetery. Inwardly, however, they have difficulty getting released from their identity.

In the Third Act this is made clear in the fate of Emily. Here for the first time in one of his dramas Wilder treats the question of the return of the dead to earth. Emily is present at her own burial and speaks with the deceased. She is still uneasy and nervous, in contrast to the other dead, who have a large measure of poise and detachment: “The dead sit in a quiet without stiffness, and in a patience without listlessness,”17 so the stage directions tells us at the outset. Mother Gibbs must admonish Emily: “Just wait and be patient.”18 Even though the dead have not yet by any means lost their identity, they have nonetheless gained great peace. But they still have interest in some things, whether by way of liking or dislike. One of them likes to hear church hymns, and Mrs. Soames, who sees a stunt in all familiar events, still shows some cheerful receptiveness when familiar occasions present themselves, the burial not excluded.

Emily now already begins to realize something: “I never realized before how troubled and how … how in the dark live persons are.”19 Living people's inability to see has already become clear to her, but—despite the dead Mrs. Gibbs' warnings—Emily has not yet gained patience and detachment enough to be able to renounce life entirely. She expects a festive day of life to give human warmth and great earthly radiance. Deep familiarity with the happy everyday things and the expectation of great sympathetic and consuming human love make a return to her former life seem urgently desirable to her. She is forced to recognize that absorption in everyday cares do not allow man to share in true living.

Emily's conclusion from a renewed earthly experience is: “That's all human beings are—Just blind people. … That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those … of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another,” adds Simon Stimson.20

Her earlier question to the stage manager was: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” The answer of the stage manager is almost completely negative: “No.—The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” What the poets had to say is—leaving aside everything that is purely poetic and consequently of value by reason of its beauty of expression, and considering what they say purely as a metaphysical utterance—not very much. But they are in a position to grasp the brevity and the wonder of life, and possibly to portray the intensity of relations between humans, as well as the joy in the reflected splendor of earthly life.

Wilder develops in this play still another of his leading thoughts, namely, that the idea of the eternal is specifically linked to man. In the explanatory and introductory remarks to the Third Act the stage manager gives expression to this idea. He refers expressly to the fact that people already knew this truth. But out of a kind of pedagogic necessity, because people do not come very often to grips with this truth, he mentions it again: “I don't care what they say with their mouth—everybody knows that something is eternal. And it ain't houses, and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings … There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being.”21 The eternal, which reaches still farther than the visible star—which Wilder so often evokes as a beacon and mainstay in the course of earthly life, and which even appears in the memories of dead people—can be gained only through the loss of identity, through distance, through separation from unrest: “They're waitin'. They're waitin' for something that they feel is comin'. Something important and great. Aren't they waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out clear?”22 In relation to the metaphysical posing of the problem and the shaping of it, the question of whence the impulse for this could have come is not so excessively important. The question is not of great significance whether Wilder's reflections began with Lucian's Dialogues of the Dead or with Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. More important is that from here there is a connection to the anthropological-archetypical play which Wilder especially intended.

The archetype is in portrayal always burdened with identity, but this identity does not threaten to splinter into mere individuality, but rather is centered upon a real complex of qualities and problems. With the archetype, literature becomes very restricted in its possibilities. It can no longer live from the interplay of the great diversities or maintain its existence largely from categories of the merely interesting. Where there is something like multiplicity (a play like Our Town suggests) it is only apparent, yet it is to be traced back to the great basic idea of constant recurrences.

Such a dramatic technique as this, however, cannot be worked endlessly without the public's becoming fatigued. This is especially the case when behind the dramatic anthropology and the concept of archetypes there stands a metaphysic that is modest and reserved in its answers and, at least in the field of cognition, gives no more than its exponents could often declare on the basis of rational reflection. Wilder seems to have realized this, for in his great world spectacle The Skin of Our Teeth to some extent he went in other directions and sought a longer perspective.

Notes

  1. Grenville Vernon, “The Stage and the Screen.” In The Commonweal, Vol. 28, p. 161 (June 1938).

  2. Ima H. Herron, The Small Town in American Literature (Durham, N. C.: 1939).

  3. Thornton Wilder, Three Plays, With a Preface (London and New York: 1958), p. vii.

  4. Ibid., p. xiii.

  5. Our Town (New York, 1938), pp. 9f.

  6. Ibid., p. 10.

  7. Ibid., p. 57.

  8. Ibid., pp. 88f.

  9. Ibid., pp. 26, 38.

  10. Ross Parmenter in The Saturday Review of Literature, XVIII 7, June 1938, p. 10.

  11. Peter Szondi, Theorie des modernen Dramas (Frankfurt am Main; 1956), p. 65.

  12. Our Town, p. 70.

  13. Ibid., p. 56.

  14. Ibid., p. 40.

  15. Ibid., p. 12.

  16. In the case of a secondary character like the milkman, the lack of personal quality is suggested by the spoken sound of the name. Howie Newsome is “How we knew some” (page 15). Perhaps this is not meant to emphasize any particular “facelessness” in this person; rather the words “how we knew some” may apply to man in general.

  17. Ibid., p. 98.

  18. Ibid., p. 112.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid., pp. 125f.

  21. Ibid., p. 101.

  22. Ibid., p. 102.

Winfield Townley Scott (essay date 1961)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2516

SOURCE: Scott, Winfield Townley. “The Charm of Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 148-54. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Scott asserts that the tone of understatement in Our Town contributes to its universal appeal.]

As Our Town literally begins, Wilder sets in motion the little wheel of daily doings. This is the only wheel there is in most plays and fictions; it turns upon the events presented. So here, it spins with normal activities, the comings and goings and the conversations, weaving a special era and place and a particular people (though by the way I think Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb should not be stringing beans in early May in New Hampshire); and on through a gentle afternoon to the great moonlighted night of that May 7 and the ladies strolling chattering home from choir practice.

This is the realism of the play and, superficially at least, it is very good. That is, these folk may not be deeply imagined but they are typically imagined; it is as types of Americana that they and their Grover's Corners interest us and touch us. They and the town are unremarkable: we are told so and we see that it is so; and this of course is the point. The youngsters with their twenty-five cents spending money and love of strawberry phosphates and their school-day affairs, the fathers absorbed in jobs and bringing up these young, the wives similarly absorbed though perhaps a little wistfully aware of larger worlds and startled at just this era that an old highboy might fetch $350 as an antique; yes, we are convinced that this must have been the way it was, and in most essentials still is fifty years later, in that kind of American town. For what the little wheel does in carrying these doings of realism is to give one a sense of changelessness from day to day, year to year: mothers and fathers waken early, they rouse children to breakfast and school, a Joe Crowell, Jr., dependably arrives twice a week with the Sentinel and a Howie Newsome every morning with the milk; there is talk of weather which does change season to season but the changes are regular and assured. Far later in the play the Stage Manager remarks something we have known from the first, and known with an intimate feeling, and are not surprised as he said we would be—“on the whole, things don't change much at Grover's Corners.”

WILDER'S MANIPULATION OF TIME

Thus this little wheel gives us a sense of timeliness and also, oddly, of timelessness. We are transported back to May 7, 1901. At the same time we sense a certain universality about it; or we sense its being as a seemingly permanent thing. And this achievement is the one for which so much writing strives. Nevertheless, we are quickly aware of another dimension which begins to operate when Dr. Gibbs comes on.

We have learned a little earlier that though this is May 7, 1901, in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and though the townsman who appears to us as the Stage Manager is there presenting us with this scene and time, he is also existing in our time. He describes stores, streets, schools, churches in the present tense (and this forwards the feeling of changelessness within change as the newly discovered context is revealed), but he suddenly says, “First automobile's going to come along in about five years—belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen … lives in the big white house up on the hill.” That remark, which occurs within the first minute or two of the play, strikes the tuningfork: within that sentence the verbs are future, past, present, used with a most guileless insouciance for ordinary discourse. And presently: “There's Doc Gibbs comin' down Main Street now … Doc Gibbs died in 1930. The new hospital's named after him. Mrs. Gibbs died first—long time ago in fact. She went out to visit her daughter, Rebecca, who married an insurance man in Canton, Ohio, and died there—pneumonia …” and so on. “In our town we like to know the facts about everybody,” he sums up matter-of-factly; and then: “That's Doc Gibbs.” And Dr. Gibbs gets into a little gab with Joe Crowell, Jr., just as Mrs. Gibbs is seen entering her kitchen to start breakfast.

THE TONE OF OUR TOWN

The whole tone of Our Town is understatement. The colloquial run of the talk, its occasional dry wit, the unheroic folk, all contribute to this tone. So does the important admission that this is a play: we are not bid to suspend our disbelief in the usual way; and so does the bareboard, undecorated presentation. All is simple, modest, easy, plain. And so, in tone, the Stage Manager's revelation is utterly casual. But with it Wilder sets in countermotion to the little wheel a big wheel; and as the little one spins the little doings, the big one begins slowly—slowly—for it is time itself, weighted with birth and marriage and death, with aging and with change. This is the great thing that Our Town accomplishes; simultaneously we are made aware of what is momentary and what is eternal. We are involved by the Stage Manager in these presented actions and yet like him we are also apart; we are doubly spectators, having a double vision. We are not asked, as in the presentation of some philosophical concept, to perceive an abstract intellectualism. This is a play—this is art. So we are involved sensually and emotionally. Out of shirt-sleeved methods that would seem to defy all magic, and because of them not in spite of them, Wilder's play soon throttles us with its pathos; convinces and moves us so that we cannot imagine its being done in any other way; assumes a radiant beauty. And indeed we are not taken out of ourselves, we are driven deeper into ourselves. This, we say, is life: apparently monotonous, interminable, safe; really all mutable, brief, and in danger. “My,” sighs the dead Mrs. Soames in Act III, “wasn't life awful—and wonderful.” For what Wilder's art has reminded us is that beauty is recognizable because of change and life is meaningful because of death.

Later in Act I the Stage Manager deliberately and directly accounts for several future happenings. And again he sums up: “So, friends, this is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our doctoring and in our living and in our dying.” This is the simplest way—and Thornton Wilder can be artfully simple—of saying what Our Town is about. It suggests why he chose a spare, documentary style as appropriate to a purpose which can only be termed archeological. But the poetry, so to speak, comes from the juxtaposition of the points of view, human and superhuman, which combine, of course, to a fourth dimension.

The combination admits stars and people, universe and small town, eternity and time, the sense of wonder and the commonplace. This is the music of the play. By the end of Act I its harmonies and its dissonances are interweaving with authoritative power. It beats with the great silence of the moonlight on the streets and gardens of Grover's Corners, on the ladies dispersing from choir practice, on the heliotrope as the doctor and Mrs. Gibbs walk in the yard before retiring, on the weaving progress of drunken Simon Stimson and on Mr. Webb chatting with Constable Warren making his rounds. “Blessed be the tie that binds” is the hymn which, like the ring of the moon, encircles this people. Finally, wistful diminuendo and frank statement of the interwoven tones modulate the conversation of the Gibbs children in the upper window when Rebecca describes the address on a letter Jane Crofut got.

“It said: 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 … —and the postman brought it just the same!”

“What do you know!” George exclaims.

LITERARY REFERENCES IN OUR TOWN

Thornton Wilder is often a literary writer in the derivative sense; it is his severest limitation and makes some of his work pallid and fussy, too much derived from other books. This blight is not upon Our Town. Resemblances are momentary. For instance, here is a passage from the much earlier book by James Joyce, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

He turned to the flyleaf of the geography and read what he had written there: himself, his name and where he was.

Stephen Dedalus
Class of Elements
Conglowes Wood College
Sallins
County Kildare
Ireland
Europe
The World
The Universe

That was in his writing: and Fleming one night for a cod had written on the opposite page:

Stephen Dedalus is my name,
Ireland is my nation.
Conglowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my destination.

John V. Kelleher, a Joyce scholar who has kindly done my research in this matter, adds that the passage is parodied in Finnegans Wake in one of Isobel's footnotes to the study chapter: “2. Kellywick, Longfellow's Lodgings, House of Comments III, Cake Walk, Amusing Avenue, Salt Hill, Co. Mahogany, Izalond, Terra Firma.”

Mr. Kelleher says: “My hunch is that Wilder's use of the series is taken from Joyce—and why not, after all? Joyce is only using a couple of standard scrawls that I've often turned up on the flyleaves of secondhand books, especially in Ireland.” The hunch may be further fortified by Wilder's avowed use of Finnegans Wake in his later play, The Skin of Our Teeth, and by the title of the delightful novel he published just before Our TownHeaven's My Destination. Still, the title page of Heaven's My Destination gives an American Midwest version of the little rhyme and the address on Jane Crofut's letter, if it was suggested by the Joyce passage, may also independently arise from folksay older than memory. Such material is free to repeated poaching—and indeed all this is no great matter except for the fun of comparison.

Where Our Town reminds one of other writers, also it is no matter whether with deliberate or accidental echoes, for the integration is perfect and the resemblances are in every instance consistent with the regional genre. Here are two or three:

In the final Act when Emily cries out with love that she cannot look hard enough at everything, one thinks of the rather less restrained poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay beginning “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!” Or, a little earlier, when the Stage Manager is describing the Grover's Corners cemetery and says, “Yes, an awful lot of sorrow has sort of quieted down up here,” one may recall Emily Dickinson's magnificent

After a hundred years
Nobody knows the place.
Agony that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.

