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This three-act play chronicles typical episodes in the life of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, beginning in 1901 and ending in 1913. In the first act, called by the Stage Manager “The Daily Life,” Grover’s Corners is set forth in minute detail, including the locales, history, geography, and demographics of the...

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This three-act play chronicles typical episodes in the life of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, beginning in 1901 and ending in 1913. In the first act, called by the Stage Manager “The Daily Life,” Grover’s Corners is set forth in minute detail, including the locales, history, geography, and demographics of the area, to create a backdrop of small-town America against which the lives of its citizens are played out. Thornton Wilder’s focus is on a single day, May 7, 1901, as two prominent neighboring families, the Gibbses and the Webbs, go about their daily lives. George Gibbs is more interested in baseball than in helping his mother chop wood, to the chagrin of his father. Emily Webb, a star student in high school, agrees to give George hints about his algebra problems. Toward day’s end, Simon Stimson’s drinking is the talk after choir practice.

The Stage Manager calls the second act “Love and Marriage.” The tender and awkward courtship of George and Emily at Mr. Morgan’s soda fountain concludes with George deciding not to go off to State Agriculture College but to stay in Grover’s Corners in order to be with Emily. The Stage Manager as minister performs their marriage, which town gossip Louella Soames thinks is the nicest wedding she has ever seen. Wilder prepares the audience for the grim final act with the Stage Manager’s commentary on the course of life: “The cottage, the gocart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford, the first rheumatism, the grandchildren, the second rheumatism, the deathbed, the reading of the will,—.”

In the third act, several years have passed, and Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, and Mrs. Soames have died. The scene is the Grover’s Corners churchyard, and the occasion is the funeral of Emily Webb Gibbs, who died in childbirth at the age of twenty-six. The Stage Manager philosophizes about the state of the dead, and, in an immensely imaginative scene, the dead speak about how troubled the living are. Against the advice of Mrs. Gibbs and others, Emily returns to the land of the living to relive her twelfth birthday. As an invisible presence, she observes her family and exclaims, “Why did they ever have to get old?” She realizes that she truly cannot go home again and, regretting that life passes by so quickly without true appreciation and understanding, returns to the world of the dead. The Stage Manager bids the audience a good night.

Places Discussed

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Grover’s Corners

Grover’s Corners. Fictional New Hampshire town that is the setting for the entire play. The depiction of this small village is primarily dependent upon the descriptions given by the pivotal character of the stage manager. He explains that the town is “just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes.” He goes on to describe what a typical morning sky looks like in Grover’s Corners, with its “streaks of light” and the morning star still shining brightly within it. The effect of the stage manager’s words is both cinematic and hypnotic; it accomplishes what mere scenery could not. Through his words, the audience sees, as if they are behind a moving camera, the heavens that look down upon the town, the town’s busy streets and communities, and even more specific spots, such as the stores the townspeople frequent and the schools their children attend.

Finally, when the stage manager approaches the table and chairs that serve as the Gibbs house and points to the spot that is to be Mrs. Webb’s garden, vine and flower-covered trellises are rolled out “for those,” he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “who think they have to have scenery,” and the audience then focuses on the individual lives that are to be examined in this play, rather than on superfluous details.

Main Street

Main Street. Street at the heart of Grover’s Corners on which almost every character in the play is, at one time or another, seen bustling along. However, the actions of these people take on far greater meaning against the backdrop of Emily’s return visit to earth. Even Howie Newsome’s job of delivering the daily milk seems poignant when Emily “listens in delight” to the sound of his voice, along with Constable Warren’s and Joe Crowell Jr.’s, sounds she very likely heard every day of her life.

Gibbs house

Gibbs house and Webb house. Childhood homes of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. The introductory stage directions for act 1 state that the audience is to see nothing but “an empty stage in half-light” upon arriving. Eventually, the stage manager strolls out and places “a table and three chairs downstage left,” and another set of table and chairs downstage right. These items, along with a small bench, serve as the Gibbs and Webb houses. These are the sole objects seen as the stage manager begins to describe Grover’s Corners in the play’s opening lines. When Emily revisits the Webb home in act 3, as Wilder himself once pointed out, even the kitchen table and chairs are gone. “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in ‘scenery,’” Wilder said.

Morgan’s drugstore

Morgan’s drugstore. Grover’s Corners’s combination pharmacy and soda shop. Again emphasizing the irrelevance of place and props in this play, the stage manager takes two chairs from the Gibbs family’s kitchen and places a board across their backs to create the counter of what is presumably the local teen hangout. It is here that George and Emily first realize they want to spend their futures together.

Cemetery

Cemetery. Hilltop graveyard that becomes Emily’s final resting place. Given the theme of the play, it is not surprising that its last act emphasizes the specifics of nature. According to the stage manager, the graveyard lies beneath “lots of sky, lots of clouds,—often lots of sun and moon and stars.” He also tells the audience that lilacs and mountain laurel cover this hill, and admits to being puzzled when he thinks of people who choose to be buried in a place like Brooklyn when they could spend eternity in this corner of New Hampshire.

