Our Town by Thornton Wilder
The events in the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder take place in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, on three dates – the 7th of May 1901, three years later in July 1904, and in summer 1913. The characters are the ordinary Americans and the two families of Gibbses and Webbs. In the first act, their children George Gibbs and Emily Webb go to school. They get married in the second act. The third act shows the cemetery on the day of Emily’s funeral. The moment and eternity are the two poles between which the characters live, just like everyone else does. As Wilder addresses future generations with his character’s words, “This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying” (32). Thereby, he connects the past, the present, and the future into a single indivisible stream of life, when everything seems to be repeated again and again, though each time in its own way. It is this conjunction of everyday life with overall existence that creates a philosophical theme of the play.
For Wilder, a society is a timeless concept. It means that all the living people, those who ever lived, and the unborn ones are bound to one another. These bonds empace the entire history of the human race, as well as the history of the Earth. That is why the ties of love, solidarity, and responsibility permeate through both the world of humans and the universe. In the first place, this idea is shown in the composition of the play, which destroys the illusion of the human disconnection and confinement to a certain time and space. It is done by means of dramatic techniques, such as participation of the audience and rearrangement of the actors’ roles. As a rule, there is an imaginary wall between the stage and the audience, when the latter passively empathizes with what is happening on stage. On the contrary, Wilder peaks this tradition. His stage is arranged by Stage Manager who sets the parameters of time and space in the full view of the audience. At the same time, Stage Manager himself is an important actor who constantly points out what happened to one or another character in the past and what will happen to them in the future. He actively intervenes in the course of presentation, completing and commenting on the conversations. Besides, the characters, such as Woman in the Balcony and Lady in the Box, personify the audience, directly participating in the play. Furthermore, apart from acting out their own past lives, the characters play the viewers of their own lives together with the audience. It is shown particularly clear, when in the third act, Emily Webb asks Stage Manager to allow her to live a day in her life over again. This time, not only does Emily live this day, but she also witnesses her life as the audience, empathizes, and criticizes it (Wilder 91-100). Thus, putting a man in different shoes suggests that the nature of the human being is not confined to one’s present conditions.
Wilder also uses the artistic illusion, to help the audience get rid of false appearances that make the viewer blind to the true meaning of life. He seeks to create a panoramic image of time, in which the past, the present, and the future exist simultaneously, to show how illusive one’s notions about segmenting time are. In the play, much attention is paid to the specific features of the town, its location, historical time, and the details of its daily life. Everything has been firmly rooted both historically and geographically. These images are full of sincere sympathy and love. Whatever happens, Stage Manager does not separate himself from the community of actors and always calls the town “our town”. Nevertheless, above all concreteness, there exists the absolute perspective of time, expressed in the mixture of time layers throughout the play. One gets a sense of conditionality when highlighting any particular moment as something self-sufficient. The conditionality and relativity of the theatrical present is emphasized by the fact that the present acts as the past for both the audience and the characters, many of whom had died before they appeared on stage. The double perspective of time is also present in the details, such as the fact that the newsboy does not have newspapers in his hands. Still, he delivers them anyway. The graveyard scene takes place both in the visible and invisible worlds, which appear to be closely linked. There is a constant interaction between them, though not realized by its participants. “I’m always uncomfortable when they’re around”, Simon Stimson says to Mrs. Gibbs about the living people (84), as if in confirmation of Stage Manager, who had previously said the following about the dead: “Some of the things they’re going to say maybe’ll hurt your feelings – but that’s the way it is…all those terribly important things kind of grow pale around here” (82).
Furthermore, along with the past, the future is present in the town as well. It is no coincidence that the play begins with the birth of twins in one of the families and ends likewise. Sometimes, the future pings joy; sometimes – a tragic event, like the one in which Emily died during childbirth. However, the future in the play is not the nearest circle of life only. The play itself is supposed to be left to distant descendants as a remempance of the people’s real life in the 20th century (32). Thereby, the distant descendants have their own part in the play too. As for the characters, both dead and alive, they live their lives over again as a moral for both the audience and descendants. Thus, the general audience comprises the deceased, the living, and the unborn altogether. They share a common belonging to the human race, thereby, representing an eternal society. The moral they must grasp is the fact of this commonality and the ensuring solidarity as a consequence. For instance, Stage Manager thanks the actors for their diligence and even assumes their roles while they are absent, as in case with Mr. Morgan, a soda seller (64-70). He also addresses the audience’s opinion on important questions, such as what should be put in the cornerstone for people who will discover it in a thousand years, “What do you say folks? What do you think?” (32). So, he decides that this play about the life of ordinary people is a worthy message, because he regrets that “even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies that wrote for the theatre back then” (32).