Closer still is yet another New England poem, “To Earthward,” when the Stage Manager in Act II speaks of the difficulty of remembering what it's like to be young. “For some reason,” he says, “it is very hard … those days when even the little things in life would be almost too exciting to bear. And particularly the days when you were first in love …” and so on. The pertinent lines by Robert Frost are:

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much; …
I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung …

FOLK FEELING IN OUR TOWN

The resemblances are probably inadvertent. They are pleasant evidence of how a particular landscape will sound similar notes in the various minds expressing it. Our Town has in fact the quality of folk tale. The “folksiness” of husbands' and wives' conversation, of school kids' talk together, is in tune with the Stage Manager and his wry, affectionate exposition.

“Why sure,” says George to Emily as their high school romance dawns on them both. “Why sure, I always thought about you as one of the chief people I thought about.” And George's offer to leave his “gold watch” with druggist Morgan as guarantee of payment for the strawberry ice-cream sodas he has recklessly bought Emily and himself bears the same adolescent, awkward sweetness. One thinks of [American novelist and playwright] Booth Tarkington just as one may think, a little later when George and Emily are to be married, of the adolescent-parental relationship in Eugene O'Neill's Ah! Wilderness. Dr. Gibbs exclaims, “I tell you, Mrs. G., there's nothing so terrifying in the world as a son. The relation of a father to a son is the damnedest, awkwardest … I always come away feeling like a soggy sponge of hypocrisy.” But neither Tarkington in his general preoccupation with youth, nor O'Neill in that thin, singular comedy come anywhere near the poetic power, to which the folk feeling is a vital part, of Our Town.

The wit is Yankee laconic; sometimes so wry you may ask if it is wit. Noting that lights are on in the distant farmhouses while most of Grover's Corners itself is still dark at six o'clock in the morning, the Stage Manager says, “But town people sleep late.” It is funny—but is it funny to the Stage Manager? We have no way of knowing that the Stage Manager does not feel that people who don't get up till six-thirty or seven are late sleepers. This is a part of the charm.

The charm does not evade the big and the ephemeral troubles of life, the tears of youth and of age, and the terminal fact of death. As Our Town develops, it is more and more incandescent with the charges of change and of ending. There is not in it any of the ugliness present in the small-town books I have likened it to: the violence and murder in [Mark Twain's] Tom Sawyer, the meannesses and frustrations in [Edgar Lee Masters'] Spoon River Anthology and [Sherwood Anderson's] Winesburg, Ohio. Yet these books also glow with a nostalgic beauty. True, the drunken, disappointed organist would be at home either in Masters' Spoon River or in Robinson's Tilbury Town; and in Act II, at the time of George's wedding, there is the bawdiness of the baseball players which, significantly, the Stage Manager quickly hushes. Brief touches: not much. Nevertheless, I would defend Our Town against the instant, obvious question whether Wilder in excluding harsher facts indigenous to life has written a sentimental play, by insisting Wilder would have warped the shape of his plan by such introductions. He was out not to compose a complete small-town history nor, on the other hand, to expose a seamy-sided one; his evident purpose was to dramatize the common essentials of the lives of average people. There are other colors, no doubt more passionate, but they would have deranged this simple purpose which, as I see it, is valid and has been well served.

Malcolm Goldstein (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2570

SOURCE: Goldstein, Malcolm. “Universality in Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 101-08. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Goldstein asserts that the universal appeal of Our Town may be attributed in part to the common, everyday settings, characters, and events depicted in the play.]

Wilder was no stranger to the New York theater before the opening of Our Town. His prior record had included three productions: the off-Broadway presentation of his The Trumpet Shall Sound in 1926, the unsuccessful Broadway showing of André Obey's Lucrece in 1932 in his translation, and Jed Harris's highly praised staging of his translation of Ibsen's A Doll's House in 1937, also on Broadway. The list is not extensive, but together the three experiences offered a hint of what was to come with a major Broadway production of a piece entirely his own.

For the second time he worked with Harris, a thoroughly trained man of the theater whose abundant charm often gave way before an iron determination to secure the production values which would insure a run. As was typical of him, he drove and quarreled with Wilder during rehearsals, but, after a difficult tryout period, proved the soundness of his judgment with a successful production. A few preliminary performances given in Princeton went very well and seemed to augur good fortune, but in Boston, where it was scheduled for two weeks, the play was roundly damned. Since the Boston audience is no more discriminating than the Princeton or New York audience despite the traditional claim of every city that it is the most difficult to please, the future of Our Town was beyond prediction in the last days before the opening. Harris therefore decided to cut his losses and bring in the play one week ahead of schedule. To do so, it was necessary for him to make an interim booking of a temporarily vacant house for one night only, February 4, 1938, after which, if all went well, he would lease another theater for the run of the play.

OUR TOWN'S SUCCESS

The result was what Harris had hoped: the play caught on at once, ran through the season and into November of the next, and won a second Pulitzer Prize for Wilder. Since the end of the Broadway run it has been produced almost nightly in community and college theaters across America, with a financial reward to the author of $400,000 as of the end of 1963. It has been filmed (with most of the cast of the Broadway production) and has been televised twice, the second time in a musical version. Although Harris has been eager to say that it lost money for him in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well as in Boston, the New England metropolis is in fact the only American city to have withheld approval. Abroad also, as Unsere Kleine Stadt or Notre petite ville, it has held the stage, although at its London debut in 1946, again under Harris's direction, the play did not take. At the time of the present writing Our Town has earned a position as a classic more secure than has been accorded any other work in the American repertory, the international reputation of Eugene O'Neill notwithstanding.

WILDER'S GROWTH AS A WRITER

At the beginning of the 1930's Wilder planted the seed which was to give growth to this remarkably successful play. The sceneryless one-acts of 1931 are the source of its form, of the employment of the Stage Manager-conférencier, of certain details of dialogue, and of the name of the town, Grover's Corners, where the action unfolds. From Pullman Car Hiawatha comes the notion of presenting the historical and sociological background, a device of importance to the expression of theme in both works, and from the same play comes the young heroine's heartfelt series of farewells to remembered scenes of happiness at the time of her death. From The Long Christmas Dinner come her touching but overdue words of praise for her mother. The central material of the third act, the heroine's return to life for a repetition of one day of childhood, has, it will be remembered, an earlier source in The Woman of Andros. In borrowing from his own writing for works of ever-broadening scope, Wilder had revealed his capacity for growth with each new publication since The Cabala. Yet in no work before Our Town had he shown such an amazing spring forward. …

THE UNIVERSALITY OF GROVER'S CORNERS

Although the play begins and ends in one precisely described place, Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, it ranges far beyond the village boundaries in each of its three acts. By eliminating scenery and props, except for two small trellises to appease persons who cannot do without scenery, Wilder avoids from the outset any suggestion that the meaning of the action relates only to Grover's Corners, and yet, through the dialogue and the expository remarks of the Stage Manager, he retains enough of the New England flavor to remind the audience of the starting point, so to speak, of the nation in which it lives. He begins, then, in the small New England town and from it moves out to embrace all creation. The timespan of the play runs from 1901 to 1913, a period recent enough in 1938 to appeal to the memory of the audience, but still distant enough to be free of restrictive contemporary associations.

The plot is the story of two neighboring households, the Gibbs and Webb families Their lives are in no way sensational or special; nothing has happened to them that might set them off either as heroes or as victims. True, the family heads are professional men—Dr. Gibbs and Editor Webb—but the distinction implied in the titles serves only to confer upon them a degree of familiarity with human problems, and this they are able to communicate to the audience. As one device out of many to link Grover's Corners to the great world beyond, Wilder also gives the two men distinctive hobbies. Dr. Gibbs devotes all his spare time to studies of the Civil War, and Editor Webb is equally fascinated by the life of Napoleon. Like its principal families, the town itself, considered as a place on the map, possesses a distinguishing but unastonishing “background,” as described by local authorities: so many members of each religious denomination live in it, the ground under it was founded in such-and-such geological eras, the birth and death rates are thus and so. The purpose of this quite ordinary information is not to particularize the town; rather, it serves to underline the fact that Grover's Corners, the home of the Gibbses and the Webbs, is just another spot in the cosmos. But at the same time that it is a place of no importance, the town represents the universe, and whatever occurs to its inhabitants is an expression, in very general terms, of the chief events in the lives of all people.

The scenes devised by Wilder are moments of eternity singled out for our attention and played against the panorama of infinity. The first act is titled “The Daily Life,” and offers such details as the early-morning milk delivery, the family breakfast, and the children's departure for school. Proceeding from dawn till bedtime, at every turn the action distills poignance from the commonplace, including even so unremarkable an occurrence as the children's struggle with homework. In choosing this title for the act, Wilder would seem for the moment to ignore the remarks of Gertrude Stein, who said that the Americans have no daily life in the sense that the English have one—that is, that we do not think as a nation in terms of a simple, unchanging routine. But the phrase and the routine activities covered by it are useful to Wilder insofar as they carry the notion that these New Englanders, engaged as they are in ordinary, mundane duties, are authentic representatives of the entire race. Similarly, the titles of the second and third acts, “Love and Marriage” and “Death,” the latter only hinted at, not explicitly given, describe the fundamental material of existence.

THE UNIVERSALITY OF THE CHARACTERS

Of the twenty-two characters who pass across the stage, most are present only to populate the arena whose principal actors are George Gibbs and Emily Webb, the older children of the two families Through the conduct of their lives, which, as we see them on Wilder's bare stage, they lead in infinite space at a point in the endless continuum of time, emerges in little the general pattern of the human adventure. At the moments when they act out their personal joy and sadness, they present an abstract rendering of these emotions as they come to us all. They are allegorical figures, but, because what they represent is not a special quality or force but the complete sum of the human passions, and because also they speak in an ordinary manner without the aggrandizing self-consciousness of an Everyman, they are completely absorbing as characters in their own right. In attending, as it were, to the development of George and Emily, Wilder is concerned primarily with their virtues, but he does not omit the vices from the design of their personalities. Thus, for example, they delight in ice cream sodas, delay over their homework, and plan ahead for a profitable farm. These interests are nothing less than the deadly sins of gluttony, sloth, and avarice, yet so softened as to round out the design without rendering the boy and girl egregious. The point is that if we are to see ourselves in George and Emily, we must not be so dismayed that we avert our eyes. The two protagonists grow up in houses on adjacent properties, play together as children, fall in love with one another in adolescence, and marry as soon as they graduate from high school. Emily dies in childbirth after nine years of marriage, and as the play ends George grieves hopelessly beside her grave. That is all. But so basic to the life of every civilization are these experiences and the emotions they evoke that their theatrical impact is universally stunning.

THE UNIVERSALITY OF EVENTS

To extend the dimensions of the plot, Wilder employs images of vast numbers which with a lightly comic tone the Stage Manager pulls out of his capacious mind. In three years the sun comes up a thousand times, in long marriages husbands and wives may eat as many as fifty thousand meals together, every bride and groom have millions of ancestors, all of whom may be spectral guests at the wedding. To take the audience out of the present moment and move the play forward in time, Wilder permits the Stage Manager to use his omniscience in still another way: he mentions not only the past and present of the characters' lives, but their future, including, for many, the dates and circumstances of their deaths. At the end of the first act, after we have listened at length to his observations, we come to understand through the words of another figure, George Gibbs's young sister Rebecca, that over all dates and places and activities such as we have been hearing of, God eternally watches:

REBECCA:
I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. The minister of her church in that town she was in before she came here. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
GEORGE:
What's funny about that?
REBECCA:
But listen, it's not finished: the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God—that's what it said on the envelope.
GEORGE:
What do you know!
REBECCA:
And the postman brought it just the same.
GEORGE:
What do you know!

Closely related to Gertrude Stein's comments on the generalizing tendency of Americans, this scene, in which the life of Grover's Corners in all its pedestrian details has become the focus of cosmic forces, nevertheless projects a quality which is pure Wilder. Each act contains a moment of beauty and pathos, and of great familiarity, which moves the play forward with a sureness of theatrical technique obviously beyond the ability of Miss Stein to inspire. In the first act it is a scene between George and his father in which the boy is scolded mildly for letting his mother chop wood for the stove when he should be doing the job himself. In the second act it is the acute bridal fear of Emily immediately before the wedding ceremony as she expresses it in an anguished plea to George: “Well, if you love me, help me. All I want is someone to love me.” In the last, it is Emily's brief, emotionally harrowing return to life and a reenactment of her twelfth birthday. Unable to communicate with her family and suddenly aware that in the entire process of her life the minutes have passed too quickly to be fully realized, she cannot endure the massive grief now developing:

EMILY:
(In a loud voice to the Stage Manager.) I can't. I can't go on. Oh! Oh! It goes too fast. We don't have time to look at one another. (She breaks down sobbing. At a gesture from the Stage Manager, Mrs. Webb disappears.) I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by. Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners … Mama 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. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. (She looks toward the Stage Manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:) Do any human beings realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
STAGE Manager:
No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

With this scene we come to a point to which Wilder always directs us: the belief that the cause of man's unhappiness is not his failure to achieve or sustain greatness, but his failure to delight in the beauty of ordinary existence. In the preface to his Three Plays, the collected edition of his major dramatic works, he writes forthrightly on this theme:

Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire Village; or as speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante's Purgatory). It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. … Moliére said that for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.

The people of Grover's Corners are the sort whose effect upon the world is slight, slighter even than the effect of such a man as George Brush [the protagonist in Wilder's novel Heaven's My Destination], since they never move away from their particular piece of the universe. For that reason they are the personages whose lives most clearly reflect the marvelousness of the unheroic.

