Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

The lights go up on a half-lit stage with no curtain or scenery. The Stage Manager enters in silence and begins to set the scene, arranging a few pieces of furniture—two tables, six chairs, and a bench—to suggest two different households. When he is finished, he waits while the house lights go down before speaking. Then he speaks directly to the audience.

"This play is called 'Our Town.' It was written by Thornton Wilder," the Stage Manager says. He goes on to list the real-life names of the play's actors. He gives the play's setting—a New Hampshire town called Grover's Corners—along with the date and time, May 7, 1901, just before dawn. With a few gestures, he sketches out the important parts of town—Main Street, the four main churches, the grocery and drugstores, and the schools.

Moving from the general to the specific, the Stage Manager points out the downstairs right table and chairs and introduces them as the house of Doc Gibbs, the town physician. He crosses the stage and indicates Editor Webb's house. And here, he says, are Doc and Mrs. Gibbs themselves—the doctor coming down Main Street and his wife making a fire in the kitchen stove. The Stage Manager casually mentions both of them have been dead for years.

Joe Crowell, the newspaper boy, appears onstage; so does Mrs. Webb. As Joe delivers his papers, he catches up to Doc Gibbs, and they have a brief conversation. The Stage Manager explains that Joe, too, died long ago—in France during World War I.

Howie Newsome, the milkman, comes onstage and chats briefly with Doc Gibbs before exiting. The doctor arrives at home and is greeted by his wife, who chides him about not getting enough rest. Mrs. Gibbs begins calling to the children to get up for school; across the stage, Mrs. Webb begins to do the same. The Gibbs children—Rebecca, 11, and George, 16—dash into the kitchen, as does 16-year-old Emily Webb and her 11-year-old brother, Wally. Both sets of children chat with their mothers before the school bell rings. The kids rush off toward Main Street.

Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb step outside their houses and begin some chores, chatting as they work. Mrs. Gibbs confides it's been her lifelong dream to see Paris before she dies, and she might be receiving a small legacy to pay for the trip. Mrs. Webb suggests she "just keep droppin' hints from time to time."

The Stage Manager thanks the two women, who leave the stage. The Stage Manager informs the audience a few hours have passed and Professor Willard from "State University" has arrived to give a lecture on Grover's Corners—"kind of a scientific account, you might say." The professor recounts a few dry facts, receives thanks from the Stage Manager, and exits.

In comes Mr. Webb, the editor of the town newspaper. He describes the demographics of the town. "Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller." He fields questions about social justice (from a character called Belligerent Man) and the town's "love of beauty" (from a character called Lady in a Box)—before leaving to mow the lawn.

The Stage Manager again announces a few hours have passed. Now school is out, and the children are walking home. George Gibbs and Emily Webb chat about schoolwork, and George suggests setting up "a kinda telegraph" between their bedroom windows so they can do homework together. He also hints he doesn't need to be tremendously well educated because he'll be inheriting his uncle's farm. At home Emily haltingly asks her mother if she's pretty enough "to get people interested in me."

The Stage Manager interrupts the conversation. "That'll do," he says. Again alone on the stage, he describes the time capsule that is going to be buried in the cornerstone of the new Grover's Corners bank. Of course the great works of literature should be included, but the Stage Manager thinks an Our Town script should be buried as well. That way people living a thousand years in the future will understand "the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying."

As evening falls, a choir in the orchestra pit begins singing "Blessed Be the Tide That Binds." Two ladders are brought onto the stage to indicate the second floor of each house. Emily and George climb the ladders and begin their homework. Meanwhile, Simon Stimson, the church organist, is running a choir rehearsal. "Get it out of your heads that music's only good when it's loud," he says.

From their respective bedrooms, George and Emily begin chatting about their homework. With the moonlight and the singing from the church, they find it hard to concentrate. Emily gives George a few hints about one of their math questions, and the two say goodnight. In the church Simon Stimson begins to lead the choir in the hymn "Art Thou Weary; Art Thou Languid?"

