Q: How does Wilder’s stagecraft in Our Town depart from the conventions of the time in which he wrote?
A: Wilder’s theatrical style in such plays as Our Town, The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden was very radical for the 1930s. Most American plays then were highly realistic. The sets were full and representative; the actors addressed each other, never the audience; the plot was sequential; and the dialogue ignored the existence of the audience, the theater, or the play being performed. The idea was that the play itself was real life.
Wilder was the first American playwright to change these conventions. His stages were bare, using only an occasional chair or stool; actors broke the fourth wall, talking directly to the audience about the production, like the Stage Manager in Our Town; the dialogue frequently refers to the author, the play, or the actors. Wilder also avoids a linear, chronological plot structure: the plot in Our Town, for example, incorporates scenes from the past in both acts 2 and 3. Although the flashback technique was a common enough device in fiction, it was rarely used in drama. Finally, in both Our Town and the shorter plays, Wilder required the actors to employ a pantomime technique (the soda shop scene in Act II, for example), rather than using the realistic stage props so common at the time. His non-realistic techniques were a radical departure from the conventions so widely popular in plays of the earlier 20th century. The idea was that the play itself was a distillation of life, a commentary on its essential moments.
Playgoers and drama critics were taken aback by Wilder’s pared down theatrical style and approach to drama. Today a production with a bare stage, in which actors address the audience and refer to the play itself, is no particular surprise. But back in the 1930s, these techniques were extremely innovative. Wilder was the moving force behind such innovations.
If you want to read more about Wilder’s stagecraft, I suggest you look at the bibliography on this website; most of the books listed there will discuss these issues in depth.