Donald Haberman (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1821

SOURCE: Haberman, Donald. “Our Town as Allegory.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 60-65. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1967, Haberman analyzes Our Town as an allegorical work in the manner of the medieval morality play Everyman.]

Characterization and narration, in Thornton Wilder's theater, are inextricably bound. The two are related not merely as a matter of being consistent to a single style; their unity and Wilder's use of it determine the style, for his practice is to give over psychological characterization in favor of an arbitrary and artificial arrangement of events.

In “Some Thoughts on Playwriting” Wilder defined his goals in characterization.

Imaginative narration—the invention of souls and destinies—is to a philosopher an all but indefensible activity.

Its justification lies in the fact that the communication of ideas from one mind to another inevitably reaches the point where exposition passes into illustration, into parable, metaphor, allegory, and myth.

Characters, therefore, are created to convey ideas, and they will naturally make their appearance as symbols.

Gertrude Stein in Narration, for which Wilder wrote the introduction, explained how the arbitrary, imaginative creation of characters was superior to relying on the facts.

Vasari and Plutarch are like that, they make them up so completely that if they are not invented, they might as well be they do not really feel that any of the ones about whom they tell had any life except the life they are given by their telling. That can happen and when it does it is writing.

Wilder converted this idea of Gertrude Stein's, that the characters are more real when they are imagined, from narrative prose to theatrical writing; he left the characterization so general that the people in his plays must really be created in the imagination of the audience, although, of course, the play contains characters, and actors must play them.

The first manuscript version of Our Town is particularly emphatic in its special treatment of characterization. The Stage Manager played all the children but Emily and George. In addition, he played Simon Stimson and, as in the final version, Mrs. Forrest and Mr. Morgan, the druggist, as well as the minister who marries George and Emily. The audience was required in this version to imagine not merely the particulars of characters but also their very presence. Wilder felt it necessary at least once to tell the audience what he was doing. The Stage Manager says, “Now I'm Mr. Morgan in front of his drugstore.” This was later removed, and the Stage Manager simply took the speeches of Mrs. Forrest and Mr. Morgan without any fuss, and the roles of Stimson, Rebecca, and Wally were given to actors.

OUR TOWN AS ALLEGORY

Wilder depends very heavily on his audience for much of the work that has been traditionally expected from the playwright himself, but he derives advantages from this kind of writing. In one of the letters to Sol Lesser, who produced the filming of Our Town, concerning whether or not Emily should die, Wilder distinguished between the stage and the film.

In a movie you see the people so close to that a different relation was established. In a theatre they are halfway abstractions in an allegory; in a movie they are very concrete. So insofar as it's a concrete happening, it's not important that she die; it's even disproportionately cruel that she die.

This short comment reveals much about Wilder's concept of his own work. First, he views Our Town as an allegory, probably as something like a twentieth-century Everyman. One of the important qualities of allegory is that characterization is absent, except when it serves to distinguish abstract qualities, such as hate or lust. Wilder recognizes that his own characters fit the situation of allegory in that they are “halfway abstractions.” Emily and George represent, only as much as it is absolutely necessary, two individuals. Their chief function is to be a young girl and a young boy.

This kind of characterization determines what happens on stage. It is the reason why a complete marriage proposal is not presented. Emily and George do not have personalities sufficiently distinct to participate in so individual a procedure. When anybody marries, his wedding is much like that of anybody else. Anybody's deciding to marry and proposing is one and one and one. Each proposal is different from the rest, and most frequently, as a result, marriage proposals are an event for comic dramatization.

THE ALLEGORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WEDDING

The wedding ceremony is a thing altogether different. The occasion itself, the ceremony, like the occasion of the birthday in Act III, carries with it advantages to Wilder's allegory. First, both are the kind of event about which everybody has a ready-made memory. Secondly, the witnesses of such events are called together without any particularization. Wedding guests behave pretty much the same at one wedding as at another. People weep at weddings; they are happy at birthdays. Each celebration comes equipped with a behavior pattern which is available to the entire audience, and it is independent of George and Emily.

Wilder has not offered simply a wedding. In the real world most people require some personal interest in the bride or groom to make their wedding interesting. In the theater a different situation exists. Again in a letter to Lesser, Wilder wrote:

My only worry is that—realistically done—your wedding scene won't be interesting enough, and that it will reduce many of the surrounding scenes to ordinaryness. …

On the stage with Our Town the novelty was supplied by

(1) economy of effect in scenery.

(2) the minister was played by the Stage Manager.

(3) the thinking-aloud passages.

(4) the oddity of hearing Mrs. Soames' gabble during the ceremony.

(5) the young people's moments of alarm. …

—And for a story that is so generalized [the danger of dwindling to the conventional] … is great.

The play interested because every few minutes there was a new bold effect in presentation-methods. …

I know you'll realize that I don't mean boldness or oddity for their own sakes, but merely as the almost indispensible reinforcement and refreshment of a play that was never intended to be interesting for its story alone, or even for its background.

Wilder knew that neither the plot nor the mise en scène [setting] was intended to be interesting. This is a partial answer for those people who were enchanted by the story of a typical New England town. Also the wedding of an Emily Webb and a George Gibbs is scarcely the point, for the wedding is everybody's. The unusual staging retained the interest in an event which takes place essentially with people who are not people at all, but ideas.

One of Lesser's letters to Wilder illustrates what might happen to Our Town if insistence on detail and private motive were applied.

It has been suggested for movie purposes a means to be found to attach the third act to circumstances already within the play. … By this it is meant that perhaps there should be a problem affecting the married life of Emily and George growing out of the differences in their mentalities. I cite the following only as an example:—

Emily is brighter than George; in her youth she has the best memory in her class—she recites like “silk off a spool”—she helps George in his mathematics—she is articulate—George is not—she is “going to make speeches all the rest of her life.” …

Query: Could it be Emily's subtlety in the soda-fountain scene that causes George to make the decision not to go to Agricultural School? The audience gets this, but George feels it is his own voluntary thought. He makes the decision not to go.

Could Emily, after death, re-visit her fifth wedding anniversary … and now see her mistake?

Emily in life is likely to have been overambitious for George, wanting him to accomplish all the things he would have known had he gone to Agricultural School, but which he has had to learn mainly by experience. In a single sentence we could establish that George did not develop the farm as efficiently and as rapidly as Emily thought he should have. She continued to get ideas out of newspapers and books, as she did out of her school books, and had tried to explain them to George, but he was slow in grasping them. She had been impatient very often. Someone else's farm may have been progressing faster than George's and she may not have liked that. …

Now she sees this. She remembers she was responsible for his not going to Agricultural School. She has overlooked many of George's virtues—she took them all for granted. All this was her mistake. …

Could there be a great desire to live, to profit by what she has just seen, rather than go back to the grave—should she long to live—would the audience, witnessing this picture, pull for her to live—and she does?

… It would only change the expression of your philosophy, not the philosophy itself, which would be retained.

Lesser's suggestions indicate that he lacked any real understanding of the play. His final comment—“it would only change the expression of your philosophy”—suggests that he does not understand any plays at all. His emphasis is on event for its own sake, and his plan is rather like the scenario for a soap opera.

Wilder answered Lesser with restraint, but firmly:

I feel pretty concrete about trying to dissuade you against showing Emily returning to her fifth wedding anniversary and regretting that she had been an unwise wife.

(1) It throws out the window the return to the 12th birthday which you feel is sufficiently [sic? insufficiently] tied up with the earlier part of the picture, but which is certain of its effect.

(2) It introduces a lot of plot preparation in the earlier part of the picture that would certainly be worse than what's there now. Scene of George running the farm incompetently. Scene of Emily upbraiding him.

(3) It makes Emily into a school-marm “improving” superior person. The traits that you point out are in her character … but I put them there to prevent her being pure-village-girl-sweet-ingenue. But push them a few inches further and she becomes priggish.

(4) The balance of the play, reposing between vast stretches of time and suggestions of generalized multitudes of people requires that the fathers and mothers, and especially the hero and heroine, be pretty near the norm of everybody, every boy and every girl.

If this is made into an ineffectual-but-good-hearted-husband and superior-interfering-wife, the balance is broken.

It's not so much new “plotting” that is needed, as it is refreshing detail-play over the simple but sufficient plot that's there.

George and Emily, individually psychologized and motivated, would tumble into another one of those hopelessly stupid stories of boy and girl, and a dull one at that.

Jan Austell (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2502

SOURCE: Austell, Jan. “Characters in Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 94-100. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1968, Austell examines Wilder's creation of ordinary, typical characters in Our Town as a means of expressing universal experiences and values and exploring fundamental truths about human life.]

Before we discuss the individual characters in Our Town to determine what each actor should try to accomplish in his role, let us consider the extent to which Wilder has developed them. Each one, with the possible exception of Mrs. Gibbs, has essentially the same personality, demeanor, or nature at the end of the play that he had at the beginning. None of them changes from good to bad, from gentle and kind to hard-bitten and selfish, or even from shy to brash. To be sure, some of the characters learn certain things during the play—George learns that some people think he is stuck-up and his mother, Mrs. Gibbs, acquires in death the knowledge that most people waste the precious minutes of their lives. Emily learns the same lesson from her. Also, during the play, the stage manager seems to become increasingly thoughtful and knowing, but the characters themselves do not change in their essential behavior. Throughout the play they keep the same personality traits that they display on making their first appearance. What sort of actors are needed to portray these characters? What should a director consider in casting the parts?

THE STAGE MANAGER

Wilder states in his directions that when the stage manager appears before the house lights go down and arranges a few pieces of furniture on stage, he should be wearing a hat and he should have a pipe, which he may be smoking although Wilder does not require him to do so. He should be calm and casual as he watches late members of the audience take their seats. Wilder gives no specific indication of the stage manager's age or his physical size, but on the basis of his opening speech we know that the stage manager should be a straightforward, pleasant man, relaxed and happy about having a group of people to whom he can introduce Grover's Corners and the people who live there. He has none of the traits of the hard-selling salesman trying to convince a customer he should buy something. On the contrary, because he is neither condescending nor overexuberant, he has the quality of a man who has been asked to guide some willing visitors through a place he knows and loves and for whom every detail has a cherished value. He almost seems to say to them, “If you keep your eyes and ears open, you will learn more than you thought you would.” And he is entirely sincere in this attitude; he is not trying to fool or bully anyone.

The stage manager is a man who appreciates facts and who thinks his visitors will too. He notes the longitude and latitude of the town, indicates where the churches are, and reports what grows in Mrs. Gibbs' garden. But his speeches also show that he has a certain whimsy and a rather dry sense of humor. After telling several facts about the town and the play, the stage manager muses on the morning star for a moment before showing how the town is laid out. The brightness of the star—a little thing—is just as important to this perceptive man as the other details. He makes wry remarks about the “scenery for those who think they have to have scenery”; about the similarity between Mrs. Webb's and Mrs. Gibbs' gardens; about the town people who sleep late—later than 5:45 a.m.; and about the young people who, after passing their last examinations in solid geometry and Cicero's Orations, “suddenly feel themselves fit to be married.” None of these remarks is barbed with derision or spoken with anything but amused acceptance or fond acknowledgment.

The stage manager is the audience's link with life in Grover's Corners; as he “manages” the action of the play, he is both something more than one of the townspeople and something more than one of the audience. Although he is anywhere from 35 to 65 years old, he seems ageless. The man is not God, but he seems to have the God-like ability to step back and forth in time, in and out of the lives of the characters, and, in Act III, from human life on earth to an existence after death—all in order to show members of the audience everything he thinks they should know about “our” town.

As Our Town begins, the audience has no idea who the stage manager is or what his function will be. Because he appears to be simply an average fellow with a pleasing manner about him, the stage manager is rather like the town itself: attractive enough in its own way, but hardly spectacular. Yet both the stage manager and the town show, gradually and simply, some fundamental truths about ourselves and about human life.

While the part of the stage manager is probably the most difficult one in the play, it does not necessarily follow that the role must be taken by the most popular or noteworthy actor available. A talented but unfamiliar professional or an amateur actor will stand a better chance of communicating the ideas and the atmosphere that Wilder wanted to present than will a well-known actor. If the audience recognizes the actor portraying the stage manager, it will immediately cloak him with preconceived notions. Only when it can put aside these notions will the audience believe in the actor's portrayal. It is essential to the play that the stage manager be seen and heard first as a nondescript, affable person, willing to guide other people if they want to be guided, and only later as a man unique in his wisdom and understanding, entirely in control of the action that takes place.

THE GIBBSES AND THE WEBBS

With the help of the stage manager, Wilder focuses the attention of the audience on two families in Grover's Corners: the Gibbses and the Webbs. In considering actors to play these characters, the director is faced with a special problem, which grows out of the paradox at the heart of the play. These two families are superficially different; yet, they are essentially similar.

George Gibbs has a younger sister and Emily Webb has a younger brother, but the point is that both families have children. George is a good baseball player and Emily is a bright student, but the point is that they both have certain abilities which, while George and Emily are young, are admired by others. Doc Gibbs is interested in the Civil War and knows much of its history; Editor Webb is interested in Napoleon's career, but the point is that both men in their enjoyment of particular phases of history have hobbies or avocations. Editor Webb is recognized as the authority on Grover's Corners' vital statistics, while the hospital is named after Doc Gibbs, but the point is that both men know the town well and make significant contributions to the community. Mrs. Gibbs dies of pneumonia during a visit to her daughter's home in Ohio and young Wally Webb dies when his appendix bursts on a Boy Scout trip to Crawford Notch, but the point is that each family suffers the unexpected and great loss of one of its members. Wilder is, of course, specifically presenting the Gibbs family and the Webb family and portions of their lives, but since a primary assumption in Our Town is that human beings share the common experience of life, the Gibbses and the Webbs represent not differences among human beings but fundamental similarities.