Dr. Gibbs calls George, who climbs down from the ladder to talk. In a mildly chiding way, Dr. Gibbs points out Mrs. Gibbs has been doing George's job by chopping the wood. "I suppose she just got tired of asking you." He softens when George sheds a few tears and tells the boy he'll be getting a raise in his allowance.

With choir rehearsal over, Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Webb walk home gossiping about Simon Stimson, who was drunk at rehearsal again. Mrs. Soames is loud in her disapproval. Mrs. Gibbs answers that Simon Stinson has been through a lot. Since the pastor hasn't fired him, she says, "The only thing the rest of us can do is just not to notice it."

The three friends say goodnight, and Mrs. Gibbs walks into the house to be greeted by a grumpy husband. She coaxes him to come outside and smell the heliotrope. In the yard she tells Dr. Gibbs about Simon Stimson's drunkenness that night—"worst I've ever seen him." Trying to lay the groundwork for a Paris trip, she announces if she gets the legacy she is hoping for, she is going to insist Dr. Gibbs get a real "rest and change."

Rebecca Gibbs climbs the ladder into George's "bedroom" to look at the moon. The Stage Manager reenters to say it's now 9:30 P.M. and that most of the lights are out. Constable Warren checks some locks on Main Street and runs into Mr. Webb, who is on his way home. Simon Stinson walks unsteadily down Main Street and passes the two men without a word.

Mr. Webb walks up to his house and finds Emily sitting on the porch. She tells him she hasn't been able to sleep because of the moonlight and the smell of the heliotrope plant from the Gibbs' yard.

In George's bedroom his sister Rebecca is telling him about a letter the minister sent to a friend of hers. The address on the envelope began "Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners." It continued for a long time before ending "The Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God." Rebecca says, "and the postman brought it just the same."

The Stage Manager announces the end of the first Act.

Analysis

Conscious Artifice

In most plays the action is supposed to be realistic. The actors behave as if the audience isn't there. They do their best to bring individuality and realism to their roles. No matter how fantastic the plot, the stage is designed to suggest, as much as possible, the world inhabited by the characters. When the curtain rises, the assumption is that from then until the end of the play, the audience will imagine what they see is real.

With Our Town, this illusion is never fanned into life. Even before the play begins, the audience is aware it's a play. There is no curtain and practically no set. More striking is the fact that in his very first line the Stage Manager refers to the play as a play. He will not be "acting" in the traditional sense; he won't try to come across as a real character. He will stage-manage the other actors from time to time, moving them on- and offstage like puppets. He will interrupt the other actors, introduce flashbacks, and describe the future. And he will do all of this while speaking directly to the audience.

Why should a playwright want to keep reminding the audience what they're seeing isn't real? As Wilder explains in his book Three Plays, he wants to "capture not verisimilitude but reality." His meaning: verisimilitude is believability. Reality is what is true. Our Town is meant to be everyone's town, and the fact the play has been a worldwide success proves its message resonates with people everywhere.

Minimal Characterization

In Our Town Wilder's goal is not to create strikingly individual characters—or even recognizable ones. As their identical homes suggest, the Gibbs and Webb families are virtually interchangeable. Both fathers are professional local men of some standing in the community; both are interested in history. Both mothers are devoted homemakers. The two sets of parents are equally plainspoken, practical, and dedicated to their children. Emily and George are the same age, as are Wally and Rebecca.

The play's secondary characters are sketched in even more lightly. Not much distinguishes Howie Newsome's dialogue from that of newsboy Joe Crowell. Wilder hints Simon Stimson's secret sorrow has turned him into a bitter alcoholic—but the audience never learns the nature of the secret. Mrs. Soames likes to gossip, but she rarely has anything worth gossiping about. Joe Crowell, the paper boy, will be replaced by his younger brother Si, whose conversation will be just as "generic" as Joe's.

Why did Wilder create such ordinary characters? It is not because he wants the audience to believe these characters are unimportant. Rather, by subtracting identifying details and making his characters somewhat generic, Wilder is elevating them into archetypes: representative models of humanity. Emily and George are meant to stand in for all young lovers; Simon Stimson typifies the embittered loner; Mrs. Soames stands in for the kind of person who looks for drama in every encounter.

