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Our Town | Study Guide

Thornton Wilder

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Our Town | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Our Town by Thornton Wilder was first produced in 1938, opening in New Jersey and then moving to Boston and New York. A huge success, the play follows the everyday lives of Emily Webb and George Gibbs in their small New Hampshire town as they play together, court, marry, and die.

The style of the play has been called "metatheatrical" because it dissolves the imaginary boundary between real life and the world of the play and draws attention to itself as theater. It has been adapted as a film, radio show, television production, musical, and ballet. In 1989, more than 50 years after its premiere, a production on Broadway earned a Tony Award for Best Revival. Its continuing presence in a variety of media and constant performances in school and community theaters as well as on Broadway testify to Our Town's enduring impact on American readers and viewers, who can easily relate to its themes about the importance of seizing the day, the universality of human experience, and the redemptive power of love.

1. Our Town was inspired by a novel by Gertrude Stein.

American writer Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans inspired her good friend Thornton Wilder to write Our Town. In a letter from May 1937, Wilder wrote to Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, that he'd gotten a copy of The Making of Americans. He wrote, "I've been reading like a wild man ever since," and he called it "a wonderful book." In a later letter he described the play he was writing: "Its third act is based on your ideas, as on great pillars, and whether you know it or not, until further notice, you're in a deep-knit collaboration." Stein critics note the parallels between her novel and the play; both are about the joining of families through marriage, and both eliminate scenery and descriptions.

2. Eleanor Roosevelt was "moved and depressed" by Our Town.

Our Town had a profound effect on First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote a newspaper column called "My Day" from 1935 to 1962. In the column Roosevelt discussed issues of the day and gave details about her own life. In March 1938 she wrote about a trip to the theater in which she saw Our Town:

I was moved and depressed beyond words ... I am glad I saw it, but I did not have a pleasant evening.

3. The coordinates the Stage Manager gives for the setting of Our Town actually place it in the Atlantic Ocean.

At the beginning of the play the Stage Manager, describing the town of Grover's Corners, places it at 42 degrees 40 minutes latitude and 70 degrees 37 minutes longitude. This apparently puts the town just off the coast of Massachusetts in the Atlantic Ocean. This might have been intentional on Wilder's part, as Grover's Corners is supposed to be a sort of "every town" and not any one place in particular.

4. Our Town almost didn't make it to Broadway because of bad reviews and sales.

Our Town had a one-day opening in Princeton, New Jersey, in January 1938. Variety, the show-business newspaper, reported that the play would "probably go down as the season's most extravagant waste of fine talent." The production then moved to Boston, where it received further bad reviews and lost quite a bit of money. Taking a chance, the producer decided to move it to New York a week early. There, the reviews were glowing, with one reviewer calling it "one of the finest achievements of the current stage." Theater seats were quickly filled, according to Wilder: "It's already broken a house record ... Imagine that!"

5. The film version of Our Town had a completely different ending than the play.

When Our Town was made into a movie in 1940, the film company, United Artists, requested that it be given a happy ending. They wanted the character Emily to live rather than die as she does in the play. Wilder agreed to the change, saying,

In the theater [characters] are halfway abstractions in an allegory; in the movie they are very concrete ... Let her live—the idea will have been imparted anyway.

6. Wilder performed the role of the Stage Manager in several productions of Our Town.

Wilder wanted to stay involved with Our Town as much as possible. He played the Stage Manager in summer stock, and during the Broadway run of the play, when the actor playing the role went on vacation, Wilder took his place for two weeks. He insisted on being paid and later donated his salary to the Actors Fund, which provided benefits to actors and performers.

7. Playwright Edward Albee thought Our Town was one of the saddest plays ever written.

Edward Albee, author of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, claimed that Our Town was "probably the finest play ever written by an American." He also said, however, that "Our Town is one of the toughest, saddest plays ever written. Why is it always produced as hearts and flowers?"

He noted in particular the scene in which Emily comes back from the dead, saying, "It is so moving, and so beautiful."

8. A review of Our Town's premiere called it "disappointing" and "hopelessly slow."

Director Jed Harris and Wilder clashed on cuts and changes to the script of Our Town as its opening neared. Wilder listed the problems he had with the production, sealing them in an envelope with a note reading, "The following elements in the production of Our Town are likely to harm and perhaps shipwreck its effectiveness."

When Our Town opened in Princeton, New Jersey, the audience received it well, according to a description Wilder sent in a letter to a friend: "A great packed house in Princeton was deeply absorbed. Applause interrupted scene after scene. Laughter swept the house."

However,Variety reviewed it negatively, stating, "It is not only disappointing but hopelessly slow" and called out the director: "It's hard to see what the erstwhile wonder boy of Broadway saw in this disjointed, bittersweet affair of small town New Hampshire life."

9. Wilder drew inspiration from several places when imagining the setting of Our Town.

The town of Grover's Corners first appeared in a one-act play by Wilder called Pullman Car Hiawatha. The stage directions stated that the town was in Ohio. The town of Moorestown, New Jersey, also claims links to the play's setting. Wilder was part of his brother's wedding party there and saw the bride's mother inform the groom that he could not see her until the wedding, a scene that made its way into the play. And of course, the play's Stage Manager explains that Grover's Corners is in New Hampshire, adding to its universality.

10. Wilder became the first American to win a Pulitzer for both fiction and drama.

In 1927 Wilder published The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novel set in 18th-century Peru in which five travelers fall to their deaths from a bridge. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the book. Our Town garnered Wilder his second Pulitzer, and in 1943 he won his third with The Skin of Our Teeth, a play that traces 5,000 years in the lives of George and Maggie Antrobus.

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