First produced and published in 1938, this Pulitzer Prize–winning drama of life in the small village of Grover’s Corners has become an American classic and is Thornton Wilder’s most renowned and most frequently performed play.
by Ashley Gallagher
“No curtain. No scenery.” A minimalist theatrical style sets apart the 1938 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Wilder’s greatest and best-known work as a playwright, Our Town opens with the Stage Manager’s introduction to Grover’s Corners, a fictional town based on Peterborough, New Hampshire where Wilder often spent his summers. The sparse and symbolic qualities of the set suggest Wilder’s intention to make Grover’s Corners represent all towns.1 The Stage Manager, played by Wilder himself for two weeks in the 1938 Broadway production, breaks the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. The Stage Manager also assumes control over the onstage action through such unconventional, metatheatrical devices as prompting actors and cueing scene changes. Once the actors have been set in motion by the Stage Manager in Act I, entitled, “Daily Life,” the allegorical world of Grover’s Corners unfolds. The audience is introduced to the Gibbs and Webb families who symbolize “ordinary people who make the human race seem worth preserving and represent the universality of human existence.”2 Wilder explores the families’ inter-relationships, specifically between George Gibbs and Emily Webb. The audience watches George and Emily talk through their second story bedroom windows, represented by ladders: their simple actions complemented by the simple set. Act II, “Love and Marriage,” takes place three years later on George and Emily’s wedding day. After listening to Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs talk about their own wedding day, the Stage Manager transports the audience back to the days of George and Emily’s high school courtship. In this scene, Emily expresses her disdain for George’s conceited behavior. To make amends, George buys Emily an ice cream soda presented in an imaginary glass by Mr. Morgan, played by the Stage Manager. As this glimpse into George and Emily’s past comes to an end, George decides not to go to agriculture school so he can remain in Grover’s Corners, close to Emily. Then, the audience again finds itself at George and Emily’s wedding. The Stage Manager, now playing a minister, focuses the audience’s attention on the tearful and anxious families before George and Emily blissfully run up the aisle, ending Act II. In Act III, Wilder focuses on the end of the life cycle. Nine more years have gone by and Emily has died in childbirth. As the funeral procession crosses the stage, Emily, dressed in white, emerges from behind the mourners’ umbrellas and sits next to the deceased Mrs. Gibbs in the graveyard. Emily begins to question what it means to live and die, and, although warned against it, chooses to relive her twelfth birthday. Deeply saddened by everything she failed to notice while alive, Emily asks the Stage Manager to take her back to her grave but hesitates a moment to say good-by to the world. As Emily accepts her death, George falls at her feet in grief. While watching George, Emily asks Mrs. Gibbs, “They don’t understand, do they?” to which Mrs. Gibbs responds, “No, dear. They don’t understand.”3 As Emily settles in with the dead of Grover’s Corners, the Stage Manager bids the audience a good night.
Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play made its debut at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theater before ultimately moving to the Henry Miller Theatre in New York City. In the New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson called Our Town “one of the finest achievements of the current stage…a hauntingly beautiful play.”4 Despite the myriad of interpretations of Our Town, most critics agree that the play is a microcosm of the life cycle. As Haberman writes, “[Wilder] is reminding the audience of how precious daily life is, because it determines our true reality…our enduring identity is not derived from the things and the events because they are familiar and repeated, but from our ever-new, ever-fresh relation to them.”5 Wilder also demonstrates that these aspects of daily life and their constant renewal are universal to all generations and cultures. While Act I covers “Daily Life,” Act II explores “Love and Marriage.” Once the audience is transported back to George and Emily’s wedding day, they hear various characters’ opinions about marriage, which compels them to make their own judgment and