By Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)
A Study Guide
.......Our Town is one of the most frequently staged American plays. It is an unconventional work in that it has no scenery or props except for tables, chairs, ladders, and a few other objects. When actors dine, they hold imaginary utensils and eat imaginary food. When looking out an upper-story window, they stand on ladders. When the milkman makes deliveries from his horse-drawn cart, there is no horse or cart, although the audience may hear clip-clops or whinnies. And so goes the entire play. Author Thornton Wilder presented the play in this way to force the audience to concentrate on the characters and the themes.
.......Wilder also wrote a narrator into the play. Called “the stage manager,” he supervises the placement of the chairs and tables at the beginning of the play—hence, his title. He also introduces the play and its setting, looking back from his 1930s vantage point to the year when the drama begins, 1901. From time to time, he interrupts the play to comment on the action or to inform the audience about a character’s background. Early on, he even speaks with members of the audience.
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......On a dimly lit stage without scenery, the stage manager sets up tables, chairs, and a bench. He informs the audience of the title and author of the play, as well as its setting—Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, just north of the Massachusetts line. The first act of the play, he says, takes place on May 7, 1901, beginning at dawn. The town has an ethnic section, Polish town, where mostly Catholics live. Protestants occupy the rest of the town and make up the majority of its citizens.
.......The stage manager tells the audience that William Jennings Bryan—the populist orator who ran three times for the U.S. presidency—once delivered a speech in Grover’s Corners.
.......The manager then points out the house of Dr. Frank Gibbs, a space occupied by a table and chairs, as well as Mrs. Gibbs’s garden. He also shows the audience the house of Charles Webb, editor of the Grover’s Corners Sentinel. His wife also has a garden—almost identical to that of Mrs. Gibbs except for sunflowers flourishing in it. The stage manager next brings the audience up to date on current activities:
.......—In a cottage in Polish town, Dr. Gibbs has just delivered the twins of a resident.
.......—In the Crowell house, Joe Junior is just getting up to deliver morning papers.
.......—At the train depot, Shorty Hawkins is flagging the 6:45 for Boston. (The audience hears a whistle.)
.......Meanwhile, Doc Gibbs returns home while his wife, Julia, comes downstairs to cook breakfast. The stage manager says the doctor died in 1930, some years after his wife died while visiting her daughter Rebecca in Canton, Ohio.
.......When Joe Crowell comes by delivering newspapers, he greets and chats briefly with Doc Gibbs. The stage manager says Joe grew up to be an outstanding scholar in high school and college, graduating at the head of his class at MIT, but died fighting in the First World War.
.......“All that education for nothin’,” the stage manager says.
.......Milkman Howie Newsome arrives in a cart drawn by his 17-year-old horse, Bessie, and delivers milk to Doc and Mrs. Gibbs. Mrs. Gibbs calls her children, George, 16, and Rebecca, much younger, for breakfast.
.......In the other house, Mrs. Webb also calls for her children—Emily, a pretty girl about George’s age, and her little brother,Wally. It’s seven o’clock. When they come down and dig into breakfast, Mrs. Webb scolds them for eating too fast and warns Wally, who sits before an open book studying his lessons, not to read at the table.
.......“I’d rather have my children healthy than bright,” she says. Emily declares that she is both healthy and bright—the brightest student in her class, in fact. In the other household, Mrs. Gibbs advises her children on how to handle their allowances. George spends too much; Rebecca hoards her money.
.......After the children in both families leave for school, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb exchange pleasantries on their front porches. Mrs. Gibbs notes that a furniture dealer offered her $350 for an old chest of drawers, a highboy. She would sell it in a minute, she says, if she could persuade her husband to take the money and go on a vacation. He has been especially busy, what with delivering babies and all, and needs a rest. Mrs. Gibbs herself says she would love to see Paris. Once, she dropped a hint to the doctor, but he said such a trip would make him “discontented with Grover’s Corners. Better let well enough alone.” His only desire is to visit battlefields of the Civil War every two years. He is an expert on the history of the war. Mrs. Webb urges her neighbor to sell the highboy and encourage her husband to go with her to Paris.
.......The stage manager interrupts the plot to present more information about Grover’s Corners. With him is an expert, Professor Willard. The tweedy professor, however, provides only a long-winded, highly technical recitation of the geological and anthropological history of the town—although, with prompting from the stage manager, Willard adds a human touch: The town now has 2,642 residents, counting the twins just delivered by Dr. Gibbs.
.......After Willard leaves, the stage manager summons Charles Webb to provide a political and social history of the town. Mr. Webb arrives with a bandaged finger, which he cut while slicing and eating an apple. Webb says the town is run by a board of selectmen. Then he provides additional information, including the political makeup of the town: 86 percent Republican, 6 percent Democrats, 4 percent Socialists; “the rest indifferent.” Religiously, 85 percent Protestant, 12 percent Catholic; “the rest indifferent.”
.......Grover’s Corners, it is clear by now, is a typical American town—humdrum and ordinary in every way. No one from the town ever went on to fame and fortune. But its residents seem to like it. Ninety-percent of the high-school graduates remain in Grover’s Corners to settle down and raise families.
