Our Town Essay, Research Paper
In a New York Times review of Thorton Wilder s play, Our Town, reviewer Brooks Atkinson proclaimed that Mr. Wilder has transmuted the simple events of human life into universal reveries (Atkinson 119). Our Town can certainly be considered an example of the universality of time, social history, and religious ideals.
Thorton Wilder was born in 1897. He was interested in the theater since his childhood. By the time he entered Oberlin College in 1915 he had already written three short plays, or three minute plays. He completed his undergraduate studies at Yale and began a teaching job at the Lawrenceville School, near Princeton, New Jersey, in 1921. He earned his degree from Princeton University in 1926. Wilder first gained recognition as a novelist. He won his first Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which he wrote in 1927. In 1938 his famous play, Our Town, was performed. It was a huge success and earned Wilder a second Pulitzer Prize. In 1941 World War II began, and in 1942 Wilder enlisted in the Air Force. Later that year another of his plays, The Skin of Our Teeth was performed, and earned him his third Pulitzer Prize. In 1954 his revised version of Merchant of Yonkers, now called The Matchmaker, was performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and was a huge success. The following year it was a hit in London and New York, and ten years later it became a successful musical, Hello Dolly (Cohn 276). After accomplishing further recognition and fame for numerous more plays, Thorton Wilder died on December 7, 1975, in Hamden Connecticut.
The very first performance of the play, Our Town, took place at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 22, 1938. It experienced a brief and disastrous run in Boston, but after its first performance in New York, at the Henry Miller Theater on February 4th of the same year, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews. The New York Times called it one of the finest achievements of the current stage Although Thorton Wilder is celebrated chiefly for his fiction, it will be necessary now to reckon with him as a dramatist He has given familiar facts a deeply moving, philosophical perspective (Atkinson 119). The reviewer further praised the play s use of a bare stage, the omniscient Stage Manager, and the many unconventional elements, saying, The whole effect gives ten times as much theater as conventional scenery would give (Atkinson 120). Our Town was adapted for a film version in 1940 and was also made into a musical called Grover s Corners in 1987. To this day it continues to be one of the most frequently performed plays of the century.
The events throughout the play are simple and average in themselves, but when combined into a greater story, symbolize the greater meaning of human life in general. After the Stage Manager s introduction, we see a usual day unfold in the first act. In Act I we see how the Gibbs and Webb families, who are neighbors, operate on a day-to-day basis. The mothers send the children off to school and go about their work around the house, and the fathers discuss their fields of work. Dr. Gibbs is the town physician and Mr. Webb is the publisher and editor of the Grover s Corners local paper, the Sentinel. We also see various other town members, such as the milkman, the police officer, and the paperboy, go about their daily duties. During the day, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs gossip in their gardens, Mr. Webb and Professor Willard discuss some background information about the town, and George Gibbs walks Emily Webb home from school. The act ends with George and Emily s conversation through their windows, by moonlight. Act II depicts love and marriage in the lives of the characters. It takes place three years later, on George and Emily s wedding day. The Stage Manager provides a flashback to the day the two characters realized that they were in love with each other. Both the bride and the groom experience the normal wedding day jitters. They are fearful of growing old too quickly, and of the chance that they may not be completely happy for the rest of their lives. Their parents have to deal with giving up their son and daughter; they are letting them go. However, the parents calm George and Emily and they go through with the ceremony. The Stage Manager plays the part of the minister. Act III takes place nine years later, and the scene takes place in a ceremony on a hill, where Emily is about to be buried. We see conversation between characters that have already died, sitting on chairs that are meant to be their gravestones. Emily enters and takes her place among them. When the townspeople ascent the hill for the ceremony, they do not see the deceased, but the deceased see them, and comment on their lack of understanding. Emily is at first apprehensive about ending her life on Earth, so she chooses to relive one day of her life, her 12th birthday. However, she is glad to return to the cemetery because she realizes how much the dead understand that the living do not. As George weeps by Emily s grave, she comments, They don t understand, do they? and the play ends (Wilder 111).