It would be a mistake for a director and his actors to invent or overemphasize any particular traits they see in the individual parts, just as it would be a mistake to strive to make Wilder's characters absolutely identical. Since the two couples, Doc and Mrs. Gibbs and Editor and Mrs. Webb, are so similar, the temptation is strong for an actor to intensify some distinctive aspect of the character he is playing. The error would be obvious if an actress took Mrs. Webb's remark, “I'd rather have my children healthy than bright,” as a key to the character of Mrs. Webb and then proceeded to portray her as an anti-intellectual health fanatic. Similarly, simply because Mrs. Gibbs says that ever since she has been a little girl she has wanted to see Paris, France, and that before dying everyone “ought to see a country where they don't talk and think in English and don't even want to,” there is no justification for portraying Mrs. Gibbs as a dreamer who is unhappy in her marriage and is dissatisfied with her life. The opposite temptation is just as insidious. If a director required Editor and Mrs. Webb to duplicate the gestures, mannerisms, and dress of Doc and Mrs. Gibbs, he would make it difficult for the audience to identify sympathetically with the characters because they would seem to be satirizing or poking fun at themselves and the audience.

THE GIBBSES AND WEBBS AS AVERAGE AMERICAN FAMILIES

The Gibbses and the Webbs are neither abnormal extremist types, nor faceless nonentities; they are sincere, average people. Naturally, they have their idiosyncrasies. Doc Gibbs likes to ramble over the Gettysburg battlefield, Editor Webb is interested in incubators for chickens. Mrs. Gibbs enjoys making plans for a trip, and Mrs. Webb yearns to can forty quarts of beans. But also they have the same basic beliefs, habits, and standards of right and wrong, the same willingness to be cheerful, amusing, and tolerant, and the same vulnerability to nervousness and irritation that all people have. They are not exaggerated and therefore false versions of average people; they are the people themselves: the genuine articles.

To demonstrate authenticity, similarity, and variety at the same time is not easy. Fortunately, because it is constructed in a series of short scenes or moments, Wilder's script gives the actors a number of opportunities to be distinct as individuals while retaining the common bonds of human life. Doc Gibbs doubtless knows Grover's Corners pretty well, but it is Editor Webb who is given the job of explaining particular features of the town to the audience. It would be surprising if Editor and Mrs. Webb were above arguing, but it is Doc Gibbs and his wife who fuss about the gossip over Simon Stimson, about vacations, and about the town being citified by people who lock their doors. It is likely that the Webb children are irresponsible at times, but it is Doc Gibbs who has a talk with George about working around the house to help his mother. Doc and Mrs. Gibbs doubtless talk with George about married life, but not on stage; Wilder assigns such a conversation to George and Editor Webb.

The best generalization to use in choosing actors to play the Gibbses and the Webbs, as well as the rest of the characters in Our Town, is to keep them physically different from each other. The Gibbs family might be shorter and heavier than the Webbs. Editor Webb might wear eyeglasses whereas Doc Gibbs would not. Mrs. Webb might have blond hair whereas Mrs. Gibbs would have dark brown hair, and so on. Such diversity of physical appearance among the actors has its justification in Wilder's point that there is constant variety in life and that it is worth treasuring.

THE CHILDREN

The children in these two families, George and Emily, Rebecca and Wally, must be accepted by the audience as being typical just as their parents are. Wilder has made it somewhat easier, though, for the youngsters to be distinct in their roles than he has for their stage parents. George Gibbs does not have a counterpart in the Webb family as does his father Doc Gibbs in the person of Editor Webb. Emily Webb is the only girl her age in the play while her mother is virtually the same as George's mother. Still younger, Rebecca and Wally are to look, sound, and act like a “kid sister” and a “kid brother.” They are not counterparts of each other, and since they are younger, they do not compete with George and Emily as counterparts. Rebecca likes dresses, money, and attention; Wally likes to read and to collect stamps. Their task is to represent youth but they have less to do in Our Town than George and Emily. During the play, George and Emily must grow up. The audience will believe they are doing so if the actors playing their parts clearly show each step in the process. The characters of George and Emily do not change but they are revealed slowly as they mature, trait by trait, scene by scene. Wilder's script is particularly helpful because each scene in which either George or Emily appears emphasizes one of their traits or characteristics. In one scene we see George's self-centered concern about his school work and baseball; in another, his being ashamed of himself for shirking responsibility, and in another, his rather awkward gallantry with Emily. We see Emily's preoccupation with being pretty in one scene; in another, her shyness with George; in another, her affection for him. These changes in emphasis represent the maturing process.

THE OTHER TOWNSPEOPLE

Just as the major characters in the play are not a special breed of spectacular individuals, neither are the minor ones. An audience can readily believe in the entirely ordinary and, to some, familiar figures of the newspaper boys, Joe Crowell, Jr. and his brother Si, and the milkman, Howie Newsome. While amusing, it is not extraordinary or unusual that Joe is sorry to see his schoolteacher getting married; that Si hates to have George give up baseball just to get married; or that Howie's horse is old and eccentric and that his milk separator acts up occasionally. Not everyone knows a university professor, but anyone in an audience has probably met a person like Professor Willard with a scholarly bearing who knows one subject well and who has a tendency to be somewhat long-winded and disorganized. A woman like Mrs. Soames, who loves gossip and who busies herself enthusiastically with all the things that are going on around her, is not unusual. Nor is a man like Simon Stimson, the one sour character in the play. He seems to feel constantly let down by life and by people, perhaps because he is a perfectionist. The other minor characters, including those at the wedding, those in the graveyard, and those in the audience who address questions to Editor Webb, are all recognizable. They are not as fully developed as the stage manager and the members of the Gibbs and Webb families, but each reveals in his lines at least one distinct human trait for an actor to use in his portrayal.

Michael A. D'Ambrosio (essay date October 1971)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1190

SOURCE: D'Ambrosio, Michael A. “Is Our Town Really Our Town?” English Record 22, no. 1 (October 1971): 20-22.

[In the following essay, D'Ambrosio explores the timeless, universal theme of “man's failure to appreciate life” as expressed in Our Town. D'Ambrosio concludes that this “prophetic” play continues to be relevant to today's youth and is important for teachers to introduce to their students.]

Thornton Wilder's search for a value “for the smallest events of our daily life” was crystallized with the writing of Our Town, considered a paean to everyday living and its potentialities. One doesn't read or view or teach the play for its plot, nor for its scenery, characterization or linguistic excellence; and if one were to accept the Stage Manager's geographical plottings in the first scene of the play as fact, one would not find himself in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, but somewhere off the coast of Massachusetts. However, instead of being a technical flaw, the error serves to reinforce Wilder's thesis. Thus, in spite of what might have been considered shortcomings, the play has not only survived, but has now achieved designation as a classic. Nevertheless, the question imposed in the title remains—can the play still be meaningful enough to students today to merit our teaching it?

Students will immediately object to Our Town on the grounds that it is a “corny” effort to idealize a dream town which is devoid of crime, violence, slums, student uprisings and penury, and abounding in unpolluted air and nice children who do their work and, for the most part, listen to their parents. The time span of the play (1901-1913) would eliminate the depression, several wars, racial tensions, the militant left, etc., ad infinitum. Thus, to some students, Grover's Corners would seem to be a goody-goody town with goody-goody people, so unrealistic that it evokes humor instead of pathos. Perhaps this initial adverse criticism could even be justified and considered valid if Wilder were actually interested in dealing with particulars, externals and characterizations. However, Wilder used the particular only in as much as it helped him explain a universal truth about life which exists not only in small New England towns with no problems (by our present urban standards), but in large cities as well. Our Town is not a play about the Gibbses and Webbs, nor is it about a marriage and death, but, rather it is a play which recognizes man's failure to appreciate life.

The play begins with the birth of twins in Polish Town, and ends with the death of Emily. Ironically, however, Emily dies in childbirth which emphasizes the importance of the life-death cycle. George and Emily do what generations have done before them—they love and marry. Emily is straightforward and honest, and George is ambitious and understanding. Ironically, however, the imagery of the actual wedding day is of death. George, for example, jokingly mentions that he has only five more hours to live, and enacts the statement by making the gesture of cutting his throat. In Act III the Stage Manager, whose omniscience makes him a metaphysical if not god-like character, notes that the best lives are lived by “saints and poets,” and that only “once in a thousand times is [marriage] interesting.”

Our Town might be seen as a dramatization of the philosophy of The Rubaiyat. Man knows that “the Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter,” before [it] is on the Wing,” so conceivably he should live every moment fully and appreciate the gift of life. However, few men ever do come to the realization, or if they do, the revelation comes too late. Tennyson's Ulysses was determined to “drink life to the lees,” but the average man isn't living because he is neither conscious of living nor aware of how precious life is. After dying, Emily returns to earth for her twelfth birthday and becomes disheartened because no one perceives that man sleeps through life. The vitally important aspects of life become routinized. Thus, greeting the mailman, the morning kiss, family meals and the gamut of personal relationships which constitute love, as well as the sleeping and awakening process become minimized because the rapidity of the pace of life destroys the significance of these symbolic acts. “We don't have time to look at one another,” and thus, precious moments escape without our being able to recapture them.

When asked if there was culture in Grover's Corners, Mr. Webb answers that the people appreciate the natural beauties of life. However true, the people of the commonplace town fail to achieve greatness because they are unable to appreciate the natural beauty of ordinary existence. Emily understands the significance of life only after she has lost it.

Simon Stimson, the former town drunk, has the most vitriolic lines in the play when he tells Emily that we “… spend and waste time as though [we] had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another … that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.” Ironically, the prudent statement comes from a dead man, but it is interesting to note that Stimson's feeling of uneasiness at the sight of the living who come to bury Emily is identical to the reaction of the living in the presence of the dead.

Because of the universality of Wilder's thesis, scenery is omitted. Although an innovation in the modern theatre, the omission of scenery had its roots in Greek and Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare painted verbal pictures to describe the scene, and Wilder uses his characters allegorically to convey his universal truth. If he were merely concerned with the importance of Grover's Corners as a particular town in the cosmos, he might have used scenery. But his town represents the universe so that the events in the lives of his characters happen in the lives of all people. Jane Crofut's letter to which Rebecca alludes at the end of Act I, places the town in this transcendent position in eternity by showing human life to be the smallest element that ends in the mind of God. Also, the name “Webb” isn't that distinguishable from “Gibbs” to become memorable, and Emily and George could have just as easily been called “a girl” and “a boy.” The breakfast scenes in both households are very similar, and if the reader didn't know the name of the speaker, it would be difficult to differentiate Mrs. Webb's speech pattern from that of Mrs. Gibbs. There is little individuality in the play, and the repetition of experience in both households is discovered in this linguistic similarity of dialogue.

Wilder's definition of the life cycle as “… the cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the death bed, the reading of the will,” is simply life, love, marriage and burial—universals repeated for generations not only in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, but everywhere. Our Town, therefore, is not a tragic chronicle of the inhabitants of Grover's Corners, but is our tragedy and will be the tragedy of future generations as well. Should we ignore teaching a play that is prophetic?

John V. Hagopian and Arvin R. Wells (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3105

SOURCE: Hagopian, John V., and Arvin R. Wells. “Deficiencies in Our Town.” In Readings on Our Town, edited by Thomas Siebold, pp. 155-63. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1971, the authors interpret Our Town as a sentimental comedy, loosely constructed, superficially philosophical, and deficient in its characterization.]

Our Town is not in any traditional sense a drama at all; it has neither plot nor conflict, neither complication nor climax. By its abandonment of setting and by its use of the Stage Manager as intermediary between the play and its audience, it gives the appearance of belonging to the experimental theater movement; yet, within the experimental theater it is a completely anomalous production. For all its show of technical virtuosity, it aims at a familiar dramatic effect, that of sentimental comedy which is characterized by its attempt to play upon a muted but varied scale of emotions, mingling pathos, nostalgia and humor in a pleasantly innocuous cordial. The popularity of Wilder's play is not difficult to understand when one considers that sentimental comedy continues to dominate the Broadway theater in America and that, from its inception in the 18th century, sentimental comedy has always been popular with a large middle-class audience. Its popularity derives from the fact that it has, at bottom, the effect of complimenting us upon the lives that we lead by assuring us that the surface patterns of our lives are life itself and that, though we do not always appreciate it, ordinary life is, after all, good. It treats life with genteel laughter and death with appropriate tears and, despite a frequent show of profundity, takes neither very seriously.

