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Our Town | Themes

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Value of Life

Throughout Our Town, Thornton Wilder continually stresses the beauty and importance of everyday domestic life. When Emily briefly returns to the world after her death, she wonderingly murmurs, "I love you all, everything! I can't look at everything hard enough." At this point the "everything" she is observing is a procession of sights that seemed ordinary when she was alive: a tree, the drugstore, the high school. Now that Emily realizes she can no longer experience these fleeting moments, they're intensely meaningful to her. "Just look at me one minute as though you really saw me," she begs her unheeding mother. But living people never look at things this way.

It's only after dying that Emily realizes how short life really is. "It goes so fast," she wails. Angrily, Simon Stimson rebukes her, saying, "That's what it was to be alive ... to spend and waste time as though you had a million years."

In Acts 1 and 2 Wilder prepares the audience for Emily's revelation—but he never calls attention to what he is doing. For the living people onstage, the passage of time is something to monitor; the clock dictates what they do and where they go. In Act 1 Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb alternate hustling their children along with trying to make them slow down and pay attention—and it's the hustling that takes precedence. Mrs. Webb keeps telling Emily and Wally they'll be late, but once they sit down to breakfast, she scolds, "I won't have you gobbling like wolves." When the school bell rings, she cautions them, "Walk fast, but you don't have to run." Mrs. Gibbs says, "You look real nice, Rebecca," followed by a brief pause to appreciate the moment, then follows with "Pick up your feet." The train whistle, the factory whistle, and the school bell underscore Wilder's point that people in Grover's Corners (and thus people everywhere) are always hurrying on to the next thing.

When a (planted) woman in the audience asks Mr. Webb if there is any "love of beauty" in Grover's Corners, he assures her although the townspeople may not care much about high culture, they pay attention to natural beauty: sunrise, birdsong ("We all notice a good deal about the birds."), and the change of the seasons. Yet at the end of the act, when Emily asks him whether he has noticed the smell of the heliotrope, Mr. Webb answers, "Hm ... Yes. Haven't any troubles on your mind, have you, Emily," and then goes inside. Act 1 ends at the Gibbs house, where George and Rebecca are watching the moon. Perhaps Wilder is suggesting living in the present and paying attention to the world's beauty are abilities that gradually fall away as people reach adulthood.

In Act 2 it is again the children who try to resist the passage of time. At the church, about to be married, both Emily and George are stricken with nerves. "I don't want to grow old. Why's everybody pushing me so?" George tells his mother. Meanwhile, Emily is begging her father, "Why can't I stay for a while just as I am? Let's go away." Both parents briskly shush these appeals. In one sense, of course, George and Emily are just suffering from typical wedding jitters, emotions that have no bearing on whether or not they should marry. But in another sense, their wish to stay young—to halt time—is a cry from the heart. And from yet a third perspective, it is a pity that on a day Emily will later remember as one of her favorites, neither George nor Emily can stop and savor the excitement of the day. Being human seems to make it impossible to live in the moment.

At the end of Act 3 Emily asks the Stage Manager, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?" Bluntly he replies, "No," and continues, "The saints and poets, maybe—they do some." For ordinary people it seems the doors of perception are shut.

Minimalism

When Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town, theater audiences were accustomed to seeing stage sets that normally were as detailed and realistic as possible. Wilder did not believe this was an effective way to tell a story. "When you emphasize place in the theater, you drag down and limit and harness time to it," he said in a 1957 essay; "You thrust the action back into past time, whereas it is precisely the glory of the stage that it is always 'now' there."

The play's title is Our Town, not "A Town" or "The Town." Grover's Corners is meant to represent every person's hometown (or at least every American's). To heighten the sense Our Town's messages and characters are universal, Wilder calls for an extremely minimal set. There is precedent here: this is how Greek plays were staged centuries before, in the Classical age. However, Our Town is probably the earliest important American play to forego props or scenery.

The characterization in the play should also be considered minimal. Wilder does not portray his characters as fully three-dimensional individuals but primarily as archetypes; instead of having that many sharply defined, specific personalities, they are generalized sets of typical human characteristics. The play's main character, the Stage Manager, doesn't even have a name—just a title.

Wilder's goal is not to create characters the audience will consider fully real. Rather, he uses them to advance the play's message and to express universal truths. This may be one reason Our Town has been successful in so many countries. The play has been translated into more than 70 languages. And, as one Wilder biographer has pointed out, the cover illustration on foreign editions "is not Grover's Corners, N.H.; it's a village or a town in that particular country."

At the same time, the play's minimalism has always made American audiences believe the story is uniquely theirs. In a letter to Wilder, author Willa Cather told of expatriate Americans who wept with homesickness when they read the play. Because the play's sets are simple and its characterizations minimal, each new audience can feel the story was written directly for and about them and their ancestors.

Time

In Act 3 of Our Town, Emily Webb laments the fact living people are unable to notice the value of each passing moment. One reason for this, says Wilder, is that time passes so rapidly it's hard to keep track of. And one way he illustrates the point is through flashbacks and foreshadowing.

Our Town is not fully linear; the Stage Manager regularly steps in to interrupt the flow of time. He does this for the first time early in Act 1, which takes place on May 7, 1901, when he says, "there's Doc Gibbs comin' down Main Street now, comin' back from that baby case ... Doc Gibbs died in 1930 ... Mrs. Gibbs died first." Neither Dr. nor Mrs. Gibbs has spoken a line. Before even meeting them, the audience learns about their deaths.

The Stage Manager also interrupts the play to foreshadow the death of Joe Crowell, the newspaper delivery boy, who will be killed in World War I. In Act 2 Joe is replaced by his younger brother, Si; the vacancy left by his death has been filled almost instantly, and it is as if Joe never existed.

The key flashbacks in the play's action take place in Acts 2 and 3. In Act 2 the Stage Manager interrupts the wedding to take the audience back to the time Emily and George realized they were in love. In Act 3, Emily herself is taken back in time so she can re-experience a day on earth. Each of the play's three acts is a flashback as well—the Stage Manager makes it clear the play is taking place well before the present day. But whenever he interrupts the action and shifts time around, Wilder reminds the audience past and present are nearly simultaneous in his view of life.

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