As with every setting in the play, the beauty of the cemetery could not have been conveyed in a more effective way than through words alone. Paradoxically, the very absence of concrete place is what makes every aspect of Grover’s Corners come so vividly to life. However, as Wilder intended, each audience member’s idea of the town will be specific to that individual’s own imagination and rendering. “The climax of this play,” he said, “needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

Historical Context

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Invention and Growth
During the time period of the play, 1901 to 1913, America saw many industrial advances. One that features prominently in the play itself is the introduction in 1908 of Henry Ford's Model T automobile. The Stage Manager, in his opening speech in Act Three, mentions that "farmers are coming to town in Fords." The horse and buggy days are gone, even for the fictional town of Grover's Corners.

Organized baseball had its first World Series in 1903 and the sport soon earned the nickname of "The National Pastime." Scouts from the professional teams would travel to rural areas looking for talented athletes. Though none of these scouts appear in the play, much mention is made of George Gibbs's skill as a pitcher.

The Progressive Movement
When Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, The Progressive Era in American society began. The Progressives believed that the irresponsible actions of the rich were corrupting both public and private life in the country. In order to change this, regulations had to be instituted to create a more balanced and efficient society. Even though the country was relatively stable economically, the social spectrum ranged from the opulently wealthy to the tragically poor. Jacob Riis, a photographer, documented the plight of these disenfranchised Americans. In an effort to eliminate child labor, Lewis Hine photographed young children working in factories. Other Progressives fought for new laws that would break up large monopolies or trusts. (They were called "Trust Busters.") These reformers called for regulation of the railroads, the opportunity for people to vote on laws themselves through referendum, a graduated income tax where people who earned more money would pay higher taxes, and better conservation of natural resources. The "Belligerent Man" who questions Mr. Webb in Act One may be Wilder's nod to the Progressives.

Childbirth
Emily dies in childbirth, a common occurrence during this time period. Causes of death ranged from infection due to unsanitary conditions to the transfer of disease into the household. Most births occurred at home, not in a hospital, and many babies were delivered by midwives and not doctors. In rural areas, especially farms with cattle, sheep, pigs, and other animals, germ-free conditions were hard to come by. Sometimes people were infected by doctors and midwives who cared for both people and animals. By the early 1900s, the practice of providing antiseptic environments had still not been adopted in all rural areas.

The Turn of the Century and the Industrial Revolution
Our Town's action occurs at the turn of the twentieth century, a time of great societal change in America. By this time the industrial revolution, which would forever change the work environment of America, was well underway. Despite mention of such technical advancements as the automobile, life in Grover's Corners is relatively unaffected by the great changes that were sweeping most of the country. Most people in the town earn their livings the way that their predecessors did for much of the nineteenth century; they are milkmen, newspaper editors, doctors, and farmers. In this sense, Grover's Corners represents an American way of life that is fading; the play freezes this simpler time, preserving it for future generations.

Literary Style

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Experimental Techniques
When Our Town was first performed in 1938, Thornton Wilder was better known as the Pulitzer prize-winning (1927) author of a novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Unhappy with most of what he was seeing on the American stage, Wilder decided to introduce a different approach to theater. He explains his idea in the preface to Three Plays by Thornton Wilder (Bantam, 1958):

Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theater. I ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented there . . I felt that something had gone wrong with it [the theater] in my time and that it was fulfilling only a small part of its potentialities.

Our Town was considered innovative for its time because of the experimental techniques Wilder incorporated into the play. The Stage Manager, a character both inside and outside the play, narrates the action. He comments to the audience on the present, the past, and the future. He is bounded by the limits of time, and, yet, he stands both beyond and outside it. In addition, there are no props, background scenery, or designed sets—just chairs, two tables, two step ladders, and two trellises ("scenery for those who think they have to have scenery," as Wilder explained). Action that normally would involve the use of props is mimed by the actors. This approach carried a great deal of risk at a time when theatrical productions were trying to outdo each other in terms of costumes and scenery. Wilder's use of these experimental techniques forced the audience to focus more on the characters than on what they were wearing and what objects surrounded them. In her book, Currents in Contemporary Drama, Ruby Cohn explains Wilder's approach: "The Stage Manager in Our Town functions much like an omnipresent author in a novel, but he does not suggest that his characters are actors.... On the contrary, the characters are more real than things, because they are present on stage whereas things are not."

Homage to Classical Drama
Thornton Wilder was educated in what is called "the classical tradition.'' Our Town includes several influences from classical Greek drama. The Stage Manager functions as a sort of Greek chorus. He is a neutral character who comments on the action and tells the audience about events that happen offstage. He advises the audience how they should (or should not) react to events on stage, and he reinforces the moral message of the play. Additionally, Wilder does not divide the acts into scenes, but does try, in a way, to follow the three unities of Greek drama: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.