However, because it disposes of the necessity of a coherently developed story line, Our Town avoids immediate identification with this familiar dramatic category. In itself, it is perhaps best described as a recitation in character of a quasi-philosophical essay, illustrated by selected vignettes from small-town life. The subheadings which the Stage Manager gives the three acts of the play—Daily Life; Love and Marriage; Death—put one in mind of books of popular sociology and philosophy; and the Stage Manager is, himself, a traditional character often known as a “cracker barrel philosopher” or “rural sage.” Moreover, the absence of a proscenium curtain and the reduction of setting to a few properties serves to eliminate the normal expectations of a theater audience and to keep complete control in the hands of the Stage Manager, who lectures the audience and arranges brief dramatic sketches for its amusement and edification. Revolutionary as it may seem at first glance, however, Our Town is not quite a reduction to what [French dramatist] Molière cited as the minimum essentials of drama—a platform and a passion or two. As [American drama critic] George Jean Nathan has pointed out, Mr. Wilder cheats in the use he makes of skeletonized drama:

While insisting that he abandons all scenery and props, he still compromises with his plan by employing them. He shows us no houses, but he brings out two flower-covered latticed doorways to trick the imagination into an acceptance of their presence … He uses almost as many lighting tricks as the late Belasco [for] sunsets, dawns, and sunrises. He asks us to … picture a garden or pasture or chicken patch and then pulls a vaudeville act by having someone in the wings moo like a cow or crow like a rooster. He concretely shows us no marriage altar, but he puts his little actress into a white bridal costume and then has the electrician throw a stereopticon slide of a stained-glass window above the spot where he has asked us to visualize it.

THE STAGE MANAGER

Nevertheless, the play is not the thing; what matters is the discourse. True to the tradition of the rural sage, the Stage Manager invites the audience to contemplate the superficial patterns of small-town life through the warm glow of his shrewd but benevolent personality. He has no coherently thought out point of view but unself-consciously mixes sentimentalized naturalism with a kind of ambiguous supernaturalism. He is, in fact, not a thinker at all; he is an observer with a certain understanding of the value of the sort of facts that the “rural savant” and Editor Webb are called in to provide, facts which suggest that his way of seeing things is rooted in a concrete awareness of the immensity of time and nature as well as of the here and now. Because he deals with the big, general experiences of mankind—love, marriage, death—what he says carries a gratuitous hint of profundity; yet, he avoids pompousness by a studied pose of simplicity and matter-of-factness, which is a form of anti-intellectualism, and by his gift for detached statements informed by a shrewd, practical wit.

In effect, the Stage Manager attempts to lead the audience to assent to the proposition that the minimal existence of Grover's Corners is an adequate base for encompassing the experiences and finding out the fate of mankind. If the audience takes him seriously, it must accept the assumption that what matters most in human existence is apparent in the limited world which the Stage Manager does, in fact, present. And if this is accepted, the audience may miss the fact that the amused condescension, the shrewdness and the matter-of-factness of the Stage Manager disguise the sentimentality of his viewpoint—“sentimentality” here meaning an unwarrantedly high valuation in moral, emotional and aesthetic terms of the thing presented.

Such sentimentality is the inevitable product of any attempt to make the most commonplace surfaces of life carry the burden of a congenial but amorphous “philosophy,” and its presence in Wilder's play is particularly obvious when the play is placed in the context of the rest of 20th century American literature. In these terms, Our Town reads as a competently executed but nonetheless sentimental response to the widespread attack upon the stifling ethos and cultural poverty of American small-town life (cf. Sinclair Lewis's Main Street). It responds by shifting the focus from those who rebel against the poverty of such a life to those who, superficially regarded, appear contented with it and whose lives remain safely within the middle range of emotion and awareness. Even Wilder's own view of the play supports such a reading:

Our Town is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about the conditions of life after death (that element I merely took from Dante's Purgatory). It is an attempt to find a value beyond all price for the smallest events in our daily life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place.

These dimensions are referred to most emphatically at the end of act I when Rebecca Gibbs tells her brother about the elaborately addressed letter Jane Crofut received from the minister of her church:

… Grover's Corners … the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.

PHILOSOPHICAL EVASIVENESS IN OUR TOWN

Though the comments of the Stage Manager imply that through these tepid, unexamined lives we are looking at the core of human experience, no human experience is, as a matter of fact, looked at other than obliquely: birth is a light burning across the tracks; love is finding out that the girl or boy next door has been watching you, and death is a few black umbrellas and tears and a dignified immobility. Whatever hard-fact details he includes are not those of elemental human experience, but of sociology; Our Town might well serve as an excellent source of information concerning small-town life in New England before World War I.

Even the “daring” device of the third act, the commentary of the dead, will not bear close examination. Despite the philosophical flourish with which it is introduced—“Everybody knows that there is something eternal”—the play at this point becomes more than usually evasive. The line between life and death is deliberately blurred: the grief and the fearful sense of finality that dwells on this side of the line is evaded, and the profound mystery—even if only the mystery of nothingness—that dwells on the other side is reduced to the non-committal terms of forgetting and waiting. Death, so conceived, provides a viewpoint from which the still living may not be too harshly criticized for failing to look with perpetual, wide-eyed wonder upon the familiar conditions of their daily lives. Actually, this somewhat elaborate device seems designed simply to gain an uncritical assent to Emily's “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” which comes as close as any statement in the play to expressing the theme.

OUR TOWN AS NON-DRAMA

Wilder comes closer than any other modern dramatist to writing non-drama, and he does so deliberately. The maximum of stock response is elicited from the minimum of dramatic action. As Editor Webb says, “Very ordinary town, if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller.” When Wilder attempts to present the universal in this statistically normal particular, he cannot help citing and then deliberately pushing off-stage potential sources of genuine drama. For example, in the very first dialogue of the play, the paper-boy seeing Doc Gibbs returning from a night-call asks, “Somebody been sick, Doc?” “No,” says Doc Gibbs, “Just some twins born over in Polish town.” In the total context of the play, this has the same effect as [Mark Twain's] Huck Finn's answer to Aunt Sally's question on hearing of an explosion on a steamboat, “Was anybody hurt?” “No. Just a nigger killed.” In this smug, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon small town the Goruslawskis hardly rate as human beings. One would think that in a population of 2,640, the birth of twins, even in a Polish family, warrants just a bit more excitement. To a more significant playwright, the impact of Polish immigrants on the Anglo-Saxon population is material for powerful drama—vide Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire. But in this play, the Poles and the Catholic church are safely relegated to the other side of the railroad tracks.

At another point in the play, a man in the audience asks Mr. Webb, publisher and editor of The Grover's Corners Sentinel, “Is there no one in town aware of social injustice and industrial inequality?” And the facetious answer is, “Oh yes, everybody is,—somethin' terrible. Seems like they spend most of their time talking about who's rich and who's poor.” If they do, we hear none of that talk in this play, and out goes the Ibsen-Miller tradition.

Thornton Wilder, like every artist, is faced with a problem in the selection of details; and he has chosen to select only the most ordinary, everyday details of a very small, narrow segment of the American population—a sort of sociophilosophical cross-section of the genus homo Americanus, Anglo-Saxiensis. And he is extra-ordinarily successful in rendering the ordinary. His most crucial flaw in this respect is a revealing one: Emily, dying in childbirth becomes quite an exception to the statistical norm—an exception perfectly suited to Wilder's sentimental purposes. No doubt Our Town will always have a strong appeal to delicately sensitive adolescents; the mature observer will respond as Arthur Miller did, suspecting that its popular appeal lies in “the deep longing of the audience for such stability, a stability which in daylight out on the streets does not exist … the play falls short … because it could not plumb the psychological interior lives of its characters and still keep its present form.”

Our Town is fairly representative of Wilder's point of view, his talent and his deficiencies. Because his writings fail to reflect any serious attempt to come to terms with the depth and complexity of human experience, the overt expression in them of a congenial and basically optimistic “philosophy” stands out as an unearned increment. It is for this reason that Wilder has not gained recognition from American literary critics and scholars. Standards seem to be different in Germany if Horst Oppel is right in predicting “with complete certainty that Our Town will prove to have had a permanent effect [on playwriting] in Germany.” So far there is not much evidence of that effect, however, as Oppel himself emphasizes “that among the newer German playwrights there is not a single one who has successfully followed in Wilder's footsteps.” Nevertheless, it is one of the most amazing phenomena of modern literary history that in Germany Wilder continues to be celebrated as a great world author while in his own country he is generally regarded as merely an interesting literary curiosity. [The following discussion highlights specific deficiencies in the staging and characterization of Our Town.]

1. What is the effect of eliminating the proscenium curtain and the usual stage setting?

In general, this diminishes the normal “aesthetic distance” between the audience and what is presented on the stage and defeats the audience's usual dramatic expectations. To the extent that the device is successful, it undermines the critical assumptions of the audience and renders critical objectivity more difficult. Moreover, the device serves to keep control in the hands of the Stage Manager, allowing him to dominate the entire play.

2. How does the Stage Manager function in the play? What is his relationship to the audience? Is his relationship to the characters in the play a constant one?

The Stage Manager, under the pretense of telling us about Grover's Corners, shapes the play as an expression of his understanding and evaluation of human existence. He is something of an amateur philosopher, and what he presents is not so much a commentary on the play as it is a loosely conceived discourse in which the dramatic scenes serve as illustration. In his relationship to the audience, he functions as an informal lecturer and, thereby, gains the authority implicit in the lecturer's position. His relationship to the characters in the play varies from act to act. In the first act, he assumes the role of neighbor and fellow citizen; in the second, he becomes the spiritual and philosophical voice of the community, and in the third, he assumes some of the lesser attributes of God, conceived in the popular image of a noncommittal but kindly disposed old man.

3. From what point of view does the Stage Manager evaluate the human experiences presented in the play?

His basic assumption, which is stated in his speech before the wedding (Act II), is that nature is an essentially benevolent force and that it is in some way striving for the perfection of man. Each individual participates unconsciously in the striving of nature; this makes life, ipso facto, meaningful, and the individual need only keep himself alert, to look at people and things, in order to realize the goodness of it. For, while life may not seem to be interesting and meaningful as most people live it, rightly perceived it is full of wonder and a poignant sweetness. In any event, man cannot lose the future because not only is nature on his side but there is something eternal in him which will survive. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the play to suggest that the Stage Manager holds these beliefs for any reason other than that they are comfortable and reassuring.

4. For what purposes are the “rural savant” and Editor Webb called upon in Act I? What do the hecklers in the audience contribute?

Prof. Willard and Editor Webb help to establish Grover's Corners as a real place; they do not, however, add anything concrete to our awareness of either the appearance or the atmosphere of this particular town. On the contrary, their citations of facts and statistics simultaneously imply the reality of the town and reduce it to a representative abstraction. This reduction is important in the development of the play, which has to do, after all, not with Grover's Corners but with “Our Town” with the ordinary places in which presumably the majority of men live out their ordinary lives. The Stage Manager might have assumed this function but only at the risk of lessening his rapport with the audience. Introducing the “rural savant” and calling upon Editor Webb spares the Stage Manager both the burden of uncharacteristic pedantry and the necessity of entering into controversy with the hecklers.

The hecklers, themselves, are written in as a kind of controlled audience response. They raise the questions and state the objections that the more critical and sceptical members of the audience might be expected to entertain. Each of the questions represents one of the points of view from which small-town life is frequently attacked. Editor Webb meets each with apparent common sense and humility, and even when he has no direct answer to the implied criticism, his attitude in contrast to the aggressive, uncharitable tones of the hecklers is calculated to win the audience to the defense of the small town. Thus, the hecklers serve to foster the feeling that the usual critique of small-town life is irrelevant, the intellectual plaything of cranks and snobs.

5. Our Town consists of loosely connected dramatic sketches taken from the lives of a few Grover's Corners inhabitants. How, then, does Wilder contrive to give the play continuity?

There is, of course, the bare hint of a plot in the developing relationship between George Gibbs and Emily Webb. Moreover, though the play spans several years, the fact that it begins at dawn with talk of birth and ends at night with talk of death gives it the appearance of unity and completeness. Most important, however, is the personality and point of view of the Stage Manager. It is immediately established as a convention of the play that the Stage Manager may direct our attention wherever he wishes. He assumes the responsibility for providing transitions, and it is soon understood that the dramatic elements in the play are subordinate to the elaboration of his point of view.

6. What is the role of Simon Stimson in the play?

In a sense, he is the devil's advocate. Unlike the other characters he has been hurt and embittered by life, and, consequently, he dissents from the point of view of the Stage Manager. Thus, the play might be said to have both a thesis and an antithesis; however, no real conflict is allowed to develop. For the nature of Simon's hurt is left vague, and he is not allowed a voice until the last act, in the context of which his dissent is made to appear strictly personal and even pitiable.

Donald Haberman (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Haberman, Donald. “‘Preparing the Way for Them’: Wilder and the Next Generations.” In Critical Essays on Thornton Wilder, edited by Martin Blank, pp. 129-37. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1996.

[In the following essay, Haberman examines the legacy of Our Town to modern theater.]

I should be very happy if, in the future, some author should feel … indebted to any work of mine.1

Thornton Wilder probably speaks for every writer when he hopes some work of his might prove useful to a writer who comes after. One of the signs of vitality of writing is its appearance in some new shape or with a new meaning in subsequent writing. Certainly, though, every writer wishes first for his work a continuing life of its own, and in the case of plays the life is obviously in performance.

But if Wilder speaks the wish of all writers, he continues with a modesty and an expression of disappointment with himself, whatever truth might be concealed therein, that are especially characteristic of him:

I hope I have played a part in preparing the way for them [future writers]. … I am not an innovator, but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods.

(“Preface,” xiv)

Wilder's view of his role in the continuing history of the stage was as a kind of John the Baptist for the real thing that might come after. He dismissed any definition of himself as original; like most thoughtful playwrights, he saw himself as returning to the sources of traditional theater life.