promotes the idea that while marriage may be another part of daily life, “each marriage is different from all the others, and no definition could satisfy everybody.”6 Our Town’s emphasis on the universality of daily life, conscious audience engagement, and minimalist theatrical style are a few of the signature techniques which have qualified Wilder’s work both at home and abroad as the “most representative and significant product of the modern American theater.”7 Our Town has been praised by scholars, such as Rex Burbank, for its simplicity and tragic vision.8 While some audience members did not find the visual simplicity of the set compelling, “Wilder’s purpose in using the bare stage was, in part, to set his audience free from the meaningless particularity of the box-set.”9 Since the play’s tremendous success in New York, Our Town has become a popular play in schools and community theaters primarily because of its minimal scenery requirements. Yet as Our Town’s popularity has grown, so have the number of gross misinterpretations of it. Most often these productions are overly sentimental and romanticized, thus undermining Wilder’s philosophical themes and Burbank’s tragic vision reading. A “debate” on Our Town’s classification as a tragedy occurred between Arthur Ballet and George Stephens. In 1956 Ballet nominated Our Town as “the great American drama.” Ballet pointed out the Stage Manager’s likeness to a Greek chorus as well as death acting as “the fear-agent employed as catharsis.”10 In response, Stephens denied Our Town its tragic status and instead labeled it as “gentle nostalgia or, to put it another way, sentimental romanticism.”11 As if anticipating Stephens’ objection, Ballet concluded his argument with his own definition of tragedy: “Tragedy, in its finest sense,… should point the way to a higher level of understanding of man as a creature revolving in the cosmos.” In this Aristotelian vein, perhaps the most tragic event in Our Town is George collapsing in front of Emily’s headstone, signifying “the most universal lament of them all: that we, our loved ones, everything living, dies.”12 It is in these final moments of Our Town, whether they are classified as tragic or sentimental, that the audience may catch a glimpse of the profound understanding and respect Wilder had for life.
4Atkinson, Brooks. “Our Town.” The New York Times 5 February 1938, late ed.
5Haberman, Donald. Our Town: An American Play. Boston: Twayne, 1989, 74.
7Corrigan, Robert. The Modern Theatre. New York: MacMillan, 1964.
8Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne, 1961.
Almeida, Diane. “Four Saints in Our Town: A Comparative Analysis of Works by Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder.” Journal of American Drama and Theatre. 9.3. (1997 Fall): 1-23.
Ballet, Arthur H. “In Our Living and in Our Dying.” English Journal. 45. May 1956: 243-49.
Brown, John Mason. “Wilder: ‘Our Town.’” Saturday Review of Literature. 32. (1949): 33-34.
Cardullo, Bert. “Whose Town?” Notes on Contemporary Literature. 26.4. (1996 Sept): 3-5.
Cardullo, Bert. “Whose Town Is It, Anyway? A Reconsideration of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.” CLA Journal. 42.1. 1998 Sept: 71-86.
D’Ambrosio, Michael A. “Is ‘Our Town’ Really Our Town?” English Record. 22.1. (1971): 20-22.
Galle, Jeffery. “Pedagogical Strategies for Teaching Our Town to a Crowd of Huck Finns.” Louisiana English Journal: New Series. 4.2. 1997: 72-75.
Hoberman, J. “Our Town.” Sight and Sound. 14.2. (2004 Feb): 24-27.
Londraville, Richard. “Our Town: An American Noh of the Ghosts.” Blank, Martin (ed.), Brunauer, Dalma Hunyadi (ed.), Izzo, David Garrett (ed.). Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 1999. 365-78.
McClanahan, Rebecca. “Our Towns.” Gettysburg Review. 16.2. 2003 Summer: 217-32.
Scott, Winfield Townley. “Our Town and the Golden Veil.” Virginia Quarterly Review 29 (1953): 103-17.
Shen, Min. “‘Quite a Moon!’: The Archetypal Feminine in Our Town.” American Drama. 16.2. 2007 Summer: 1-14.
Stephens, George D. “Our Town—Great American Tragedy?” Modern Drama. 1. 1959: 258-64.
Toten Beard, DeAnna. “Our Town and Modernism: Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, and The Making of Americans.” Texas Theatre Journal. 2.1.
2006 Jan: 21-31.
Turner, Jeff. “No Curtain. No Scenery: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and the Politics of Whiteness.” Theatre Symposium: A Journal of the Southeastern Theatre Conference. 9. 2001: 107-15.
For further discussions of Our Town, please visit the Bibliography.
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