The image of eternal society has another aspect in the play. Wilder takes one human life at its main stages as a plot, presenting it as the matrix of existence. It appears that for Wilder, it is fundamentally important that this matrix represents the story of a couple, because the law of life is that a person seeks for a mate. That is the initial manifestation of the human solidarity. And taking an individual human life as a basis, Wilder shows how the seemingly narrow human world of daily life in an unremarkable town is embedded in the infinite circle of the universal history. At the same time, the higher existence neither consumes nor destroys the individual nature of the particular step, which makes up reality. Likewise, the nation does not consume the individuality of human personalities, just as the mankind does not consume the individuality of nations, comprising it. In the play, the town is recognizably American. However, the American nation is multiethnic. Being the result of the long historical process, it owes its individuality to other nations, including the Indians (22). For its residents, the modern life of the town naturally includes the Civil War – Dr. Gibbs spends his vacations on its battlefields (20); Napoleon, who is the subject of Mr. Webb’s study (20); and the first settlers, whose tombstones are in the graveyard (7). When Professor Willard is asked to tell the story of the town, he, in the first place, starts with the geological fact that the town is situated on the ancient granite formation, which is the source of pride for its residents: “I may say it’s some of the oldest land in the world. We’re very proud of that.” (21). Then, he proceeds to the more recent history of two or three hundred million years ago (21). On a planetary scale, the layers of everyday life are naturally connected to the evolution of the universe. Thus, the audience learns that “some highly interesting” and “unique fossils” were found “two miles out of town, in Silas Peckham’s cow pasture” (21).
It follows that, apart from people, Wilder’s concept of “our town” also includes the planet Earth as a living organism. It seems to be the leading idea of the play, which is emphasized in the following words by Stage Manager:
Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk…or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest. (103)
The above words make one wonder what it is that the planet works so strenuously on. A few pages earlier, Stage Manager says that the basic effort of nature is the creation of a perfect human being, in which all the people take a direct part (71). Therefore, Wilder does not confine the flight of time to the continuous repetition of birth and death. Both the man and the Earth aim their efforts at reaching a higher spiritual goal, which is the creation of the perfect human being. Again, this idea in the play is approached from the ordinary perspective. For example, young George and Emily think that that they are a long way off perfection, although Emily is perfect for George, because he is in love with her (63-69). The whole idea of perfection is introduced in a moderate, rather that overly dramatic manner. The spiritual dimension is embodied in love, marriage, and childbirth. In this context, it becomes clear that an individual location is not limited to one’s street and house. However significant it may be, but it always pings to higher levels of commonality. The example of this is the following address on the letter to a sick girl, written by her pastor to support her: “Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; the United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God” (45).
Touching upon the issue of the unity of human life, Wilder considers the question of culture as well. Yet, he puts the culture of everyday life in the first place. The forms of this culture are reflected in the images, such as love, friendship, marriage, family relationships, the neighborhood, and the town’s community. Thus, along with important texts of their culture, such as the Bible, a copy of Shakespeare’s plays, and the Constitution of the United States, the author wants to leave the copies of the New York Times paper and the local Sentinel for descendants (32). But most importantly, he wants to leave the text of the play as a model of the real life. The theme of culture can also be traced when Lady in the Box asks Mr. Webb whether there is any cultural life or love of beauty in Grover’s Corners (25). He responds that there is not much culture in the sense that she puts in it, but the people love to watch the sun rising over the mountain in the morning, the birds, and the change of the seasons. Also, they are familiar with some literature, painting, and music, but only to little extent. Apparently, there are two ides of culture in the play. One has to do with erudition and art. The other is far poader and manifests itself through the love for the world, for the life, and for people, through the desire to become a better person, and through the ability to be a good parent, a child, or a spouse. The forms of everyday life are inherently beautiful, according to Wilder. Thus, the way he describes ordinary people in their daily life is particularly touching.
In sum, the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder is a page in the life of a typical American provincial town. But it is only on the face of it. In a poader sense, it is an amazingly accurate chronicle of the human life in general. In this chronicle, the life and being, the transient and the eternal, always converge in one constantly reproduced but nevertheless unique biography.
1. Wilder, Thornton. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1957. Print.