The Stage Manager serves the same role as the Chorus would in a Greek play. He tells things as a narrator would throughout the play, and is existent in the past and the present at the same time. He speaks directly to the audience and also directly interacts with the characters of the play. He has a discussion with Mr. Webb and Professor Willard in the first act, and serves as the minister at the wedding in Act II. In the third act he speaks directly with Emily about the difference between the living and the dead. The Stage Manager does not represent the author of the play, but through his comments and references, Wilder emphasizes the continuity of human life. The Stage Manager appears in each scene and remains omniscient throughout the play. Through his commentary, it becomes even more obvious that, although the characters age and their personal lives are altered, human life in general remains unchanged; much of the same things happen every day, every year.
The major theme of Our Town is universality, which is emphasized by a great deal of realism. The play is called Our Town, not A Town, because it is meant to symbolize everyone s town and the universality of human life, feelings, and emotions. This symbolic significance of the setting is emphasized by the stripping of the stage of numerous props and set materials, allowing the play to be representative of all times; it is not tagged as a specific era. The town of the play, Grover s Corners, is a sleepy, simple little town in New Hampshire, but is symbolic of the entire human world in the play. The characters are not in the state of mind that they exist in their own little protective world; there is evidence within their dialogue that they are aware of the larger world, as a whole, outside of Grover s Corners. For example, in Act I Rebecca Gibbs, in a discussion with her brother George, asks, George, is the moon shining on South America, Canada, and half the whole world? George replies that it prob ly is (Wilder 43). Further into their discussion, Rebecca refers to a letter that was addressed to Jane Crofut; the Crofut Farm; Grover s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God (Wilder 46). The characters use of the words hundreds , thousands , and millions also prove that they realize that they are a part of a greater reality; of human existence in general. They also refer to places beyond their town s boundaries, such as universities that were attended by town members.
The play, although meant to represent all time eras, begins on May 7, 1901, a time considered as the good old days , before the national economy dominated all parts of the country; before World War I changed the world and the lives of so many people. This simply makes it possible for the events throughout the play to remain undisturbed by timely historical events that may have the ability to have an effect on the lives of human beings. The characters are also symbolic of human beings in general. Just about any human being can relate to the everyday occurrences and emotions that they experience. Wilder takes seemingly trivial elements of life and celebrates them; he takes clich situations and develops them into distinctive, lively experiences of human life. His play emphasizes the wonder and beauty of ordinary elements daily life (Cohn 276-277).
Grover s Corners, however, is not an unrealistically perfect town; Wilder did not intend to demonstrate that rural life is quaint and completely happy (Cohn 277). The town does have a jail and a local drunkard who actually contemplates suicide. Death is also a theme in the work, and the characters are forced to deal with the difficulty of the loss of loved ones, as is exhibited in Act III.
Three sub-themes, all centered on a more general and constant theme of universal love, prevail throughout the play: in Act I, love concerning friendship and familial relationships; in Act II, romantic love, displayed by the covenant of marriage; and in Act III, spiritual love, the type experienced when dealing with death, a love that is selfless and expects no return. Act I is a depiction of daily life. We see the workings of relationships between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children, neighbors, friends, and various townspeople. Act II is centered on the marriage of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. We see how romantic love develops between them, and the promise they make to each other in their marriage vows. Act III hits on death, coping with the loss of loved ones, and the striking difference between the understandings of the living and the dead. We see a funeral procession take place among the living, and at the same time we see Emily, deceased, take her place among the dead. Emily has a heightened understanding of the meaning of life, and almost pities George, as he is left behind to mourn her death. It is obvious that their bond of love is still intact, and that Emily also still loves her family, her town, and the life to which she has just bid farewell. All of the events are rather simple and devoid of any great amount of action or adventure, but Wilder chose them to emphasize the importance of the little things in life.
In each act, as different as these underlying themes may be, there are everyday occurrences that repeat themselves like clockwork. Wilder certainly emphasizes the continuity of human life throughout the play.
Unlike romantic, adventurous, or other types of imaginative literature that may contain elements that cannot always be related to average human life, Our Town exhibits a great deal of realism.