Now, more than 15 years after his death and 50 years after the premiere of Our Town, though not so long as survival for a writer is measured, some of the ways Wilder's writing for the stage has a continuing life can be observed. Wilder wrote relatively few plays. His reputation depends on three short plays, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and The Long Christmas Dinner, and three full-length plays, Our Town, The Matchmaker, and The Skin of Our Teeth. But it is not unusual for only three or four plays of even playwrights more prolific, say, Pirandello, Cocteau, or Tennessee Williams, to be all that are performed on the international stage. Our Town was a success from the beginning. The Merchant of Yonkers did not catch on until its revision as The Matchmaker: its transformation into Hello, Dolly! was even more popular. Though The Skin of Our Teeth opened in New York in 1942, during the period after the World War II it became Wilder's most important play.

The American government thought of The Skin of Our Teeth as sufficiently representative to send a production by the American National Theater and Academy to the Salut à la France in Paris in 1955 with Helen Hayes as Mrs. Antrobus and Mary Martin as Sabina. Another production in 1961 with Helen Hayes was sent abroad again by the government.

These official productions with famous stars attracted attention and gave the play greater recognition. But as Wilder himself acknowledged with some pride, it was on the Continent, especially in the German-speaking world, that The Skin of Our Teeth had the most astonishing and profound effect. The play directly addressed an audience literally reconstructing itself. It offered the idea of a future in a world that had survived destruction and all too easily might be content with chaos and despair. For the audiences all over Germany, the “meaning” was first. And German interest and commitment to Wilder survived those unhappy years; today his work in Germany is still the object of sustained and continuing academic consideration.

Those in Germany who were committed to the theater saw in Wilder's play more than emotional or spiritual encouragement. The Skin of Our Teeth and to a lesser extent Our Town gave evidence, both in particulars and in general, that a play with an unusual form that took into account new attitudes toward time, language, the definition of mankind, and the theater itself need not be relegated to experimental theaters with small fervent audiences or perhaps to publication only where it would scarcely be read by anyone. Such a play might attract and compel the crowd.

Bertolt Brecht, despite his apparently expressing the belief that Wilder had stolen from him the actors' address to the audience and the self-conscious use of the stage in Our Town, as well as the idea for a novel about Julius Caesar, thought Wilder would be the ideal translator of his The Good Woman of Setzuan, partly because Brecht believed that Wilder could influence the American audience in his favor.2 Brecht did not see the relationship between his plays and Wilder's only with accusatory anger. The Skin of Our Teeth was the first American play he selected to join his own in the repertory of what would become the Berliner Ensemble. For a while, at least, he had some difficulty finding other American plays that shared his notions of theatrical expression.

The two other important German-language writers for the stage in the second half of the twentieth century are Swiss: Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Both have expressed a debt to Wilder.

Frisch credits Wilder as “the man who re-awoke my youthful love for the theater after it had lain dormant for a full decade,”3 presumably including the war years. Two of his earliest plays, Now They Are Singing Again (1945) and The Great Wall of China (1946), reveal the debt to Wilder in their episodic staging—the idea of the Dead, the bringing together of historical characters who coexist in the mind if not in historical time and place—and in their expression of the possibility of human survival. Both premiered in the Zurich Schauspielhaus, where Wilder's plays were seen by Frisch.

Although the two playwrights met, it was by Frisch's account not a success, largely because a young German turned the direction of conversation to the question of the effect of the barren environment of “narrow-minded Switzerland” on the “creative person.” Vexed, Frisch protested too much; Wilder remained silent. To provide a more successful defense, Frisch slyly and not so casually reports that the man who introduced them “does not neglect to mention that I come from Zurich (where Wilder incidentally wrote Our Town).” He dramatically expresses his admiration for the play and his national dignity both at once.

Dürrenmatt, to illustrate his observations about scenery and place on the modern stage, refers to the “fine play” Our Town and to The Skin of Our Teeth. Scenery supports the representation of place on the stage, but it does not describe it, and abstraction in modern scenic design is a failure. Wilder's success is in “immaterializing the scenery” through the use of a few everyday objects: the chairs, tables, and ladders of Our Town. And in The Skin of Our Teeth, through immaterializing “the dramatic place,” where the play actually happens, by confusing time and the stages of civilization.4

Dürrenmatt knows as well as anyone that, in the European theater anyway, Wilder in 1938 was not unique. In fact, he considers Wilder's achievement, quoting Frisch, as “making poetry with the stage,” a possibility realized by playwrights throughout the history of the theater. Dürrenmatt uses the example of Frisch not only to describe what Frisch has done but also to objectify his observations about his own work. Without insisting on a conscious, specific influence, he identifies Frisch's experiments with indefiniteness of place, which continued past his early plays where the influence of Wilder is obvious, as well as Samuel Beckett's (“no man knows where to wait for Godot”) with Wilder in general. Wilder's plays have an authority for Dürrenmatt because they are well known: “Living theater demands that a piece be played.”

Dürrenmatt cites the turning to the audience by the characters in Our Town and addressing it directly as adding “the epic element of description” to the drama. He cites Shakespeare's and Goethe's plays as examples from the past of epic drama, by which he means giving up condensing “everything into a certain time … in favor of an episodic form.” Now epic is certainly a term most usually associated with Brecht's drama, but in Dürrenmatt's explanation Brecht's name is nowhere to be found, only Johann Nestroy, the Viennese playwright who is the major source for Wilder's The Merchant of Yonkers and its later versions, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Wilder. Partly his choice is based on their popularity with audiences. What is significant here is the accuracy of Wilder's importance to Dürrenmatt, not justice for Brecht.

Frisch also wrote of Wilder's use of direct address by the actor to the audience, citing Sabina's appeal for the theater seats to use as fuel for the fire to save mankind from the Ice Age. It is an attempt to put the play on the same level as the audience. The effect of surprise is ephemeral, as Wilder knew,5 because he brings down the curtain immediately after it. After wondering whether the playwright sacrifices the separateness of his art from the real world—“To be fashionable? In despair?”—Frisch concluded, “Perhaps it was not pure chance that made me use Sabina. … Perhaps there is nothing literature can do when it recognizes its impotence, demonstrates its impotence, but go under with a final cry of warning.” Wilder's didacticism is so often thought to be preaching an absolute and universal salvation. Here Frisch, with obvious if wistful approval and identification, sees only recognition and warning in Wilder's play. For so political a playwright as Frisch, the acknowledgment of this limitation of literature to bear witness, to warn, is an important reminder of Wilder's aims. Except for those who are unsympathetic to Wilder, at his most successful he maintained active hope, but he resisted falsifying reality.

Between them Dürrenmatt and Frisch describe the bases for Wilder's influence on the stage at the end of the war. He was for many a source of encouragement on a very personal level. He called attention to the need to recover the poetry of stage time and place from calcified realism. He broke the stage illusion. And most surprising, perhaps, for those who have been deceived by the sentimentality encrusted on the plays as a result of misguided productions and false memory, Wilder presented a realistic human image on the stage, free from despairing necessity. […]

Tennessee Williams, though his comments on Wilder generally are condescending and testy, is probably the first major American playwright to see opportunities for himself in Wilder's experiments. He called his first success, The Glass Menagerie, a memory play, a phrase often applied to Our Town, because Wilder found a way to dramatize the past from the perspective of the present. In his production notes Williams called attention to its “unconventional techniques” replacing “the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions,” supporting essential “poetic imagination,” and rejecting the “unimportance of the photographic in art.”6 Whether consciously or not Williams echoes Wilder's words in his various explanations of his stagecraft.7 Tom is like Wilder's Stage Manager too, in and out of the story, playing his part as well as commenting on the events.

Camino Real, despite its never attracting the affection of audiences, had a special place for Williams and has certainly proved attractive to editors of anthologies intended for the classroom. From some perspectives it can appear to be a version of The Skin of Our Teeth. The place is anywhere, though it has a specific atmosphere. The characters, largely from literature, are brought together arbitrarily. There is no developing story. The situation is largely hopeful waiting. Gutman is like Wilder's Stage Manager in Our Town. Even the concluding hopeful survival, despite Kilroy's setback with Esmeralda, is like Wilder. The suffering of the characters, despite their superficial colorfulness and eccentricity, is the pain of everybody. Its very weaknesses—sentimentality and philosophical self-importance—are those thought of (wrongly) as Wilder's and serve to point up Wilder's superior mastery.

In the great outpouring of American plays since the 1960s, many of the writers have shown themselves to a greater or lesser degree as Wilder's heirs. Even if some of these writers could be totally unaware of Wilder, their plays have a family resemblance to his. (Actually, it is unimaginable that an American playwright after World War II could be ignorant of Wilder's plays. Recently, for example, the television reviewer for the New York Times described the use of the bare stage in an adaptation of Willa Cather's O, Pioneers! as “a gracious bow to Thornton Wilder's Our Town” assuming every reader would recognize at once the style of production. Comically, the production used a cyclorama.) …

Edward Albee has credited Wilder with suggesting he write plays. His early success The American Dream is a kind of updated sour Our Town. The dramatic action is the everyday events of family living; the language is like the ordinary speech of everybody in Wilder's plays, whose meaning is something more and different from what it apparently is saying. Almost parodying Our Town's Stage Manager and Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth, Grandma arbitrarily stops the play: (Interrupting … to audience) “Well, I guess that just about wraps it up. I mean for better or worse, this is a comedy, and I don't think we'd better go any further. No, definitely not. So, let's leave things as they are right now … while everybody's happy. … Good night, dears.”8

David Henry Hwang's use of Chinese theatrical techniques in his early plays and more recently in M Butterfly can perhaps be explained personally and ethnically by his being an American descendant of Chinese immigrants. Wilder was there ahead of him, making use of what he had seen in a performance of the Chinese actor Mei Lan-fang to bring to life the Americans of Grover's Corners. It is possible to imagine his delight at the surprises and ironies in this happy rediscovery of a strange (to the West) theatrical style.

To mark the occasion of Our Town's fiftieth anniversary and to celebrate a production of the play by the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Lanford Wilson9 and Mel Gussow10 wrote about the play in tandem for the Sunday New York Times. Like Dürrenmatt, Gussow, though not wanting to “carry the comparison too far,” put Wilder in company with Beckett and James Joyce. He suggested that Sam Shepard and David Mamet, “in terms of finding the extraordinary within the most ordinary situations,” are two playwrights “deeply, although perhaps subliminally, affected by Wilder's work.” He acknowledged that Our Town is still “a pioneering work of experimental theater” and concludes that “it is a play of enduring authenticity and austerity.” The Long Wharf production, followed by Lincoln Center's, is proof that even for audiences who thought the play was all too familiar, it could still exert its power. It continues to have a life of its own apart from its effect on the work of others; as Wilson wrote, “Our Town will still play.”

About himself Wilson wrote, “I didn't think I had been influenced by Our Town specifically. … I was shocked when I reread the play. The Stage Manager's opening speech was completely stolen from Matt's first speech in my play ‘Talley's Folly.’ I could sue. And it was totally unconscious. That's being influenced.” Wilson's explanation of the nature of the influence of Wilder probably fits most of the playwrights who have some kinship with him.

From the mid-1970s a more radical appearance of Our Town took place in Route 1 and 9 (The Last Act) by the Wooster Group, an experimental collaborative theater. Wilder's play was “deconstructed” and juxtaposed on a Pigmeat Markham comedy routine. Scenes from a parody of an Encyclopaedia Britannica lecture film on Our Town and some scenes from the play itself were played on a row of television monitors while the Markham routine was acted out by live actors on the playing space. The attitude toward Wilder was ambivalent; it recognized his fight against the restrictions of realism, but it also identified him with repressive white middle-class ideology. But one of the work's creators admitted that Our Town resisted destruction. David Savran in his book-length study of the Wooster Group, attempting to evaluate the use of Wilder objectively, wrote, “Ironically, during a period of retrenchment in the 1980s, in the midst of a revival of realistic playwriting, Wilder's [hope that he had helped to prepare the way for a new drama] has been fulfilled less conspicuously by new dramaturgy than new performance, and most powerfully perhaps, by a work that uses his own script as a starting point.”11

If these suggestions of evidence in what I hope is a representative sampling of Wilder's continuing life on the stage in the work of others seem to lack coherence or a clear pattern, that may be one of the useful conclusions. There is no one style in the modern and postmodern theaters; variety and rich individuality are among its characteristic qualities. Thornton Wilder's experimental theatricalism, characterization, and language are flexible and adaptable precisely because, as he claimed, he was a “rediscoverer.” His experiments in the theater were a return to its beginnings. His influence is not limited to a single ideology or aesthetic view. He keeps peculiar company and shows up in strange places, where his good manners surprisingly are not out of date or out of place, but do what good manners are supposed to do, make human dialogue easier. Other playwrights hear him and respond.

Notes

  1. Thornton Wilder, “Preface,” Three Plays (New York: Harper & Bros., 1957), xiv; hereafter cited in text as “Preface.”

  2. Eric Bentley, The Brecht Memoir (New York: PAJ Publications, 1985), 40-41, discusses Brecht's “paranoid suspicions.” James K. Lyon, Bertolt Brecht's American Cicerone (Bonn: Bouvier, 1978), provides facts about The Good Woman of Setzuan and The Skin of Our Teeth. D. C. Wixson, “The Dramatic Techniques of Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht: A Study in Comparison,” Modern Drama 15 (September 1972), 112-24, examines the similarities between Wilder's and Brecht's plays, and although he is unwilling to assert unequivocally that Wilder imitated Brecht, he appears to think so.

  3. Max Frisch, Sketchbook, 1946-1949, trans. Geoffrey Skelton (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 228-30.

