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Our Town | Context

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Literary Influences

Thornton Wilder was influenced by theater movements in Europe along with the work of other playwrights. Theater in Europe underwent a great change at the turn of the 20th century. Tired of grandly earnest traditional plays, young writers began to experiment with modern dramas in smaller, more intimate theaters. Paradoxically, some of the experiments involved the revival of classical Greek and medieval plays.

While traveling in Europe during this exciting time of new theatrical developments, American writers like Wilder were inspired by the productions they saw. They returned home to begin their own experimentation with theater. In 1922, while in Rome, Wilder had seen the world premiere of Pirandello's absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author. (Italian author Luigi Pirandello is particularly known for his dramas exploring the problem of identity and the search for self.) Wilder also studied Japanese Noh theater, which aims to unify audience and performers, uses no curtain, and relies on minimal scenery. Our Town does the same; the opening stage directions are, "No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light."

In addition, thanks to his excellent education in archaeology and the Greek and Roman classics he studied in college, Wilder was familiar with the classical Greek use of a chorus: ordinary citizens who comment on and provide background for the story's actions. The Stage Manager fulfills this function in Our Town.

Another influence on Wilder was playwright Clifford Odets, whose play Waiting for Lefty was about a taxi drivers' strike. Like Wilder, Odets used metatheatrical devices, techniques that broke the imaginary "fourth wall" separating an audience and a cast. In Waiting for Lefty, "plants" (actors pretending to be audience members) interact with the actors onstage. In Our Town the opening stage directions were something of a shock to people who read the play and people who saw it. The concept of a play without a curtain, scenery, or props was a real innovation at the time. By this time in his career, Wilder had tired of traditional sets, feeling they distanced the audience from the play rather than pulling them into the plot.

The Great Depression

American drama in the 1930s inclined toward the grimly realistic to reflect the despondent spirit of the decade. The Great Depression, which had begun in 1929, continued to ravage the global economy for 10 years; as the decade advanced, it became clear that Europe was headed toward another war. Thornton Wilder, however, was not a gloomy writer. He believed even the Great Depression would prove only a mild upset in the grand scheme of things. He also felt strongly that life's ordinary and seemingly unremarkable moments should be cherished. In the decade leading up to Our Town, Wilder found himself increasingly troubled by the plays he was seeing. He lamented having "ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented ... The theater was not only inadequate, it was evasive."

Spoon River Anthology

Wilder was influenced by the playwriting fashions of the day, but it was a poem that actually inspired Our Town: "Lucinda Matlock," from the 1915 Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. The poems in this book are blank-verse monologues spoken by the occupants of a small-town graveyard. "Lucinda Matlock" is narrated by a 96-year-old woman and ends with these lines:

What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love life.

In Act 2 of Our Town, the Stage Manager quotes the last line, and the play's action takes place during roughly the period covered by Spoon River Anthology. Notably, on the strength of the quotation and the fact that Our Town's Act 3 features dead townspeople, Masters sued Wilder for plagiarism, but the suit was dismissed for lack of evidence.

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