Wilder's point is that ordinary people, and ordinary life, are extraordinarily important. What we tend to think of as everyday experiences all have value and meaning. Notice how much space he allots to the play's secondary characters: a milkman, a paper boy, a visiting cousin. Nothing these people say is particularly memorable, but their casual exchanges are part of the web that connects people and keeps civilization going.

Emily Webb stands out from the rest of the group. She is bright; she knows she's bright; and she revels in it. "I made a speech in class today and I was very good ... It was like silk off a spool. I'm going to make speeches all my life," she tells her mother. In fact she will continue to give speeches in Acts 2 and 3. Sadly, her most important speech will be made after she dies, and no other characters in the play, save for the Stage Manager, will be able to hear her.

The Stage Manager's Role

The Stage Manager's characterization is more mysterious. What an audience makes of the Stage Manager surely depends on the actor playing the role; on the page his role is ambiguous. When he speaks to the audience, he always brings them back to the present day, reminding them they are watching a play. He chats in a relaxed, friendly way, but he is not necessarily a sympathetic figure. Does he approve of small-town America, or is he lightly dismissive of it? How does he view the audience? Does he see them as sharing his views, or is he trying to change their minds about small-town life?

Toward the end of Act 1, Mr. Webb asks Constable Warren to let him know, "if you see my boy smoking cigarettes." Clearly, he disapproves of smoking (at least for an 11-year-old boy). A minute or so later, at the end of the act, the Stage Manager tells the audience, "You can go and smoke now, those that smoke." Is he gently mocking smokers? Or more likely accepting life as it is? It is important not to over-interpret a play's individual lines, but the juxtaposition of the two cigarette references is likely not an accident.

The Stage Manager's references to Joe Crowell are similarly ambiguous. In Act 1—speaking in the present—he tells the audience Joe was accepted to MIT but then enlisted to fight in World War I and died in France. "All that education for nothing," says the Stage Manager. In Act 2, speaking from 1904, he will repeat that Joe's education will be "wasted." Does he really mean this? His cheerful detachment, or perhaps acceptance, makes it hard to tell.

Even the Stage Manager's role shifts from scene to scene, much like Wilder did. Sometimes he is a narrator, sometimes a character. But in more sense than one, he is in charge of Grover's Corners.

The Speeches

In Act 1 the Stage Manager interrupts a conversation between Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb. Thanking and dismissing the two women, he announces the action will now jump forward a few hours. He has called upon two speakers to give the audience some information about Grover's Corners. The first speaker, Professor Willard, gives a brief, dry recitation of facts about geology and history. He is followed by Mr. Webb, whose description of the town is much more informative in terms of human interest.

What does Wilder want the audience to take away from these speeches, apart from the obvious fact people are more interesting than rocks? First, it is important to notice how the speeches enhance the Stage Manager's godlike role in the play. Not only does he know both the past and the future of Grover's Corners; he has the power to shift time. He can also summon and dismiss characters at will.

Both speakers also emphasize the lack of diversity and the similarities between the town's residents. Professor Willard says the Native American tribes who once inhabited the region have "now entirely disappeared" and that Grover's Corners now consists mostly of "English ... blue-eyed stock" with some "Slav and Mediterranean" folk. Mr. Webb points out the majority of townspeople share political views and religious orientation, and 90% of Grover's Corners high school students choose to settle there. In answer to a question from the audience, Mr. Webb says there's not much "culture or love of beauty" in the town—"at least not in the sense you mean."

Wilder stresses the sameness of Grover's Corners residents. The descriptions of the Professor and Mr. Webb also stress how ordinary the town is. Later in Act 1, the Stage Manager will describe ancient Babylon as being "same as here." He will also suggest the ancient Greeks and Romans must have been ordinary people, though almost nothing is known about their domestic life. For the Stage Manager the ordinary is just as worth preserving as the "joking poems and the comedies" now treated as classics. He wants to put a copy of the play into the town's time capsule so "people a thousand years from now'll know a few simple facts about us."

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