  4. Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Problems of the Theatre, trans. Gerhard Nellhaus (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 7-39.

  5. Thornton Wilder, The Journals of Thornton Wilder, 1939-1961, ed. Donald Gallup (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 22.

  6. Tennessee Williams, “Production Notes,” The Glass Menagerie (New York: New Directions, 1970), 7-10.

  7. Thornton Wilder, “Preface,” Three Plays (New York: Harper & Bros., 1957), vii-xiv, and American Characteristics and Other Essays, Ed. Donald Gallup (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).

  8. Edward Albee, The American Dream and The Zoo Story (New York: NAL Signet, 1963), 127.

  9. Lanford Wilson, “Our Town and Our Towns,” New York Times, 20 December 1987, sec. 2, p. 36.

  10. Mel Gussow, “A Theatrical Vision Endures,” New York Times, 20 December 1987, sec. 2, p. 36.

  11. David Savran, The Wooster Group, 1975-1985 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI, 1986), 18.

Bert Cardullo (essay date September 1998)

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SOURCE: Cardullo, Bert. “Whose Town Is It, Anyway? A Reconsideration of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.CLA Journal 42, no. 1 (September 1998): 71-86.

[In the following essay, Cardullo asserts that, despite its outward display of experimental theatrical technique, Our Town fails to question or challenge traditional values regarding family, nation, and religion.]

It has long seemed to me that Thornton Wilder's Our Town (1938) has two flaws at its center that have never been adequately addressed by critics, if addressed at all. The first has to do with the play's implicit argument that the cause of man's unhappiness is not his failure to achieve or sustain greatness or wealth, but rather his failure “to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life,” his inability to delight in the beauty of ordinary, “undramatic” existence. The quoted words are Wilder's own, from the preface to his Three Plays,1 and over the years several critics have taken his word as gospel in their own discussions of Our Town.2 In the play itself Emily Webb acts as the spokesman for the playwright's view when, after her death, she returns to life to simultaneously observe and relive her twelfth birthday. Here is what she concludes:

[Life] goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. […] Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corners … Mama 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. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute? […] That's all human beings are! Just blind people.3

(Bracketed ellipses are mine here and throughout.)

The problem with this view, as applied to the characters in Our Town, is that they are not particularly blind, or unhappy, or troubled, with the exception of the town malcontent, Simon Stimson. Indeed, more than most dramatis personae, the characters in this play do take the time to appreciate the dailiness of human existence, to bear witness to the wonder of God's creation, and that perhaps explains why they are so clear-eyed and uncomplicated. David Castronovo seems to realize this when he writes that “Wilder's people in Our Town are rarely allowed to move out of their mysterious innocence and become hokey figures who are too sophisticated for their setting and the terms of their dramatic existence.”4 But then Castronovo goes on blithely and unconvincingly to declare that “Emily—the young girl who poses the greatest threat to the play by her speechmaking about blindness and the fact that we never ‘look at one another’—is not allowed to spoil the play” (91), which is to say the side of the play that reveals characters who, for all their innocence, are not so blind and do take the time, in Emily's words, to “look at one another” (99).

One reason why these characters bear such witness to the wonder of God's creation is that they have the time to do so, since, unlike conventional theatrical figures, they are not caught up in suspenseful conflicts or carrying out momentous dramatic actions. (Act I is prosaically called “Daily Life,” Act II “Love and Marriage,” and Act III “Death and Dying” [47].) Another reason is that they live in an isolated place—the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire (population 2,642 [22])—where they are able to appreciate the dailiness of human existence, undeterred by the masses of people, mass transportation, and massive buildings common to big cities. The whole point of Our Town, Emily's criticisms of her family and friends notwithstanding, is to document not only the pleasurable anti-drama of everyday life, but also the pleasure the townspeople take in enacting it: in portraying “the way [people] were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century […] in [their] growing up and in [their] marrying and in [their] living and in [their] dying” (32). As Mr. Webb, the editor of the local newspaper and Emily's father, puts it in Act I:

No […] there isn't much culture [in Grover's Corners]; but maybe this is the place to tell you that we've got a lot of pleasures of a kind here: we like the sun comin' up over the mountain in the morning, and we all notice a good deal about the birds. We pay a lot of attention to them. And we watch the change of the seasons; yes, everybody knows about them. But those other things […] there ain't much.

(25)

Among the “we” of Editor Webb's statement, we may include Emily Webb, Mr. Webb himself, Constable Warren, Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Webb, all of whom take the time to notice the moon in Act I, as the following lines of dialogue and stage directions make clear:

GEORGE:
Hello!
EMILY:
I can't work at all. The moonlight's so terrible.

(33)

MRS. Gibbs:
Myrtle Webb! Look at that moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather, for sure.
(Mrs. Soames, Mrs. Webb, and Mrs. Gibbs) are silent a moment, gazing up at the moon.

(38)

MRS. Gibbs:
Now, Frank, don't be grouchy. Come out and smell the heliotrope in the moonlight.
(They stroll out arm in arm along the footlights.)
Isn't that wonderful?

(39)

MR. Webb:
Good evening, Bill.
CONSTABLE Warren:
Evenin', Mr. Webb.
MR. Webb:
Quite a moon!
CONSTABLE Warren:
Yepp.

(42)

MR. Webb:
Why aren't you in bed?
EMILY:
I don't know. I just can't sleep yet, Papa. The moonlight's so won-derful. And the smell of Mrs. Gibbs' heliotrope. Can you smell it?
MR. Webb:
Hm … Yes.

(44)

Above all we must number among the “we” of Editor Webb's statement the Stage/Town Manager, who at the very start of the play observes that “the sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mount'in. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go—doesn't it? (He stares at it for a moment […])” (6). At the top of Act II he notes that “the sun's come up over a thousand times. Summers and winters have cracked the mountains a little bit more and the rains have brought down some of the dirt” (46). In addition he argues, as Emily does in Act III, that “You've got to love life to have life, and you've got to have life to love life” (47), and at the opening of Act III he pays a lot of attention to the natural surroundings of the cemetery in Grover's Corners:

[This cemetery's] on a hilltop—a windy hilltop—lots of sky, lots of clouds—often lots of sun and moon and stars. You come up here, on a fine afternoon and you can see range on range of hills—awful blue they are—up there by Lake Sunapee and Lake Winnipesaukee … and way up, if you've got a glass, you can see the White Mountains and Mt. Washington—where North Conway and Conway is. And, of course, our favorite mountain, Mt. Monadnock, 's right here—and all these towns that lie around it: Jaffrey, 'n East Jaffrey, 'n Peterborough, 'n Dublin; and there, quite a ways down, is Grover's Corners. Yes, beautiful spot up here. Mountain laurel and li-lacks.

(80)

So the inhabitants of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, have the time and space to pay attention to the rising sun and the flight of birds, to observe the change of seasons and the growth of children, to savor the roses blooming and the coffee brewing. But they have the time and space to do these things because they live in a time and place when and where there apparently was more time and space to devote to the “small pleasures” of living: 1901-1913, before World Wars I and II established the United States as an industrial-military superpower the job of whose workers—living in larger and larger, as well as more and more, cities—was to keep America ahead of all the other nations of the world in addition to competing with one another for a fair share of the American dream. Our Town was first published and produced in 1938 for a Depression-weary and war-wary American public; thus it seems to me no accident that the play looks back to an earlier, almost innocent or idyllic era, before the events of 1914-1938 changed forever the way Americans would regard the world and each other. (By 1938 the New Deal was over, and the Roosevelt administration was turning its attention from domestic reform to the gathering storm in Europe and the Far East.) In this sense, the play is not simply a nostalgic tribute to the “good old days” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a generalized instance of the American tendency to idealize the past, as Francis Fergusson, Thomas E. Porter, and George D. Stephens maintain.5 Rather, Our Town is in fact nearly a piece of isolationist propaganda that promotes the virtues of a simple, unhurried, unthreatened life in the isolated small towns of America—where for one place the virtues of such a life need no such promoting, despite Emily's criticisms of her fellow townspeople and to the detriment of the play's artistic wholeness or thematic unity.

It may seem folksy, for example, that Dr. Gibbs would rather remain at home in Grover's Corners than visit so cosmopolitan a city as Paris, France, but Mrs. Gibbs's explanation of her husband's desire to stay at home rings of isolationism-cum-chauvinism:

No, he said, it might make him discontented with Grover's Corners to go traipsin' about Europe; better let well enough alone, he says. Every two years he makes a trip to the battle-fields of the Civil War [on which Dr. Gibbs is an expert] and that's enough treat for anybody, he says.

(20)

In apparent contradistinction to her husband, it occurs to Mrs. Gibbs “that once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don't talk in English and don't even want to” (20; emphasis mine). Emily Webb might have responded, based on her speech to her classmates about the Louisiana Purchase (27, 29-30), that with the addition of this Southern state Mrs. Gibbs already had a little bit of France in America. (Recall that Emily's alternate speech topic was the Monroe Doctrine [27], which proclaimed that the United States would not brook any political or economic interference in the Western hemisphere by European powers.) Like the Gibbses' remarks and Emily's American history assignment, the following, seemingly innocuous lines by the Stage Manager in Act I also smack of isolationism-cum-chauvinism:

[Joe Crowell] got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there […] Goin' to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.—All that education for nothing.

(10; emphasis mine)

I'm going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone [so that] people a thousand years from now'll know a few simple facts about us—more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight.

(32; emphasis mine)

Among those few simple facts about what the Stage Manager calls “the real life of the people […] in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century” (32), one should not ignore our country's internal isolationism of two kinds. First, there is the comic regionalism, indeed “state-ism,” championed by the Stage Manager when he remarks that “the Cartwright interests have just begun building a new bank in Grover's Corners—had to go to Vermont for the marble, sorry to say” (31-32); by Emily when she declares that “Grover's Corners isn't a very important place when you think of all—New Hampshire; but I think it's a very nice town” (66); then by George when he responds to her later in the same conversation, “I guess new people aren't any better than old ones. […] I don't need to go [away to State Agriculture College] and meet the people in other towns” (67); and finally by Sam Craig when he reveals, upon returning to Grover's Corners for Emily's funeral, that he is now in business out West—which is where Buffalo, New York, is located as far as he is concerned (82).

Second, and most important, there is our internal isolationism of a tragic kind: that is, the segregation of American towns according to race and ethnicity, which we began to remedy only after World War II, when veterans from minority groups demanded equal treatment in housing along with all other areas of life in return for their service to the nation. The pre-Great War world of the Gibbses and the Webbs is decidedly not “an antielitist vision of human existence,” as David Castronovo believes (93). In Grover's Corners, for instance, “Polish Town's across the tracks, [along with] some Canuck families” (6), and the “Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks” (6) as well. Such segregation, of course, was the result as well as the cause of what the Belligerent Man in Our Town calls “social injustice” and “industrial inequality” (24). When asked by this “belligerent” man what the citizens of Grover's Corners are going to do about poverty and discrimination in their town, Mr. Webb lamely—and peremptorily—responds,

Well, I dunno. … I guess we're all hunting like everybody else for a way the diligent and sensible can rise to the top and the lazy and quarrelsome can sink to the bottom. But it ain't easy to find. Meanwhile, we do all we can to help those that can't help themselves and those that can we leave alone.—Are there any other questions?

(25)

Mr. Webb's statement that “we do all we can to help those that can't help themselves” may appear to be charitable, but in fact it is obfuscatory, for it assumes that the racially and ethnically segregated are unable to help themselves as opposed to being prevented from doing so. Similarly, when he declares that “we're all hunting […] for a way the diligent and sensible can rise to the top and the lazy and quarrelsome can sink to the bottom,” Mr. Webb seems to be in favor of equal treatment for everyone, but in reality he is playing to his audience's prejudice that blacks and newly arrived European immigrants belong on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

That prejudice is confirmed early in the play by Dr. Gibbs's report that he is returning home from the birth of “just some twins […] over in Polish Town” (9; emphasis mine); by the Stage Manager's remark that “the earliest tombstones in the cemetery [belong to] Grovers and Cartwrights and Gibbses and Herseys—same names as are around here now” [with the exception of those belonging to Poles and “Canucks”!] (7; emphasis mine); and by the Stage Manager's ominous interruption of Professor Willard's anthropological survey of Grover's Corners—a survey that itself avoids mention of the program of genocide we conducted against the Indians—at the moment this “rural savant” comes to the Slavic and Mediterranean migration to America:

PROFESSOR Willard:
Yes … anthropological data: Early Amerindian stock. Cotahatchee tribes … no evidence before the tenth century of this era … hm … now entirely disappeared … possible traces in three families. Migration toward the end of the seventeenth century of English brachiocephalic blue-eyed stock … for the most part. Since then some Slav and Mediterranean—
STAGE Manager:
And the population, Professor Willard?

(22)

That same ethnic prejudice is confirmed later in the play by Constable Warren's report that he has been out “rescuin' a party; darn near froze to death, down by Polish town thar. Got drunk and lay out in the snowdrifts” (94). The drunk is naturally a “dumb Polack,” one of the ten per cent of the town's illiterate laborers (23), not a member of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority. He must not be as dumb as the women of Grover's Corners, however, for at least he got to vote if he was twenty-one (and a citizen), whereas “women vote indirect” (23), which is to say only by influencing their husbands' votes. The women of the United States did not gain suffrage until 1920.