Unity of time usually means that the entire action of the play occurs within a single twenty-four hour period. In a strict counting of time, the action of Our Town spans much more than a single day, including shifts both forward and backward. But, in a different reading, the action of Our Town all takes place in one day. The play begins at daybreak and ends at night—a single day of life. Unity of place demands that the action of the play occur in a single location. As the stage directions state, "the entire play takes place in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire." There is also unity of action. Our Town focuses on one story with no subplots to complicate things.

Compare and Contrast

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Turn of the Century: Most schoolteachers were women. If they wanted to marry (like Joe Crowell's teacher in Act One), they had to resign their teaching positions. In rural communities, teachers often lived with local families during the school year.

1930s: As the country struggled with unemployment during the Great Depression, teaching positions were prized jobs for both single and married women. More men joined the ranks of teachers, mostly at the upper grade levels. Rural areas still had one and two-room schoolhouses.

Today: Women still outnumber men in the teaching profession. Salaries have increased and people can support families on teachers' wages. In many rural areas, towns have been forced to give up their own schools and join with other towns to create a single regional school.

Turn of the Century: People lived and worked in the same location. No place was too far away that a person couldn't walk to it. Horse and buggy was the principal transportation.

1930s: Automobiles replaced the horse and buggy as the primary mode of transportation. The Great Depression forced mills and factories that once thrived in small New England towns to shut their doors, forcing people to either move away or to travel elsewhere to seek work.

Today: Thousands of people commute into Boston everyday from small towns in southern New Hampshire. Some drive their cars on mutli-lane highways for nearly two hours each way, while others travel to an outlying train station and finish their commute into the city by rail.

Turn of the Century: Women rarely worked at a job outside the home. As the Stage Manager says in his opening monologue to Act Two: "both those ladies cooked three meals a day— one of 'em for twenty years, the other for forty— and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house— and never a nervous breakdown.''

1930s: Most women were mothers and housewives, but the economic realities of the Great Depression dictated that whoever could, worked. When the country entered World War II just three years after Our Town opened, thousands of women took factory jobs while men went off to war.

Today: Women are in the workforce in larger numbers than ever before. Families juggle work schedules of the father, the mother, and the children. Take-out food has replaced the traditional family dinner, and eating in front of the television has replaced conversation at the dinner table.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading
Ballet, Arthur H. "In Our Living and In Our Dying" in English Journal, Vol XLV, no. 5, May, 1956, pp. 243-49. In this essay, Ballet considers Our Town in terms of its affinity with classical tragedy.

Brown, John Mason "Wilder's 'Our Town'" in his Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show, Viking, 1963, pp 79-84. A highly respected drama critic and editor for the Saturday Review during the 1940s, Brown wrote several critical studies of the American theater. In this assessment of Our Town, written in 1938 and later included in his Dramatis Personae (1963), he supports Wilder's rejection of contemporary political and social issues while praising his portrayal of such fundamental human concerns as death, love, and the passage of time.

Discovering Authors: Modules, Gale, 1996. A CD-ROM and online publication that contains biographical and critical information for Thornton Wilder (and hundreds of other authors). Particularly useful were hypertext links to critical articles.

Johns, Sally. "Thornton Wilder" in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas, Gale, 1981, pp 304-19. This article presents an overview of Wilder's career, concentrating on his contributions to American theater.

Miller, Arthur "The Family in Modern Drama" in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol 197, no 4, April, 1956, pp. 35-41. The author of Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953), and numerous other dramatic works, Miller is ranked among the most important and influential American playwrights since World War II. In his essay, he praises Our Town as a poetic work that effectively links daily life to "the generality of men which is our society and our world."

Bibliography

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Castronovo, David. “The Major Full-Length Plays: Visions of Survival.” In Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. A striking, intelligent, and convincing reading of Our Town as “American folk art.”

Corrigan, Robert W. “Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life.” In The Theater in Search of a Fix. New York: Delacorte Press, 1973. Finds that Wilder’s plays “fall short of tragedy” but argues that “no other American dramatist more fully affirms that miracle of life which so much modern drama would deny.”

Fergusson, Francis. “Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder, and Eliot.” In The Human Image in Dramatic Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1957. Still one of the best discussions of Wilder’s unusual dramatic technique and its relationship to the themes of his plays.

Haberman, Donald C. Our Town: An American Play. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A thorough examination of the play and its place in literary history. Attempts “to recover the play’s intellectual respectability and to demonstrate how solid and at the same time how revolutionary its stagecraft is.”

Wixon, Douglas Charles, Jr. “The Dramatic Techniques of Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht: A Study in Comparison.” Modern Drama 15 (September, 1972): 112-124. A thorough analysis of the devices Wilder uses to subordinate the theatrical illusion of reality and to emphasize the examination of ideas.

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