I have gone to the trouble of documenting the historicity of Our Town because this historicity works against the play's universalizing tendency. Our Town would be a play for all people of all time—in deliberate contrast to the drama of sociopolitical consciousness, even left-wing propaganda, produced by such writers as Clifford Odets, John Howard Lawson, and Elmer Rice during the 1930s—but in its own time it is not even a play for all the ethnic and racial groups of Grover's Corners, let alone all the nationalities of the world. The Stage Manager relates Grover's Corners to the past civilizations of Greece and Rome as well as to future ones, to the surrounding countryside and to evolution (21-22, 32, 71, 80); Wilder eliminates scenery almost completely in order to avoid the suggestion that the meaning of the play's action relates only to Grover's Corners, New Hampshire; and Rebecca Gibbs connects the individual to town, county, state, country, world, universe, and God when she quotes the address on Jane Crofut's letter in Act I (45). Yet for all these attempts to link the Grover's Corners of 1901-1913 to the great world beyond as well as to other historical periods—perhaps partly as a result of these attempts—Our Town remains time- and place-bound. It is the conservative record or dramatic preservation of a conservative, even reactionary, attitude toward life, and it hides behind what appears to be radical, self-searching dramaturgy but is in fact little more than contrived, self-serving theatricalism.

To wit, on the surface Our Town has the trappings of an avant-garde play, or of such a play as influenced by the anti-illusionistic conventions of the Asian theatre:6 a narrator, the Stage Manager, who disrupts the illusion of present-tense reality and the rule of sentiment onstage; “No curtain. No scenery” (5), no props to speak of; characters who address the audience (like Professor Willard and Editor Webb) and acknowledge the existence of the Stage Manager; an episodic dramatic form stretching over twelve years (Act I takes place in 1901, Act II in 1904, and Act III in 1913) that allows for flashbacks (the courtship of George and Emily in Act II, Emily's twelfth birthday in Act III) and flash-forwards (the Stage Manager's foretelling, in Act I, of the invention of the automobile and the deaths of Dr. Gibbs, Mrs. Gibbs, and Joe Crowell); and a lyric mood rather than a dramatic conflict in the conventional sense of protagonist versus antagonist.

But Wilder's characters are typed or familiar—the town malcontent, the folksy sheriff, the steady milkman, the knowing newspaper editor, all flat figures from the primitive world of folk art—not psychologically complex, let alone inscrutable, and they are certainly not characters who call into question the whole idea of unified character or integrated personality, like those of Pirandello. Indeed, when Editor Webb fields questions from the audience in Act I, he neither drops out of character nor steps out from the play, in character, in order to do so: instead he answers “plants” in the audience—not real audience members asking improvised questions—whose queries manage to keep him firmly within the world of Our Town. And nothing is made, either by Wilder or the citizens of Grover's Corners, of the fact that the Stage Manager plays or metamorphoses into multiple roles in Our Town: Mrs. Forrest, an old lady into whom George bumps while playing baseball on Main Street (27); Mr. Morgan, the owner of the local drugstore and soda fountain (64); the minister presiding at George and Emily's marriage (71); the literal manager of the stage who belongs to the “real” world of the theatre, about which he immediately tells us: “This play is called ‘Our Town.’ It was written by Thornton Wilder; produced and directed by A. … In it you will see Miss C. … ; Miss D. … ; Miss E. … ; and Mr. F. … ; Mr. G. … ; Mr. H. … ; and many others” (5); as well as the town's native son, natural leader, and documentary biographer, historical chronicler, or choral spokesman who speaks of “our” town (5-7) in the same accent as every other citizen of Grover's Corners—every other white Anglo-Saxon citizen (that is, e.g., “holla'” for holler or hollow [6], “'twan't” for “it wasn't” [72], “hull” for whole [6]).

Just as Wilder's dramatis personae are not designed either to plumb the depths of character, on the one hand, or to deconstruct it, on the other, neither is his interruption of the linear progression of time designed to probe the nature of time—to suggest its relativistic quality—or to question the principle of inexorable causality. Our Town flashes back from 1938 to 1901-1913, then back from 1913 to 1899 (the year of Emily's twelfth birthday), for the purpose of chauvinistic nostalgia, even as it flashes forward for the sake of cosmic wonder; and it does so through the offices of an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Stage Manager who creates the play's lyric atmosphere, not because he wishes to emphasize the subjectivity of his own voice or expression or to stress the essential “plotlessness” of human existence, but rather out of a desire to banish all dramatic confrontation to the wings, which is to say subsume it within his own quiescent oneness. In this he is, of course, a godlike figure, if not a spokesman for God himself in such speeches as the following, which more than suggest that human beings are created in the image of the divine and thus superior to the rest of creation:

The real hero of this scene [George and Emily's wedding] isn't on stage at all, and you know who that is. It's like what one of those European fellas said: every child born into the world is nature's attempt to make a perfect human being. Well, we've seen nature pushing and contriving for some time now. We all know that nature's interested in quantity; but I think she's interested in quality, too—that's why I'm in the ministry.

(71)

We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars … everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being. (Pause.) You know as well as I do that the dead [like Emily] don't stay interested in us living people for very long. […] They're waitin'. They're waitin' for something that they feel is comin'. Something important, and great. Aren't they waitin' for the eternal part in them to come out clear?

(81-82)

In the second speech above, the Stage Manager is clearly referring to the immortality of the human soul, but he—or Wilder—does so without the realization that in modern, not to speak of avant-garde, drama the patriarchal relationship between God and the individual soul has been replaced by the adversarial relationship between man and his own psychology, his will to comprehend himself, even as the patriarchal relationship between ruler and subject has been replaced by the adversarial relationship between man and society, society's drive to marginalize all those it cannot or will not homogenize. Our Town to the contrary, the fundamental subject matter of almost all serious plays of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is the attempt to resurrect fundamental ethical certainties without resurrecting the fundamental ethical certainty of a judgmental or mindful God—the very God Mrs. Gibbs appears to invoke when she advises the deceased Emily to “think only of what's ahead, and be ready for what's ahead” (92). Contrary to evidence that I have already adduced from the play showing average human beings who are perfectly aware of the Platonic essence or eternal dimension of reality, as well as contrary to evidence from Wilder's own nonfiction of his belief that human beings can find their relationship to God in a conscious appreciation of the natural life around them,7 the Stage Manager implies that it is only this God who, in the person of “saints and poets” (like the Stage Manager himself?), can realize the wonder of life while it is being lived or appreciate the extraordinary beauty of ordinary, unremarkable human existence (100). He thereby implies that this God is the providential designer or moral center of a conventional dramatic triad whose two other components are psychology and causality. Yet modern drama (for my purposes, the realism and naturalism of the social-problem play) banished theology as well as autocracy from its triadic paradigm of human action, as I point out above, thus deepening the dramatic role played by psychology, sociology, and linearity or linkage, while avant-garde drama (all the -isms that react against realism and naturalism: expressionism, surrealism, etc.) demonstrated that a play's movement can be governed by something completely outside the triad that links motive to act, act to logical sequence of events, and logical outcome to divine or regal judgment.

For the avant-garde, beginning in the late nineteenth century with Jarry if not earlier with such German visionaries as Tieck, Büchner, and Grabbe, the nature of reality itself becomes the prime subject of plays because of a loss of confidence in the assumed model for dramatizing human behavior and thinking about human existence. Wilder writes as if no such revolution in the writing of drama had occurred, though we know that he was well aware of it (if only through his intimate friendship with Gertrude Stein, who, in her rejection of the cogency of plot and idea for the sensuality or pure form of language and gesture, was probably the first thoroughgoing American avant-garde dramatist [Haberman, Plays, 37-38, 70; Haberman, American Play, 4 16]). Or rather he borrows from that revolution its “designer fashions” while continuing to wear the emperor's old clothes underneath. Those “old clothes” include the realistic, period clothing that characters normally wear in productions of Our Town in the absence of specific costuming direction from Wilder, as well as the realistic sound effects of a rooster (5), a train whistle (7), a factory whistle (15), and a clock striking the hour (103). The “old clothes” even include an essential observance of the (neo) classical unities, since there is certainly no subplot (one might even argue that there is no plot); the entire action takes place in one location, the town of Grover's Corners; and, even though years pass, the morning-to-evening, birth-to-death structure of the play's three acts suggests a kind of unity of time. Wilder eliminates most scenery, it is true, including some only “for those who think they have to have scenery” (7), in the Stage Manager's words, but this elimination strikes me more as a convenient way to get around the need for multiple settings in this episodic play (Main Street, the Webb and Gibbs homes, Morgan's drugstore, the Congregational Church, the town cemetery) than as a genuine if misguided-misconceived attempt to give the drama universal significance or symbolic resonance, let alone suggest that the stage is the unencumbered mind of God or bald reflection of infinity itself.

Surely Wilder was not subscribing to Jarry's anti-realistic, quasi-Absurd theories of theatre and drama, as Donald Haberman maintains (Plays 65-68), when he took it upon himself to kill the use of a box set for any production of Our Town. And if Pirandello had attempted, in M. C. Kuner's words, “to liberate the conventional stage from its physical limitations by centering much of the action in the minds of the characters and by juggling such opposites as madness and sanity, falsehood and truth, illusion and reality, always asking which was which,”8 then, Kuner to the contrary, Wilder's theatre surely is the opposite of the Pirandellian one where nothing is absolute or fixed, where everything is relative and fluid. Wilder is interested above all in Our Town in confirming, indeed glorifying, the eternal verities of family, country, and God, not in questioning or undercutting them. And he does so in a manner which middlebrows can appreciate most: the conventionally unconventional, or the traditionally experimental. Namely, he tells bourgeois audiences exactly what they want to hear, but in a way that makes them think they are discovering something new or startling. Wilder thus makes the familiar strange or striking in a way consonant with the Brechtian theory of Verfremdung, but certainly not to an end of which the politically revolutionary Brecht would approve. This is the same Brecht who, at about the time Our Town was being produced, was writing his two greatest epic “Schaustücke,” Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) and The Life of Galileo (1939), in an effort to bridge the gap between the numbing prosaism of the modern problem play and the indulgent ethereality of avant-garde drama, not to retreat from it.

Notes

  1. Thornton Wilder, preface, in his Three Plays (New York: Bantam, 1961) xi. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. See, for example, Malcolm Goldstein, The Art of Thornton Wilder (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965) 96-108; Rex Burbank, Thornton Wilder, 2nd ed. (Boston: Twayne, 1978) 75-83; Herman Stresau, Thornton Wilder, trans. Frieda Schutze (New York: Ungar, 1971) 60-61; Eugene Current-Garcia, entry on Our Town, in International Dictionary of Theatre—1: Plays, ed. Mark Hawkins-Dady (Chicago: St. James, 1992) 531; Gerald Berkowitz, American Drama of the Twentieth Century (New York: Longman, 1992) 61-63; and Donald Haberman, The Plays of Thornton Wilder (Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1967) 15-16, 57-59, 63-64, and “Our Town”: An American Play (Boston, Twayne, 1989) 16, 18, 38, 73-74; hereafter, cited parenthetically in the text.

  3. Thornton Wilder, Our Town (New York: HarperCollins, 1985) 100-01. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  4. David Castronovo, Thornton Wilder (New York: Ungar, 1986) 91. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. Francis Fergusson, “Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder, and Eliot,” in his The Human Image in Dramatic Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1957) 52-53; Thomas E. Porter, “A Green Corner of the Universe: Our Town,” in his Myth and Modern American Drama (Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1969) 219; and George D. Stephens, “Our Town—Great American Tragedy? Modern Drama 1.4 (Feb. 1959): 262, 264 (a response to Arthur Ballet, “‘In our Living and in Our Dying,’” English Journal 45.5 [May 1956]: 243-49).

  6. Lee Sang-Kyong, “Zur Rezeption ostasiatischer Theatertradition in Thornton Wilder's Our Town,Arcadia 22.3 (1987): 288-89.

  7. See Thornton Wilder, American Characteristics and Other Essays, ed. Donald Gallup (New York: Harper, 1979) 207-08, and The Journals of Thornton Wilder: 1938-1961, ed. Donald Gallup (New Haven: Yale UP, 1985) 125.

  8. M. C. Kuner, Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark (New York: Crowell, 1972) 137-38.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298

CRITICISM

Burbank, Rex. “Our Town.” In Thornton Wilder, pp. 88-97. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961.

Discusses Our Town in terms of Wilder's view of the human condition.

Pace, David. “For New Hampshire Players, Our Town Is Family Album.” Los Angeles Times (6 August 1993): F22.

Review of the Peterborough Players staging of Our Town that emphasizes the elements of the production that focus on family and small-town community. Pace further praises this production for bringing out the darker elements of Wilder's play while preserving its intrinsic optimism.

Porter, Thomas E. “A Green Corner of the Universe: Our Town.” In Myth and Modern American Drama, pp. 200-24. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969.

Examines Our Town as a mythic presentation of archetypal American life.

Simon, Linda. “Chapter 12.” In Thornton Wilder: His World, pp. 135-46. New York: Doubleday, 1979.

Examines the significance of the staging of Our Town. to the way it is perceived by audiences. Simon further recounts the circumstances and reception of the first performance of Our Town.

Additional coverage of Wilder's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers, Vol. 4; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 29; Authors in the News, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16R, 61-64; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 40; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 6, 10, 15, 35, 82; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 7, 9, 228; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1997; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, and Novelists; Drama Criticism, Vol. 1; Drama for Students, Vols. 1, 4, 16; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Young Adults Supplement, Vol. 1.

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