.......In the afternoon, the townspeople go about their dull, ordinary business—whether shopping at local stores or mowing lawns. When Emily and George return from school, he compliments her on a speech she made in class about the Louisiana Purchase and leaves for the baseball field. He is an outstanding player with extraordinary skills. Emily then sits down to chat with Mrs. Webb. She asks her mother whether she is pretty enough to attract boys. Her mother says she is but becomes annoyed when Emily presses her further on this question.
.......The stage manager returns to center stage to announce that a new bank is under construction. It will be operated by the same family that owns the local blanket factory, the Cartwrights. He believes it would be a good idea to place a time capsule in the cornerstone of the bank. If he had his way, the capsule would contain a copy of The Sentinel, The New York Times, the U.S. Constitution, the Bible, Shakespeare’s works, and the text of the play he is participating in, Our Town. The time capsule will enable people "a thousand years from now [to] know a few simple facts about us," the stage manager explains.
.......In the evening, the choir at the Congregationalist church practices under the direction of Simon Stimson playing the organ. He stops playing and interrupts the singing of "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds" to scold the choir. The members are singing too loudly; they need to soften their voices. He keeps browbeating them until they lower their voices sufficiently.
.......On their way home from practice, Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb, and another choir member—Mrs. Louella Soames—enjoy the moonlit night and smell the flowers. Mrs. Soames, however, criticizes Stimford for his drinking. He is an alcoholic.
.......At the Gibbs and Webb homes, Emily and George converse through open upstairs windows. The moonshine is remarkable, Emily says. George asks Emily for help with algebra; there is one problem: He just can’t get. It would be wrong for her to give him the answer outright, they both realize. That would be cheating. But she coaches him with obvious clues that lead him to the solution.
.......The first act ends with George and his sister, Rebecca, sitting at the window, looking out upon the sky and pondering the meaning of the universe.
Act Two: "Love and Marriage"
.......The second act begins three years later just after high school commencement on the morning of the day George Gibbs and Emily Webb are to be married, July 7, 1904, A train for Boston rumbles by right on schedule. The stage manager informs the audience about the changes that took place over the three years, then
introduces the scene years earlier when George and Emily pledged their love for each other. On the way home from school, George offers to carry Emily’s books. When she gives them to him, he notices that she is peeved about something. When he asks why she is angry, she tells him that he is so caught up in baseball and other activities—he has just been elected president of his class while Emily was
elected secretary-treasurer—that he hardly notices his friends anymore. He is stuck-up. George takes the criticism gracefully, saying he will strive to improve his behavior. When Emily tearfully regrets her criticism, George invites her to have an ice-cream soda with him at Morgan’s Drugstore.
Act Three: "Death"
.......Nine years pass. It is now the summer of 1913. The stage manager says many changes have taken place. For example, farmers now come to town in Ford cars, and people lock their doors at night. He shows the audience the cemetery, located on a peaceful hilltop from which visitors can see for miles around. Off in the
distance are Lakes Sunspee and Winnepesaukee. Through a glass, one can even see the White Mountains, Mount Washington, and Mount Monadnock. Tombstones in the cemetery date back to 1660. Among the dead are Civil War veterans who fought to keep the United States of America united. Also among the dead are Doc Gibbs, Stimson, Mrs. Soames, and Wally Webb, who died when his appendix burst while he was
on a trip to Crawford Notch. The dead are sitting upright and erect, like tombstones, in rows of chairs on the front of the stage.
The Stage Manager He sets up the stage, introduces the play, describes the setting, provides background information during the play, and sometimes steps into scenes to talk with the characters. In some ways, he resembles the chorus of an ancient Greek play or the omniscient narrator of a novel.
Charles Webb Editor of the Grover's Corners Sentinel and father of two children, Emily and Wally.
Myrtle Webb Devoted wife of Charles Webb.
Emily Webb Intelligent, pretty, engaging daughter of Charles and Myrtle Webb. She marries a next-door neighbor, George Gibbs, but dies nine years into her marriage while giving birth to her second child.
Wally Webb Little brother of Emily. He dies after his appendix ruptures.
Frank Gibbs Hard-working town physician who goes out to tend to his patients at all hours. At the beginning of the play, he arrives home after just delivering the twins of a woman in Polish town, a section of Grover's Corners.
Julia Gibbs Devoted wife of Dr. Gibbs. She dreams of visiting Paris with her husband but never gets the chance.
George Gibbs Upright son of Frank and Julia Gibbs. He is a star baseball player who has always loved Emily Webb. When she dies, he is broken-hearted.
Rebecca Gibbs Little sister of George.
Howie Newsome Milkman who makes deliveries from a cart drawn by his old horse Bessie.
Joe Crowell Newspaper boy who became an outstanding student in high school and later at MIT but died in World War I.
Si Crowell Joe's younger brother. He takes over his brother's paper route.
Sam Craig Emily Webb's cousin. He went west to pursue his career but returns for Emily's funeral.
Joe Stoddard Undertaker in charge of Emily Webb's funeral.
Bill Warren Constable who keeps law and order and once rescued a man from a snowdrift.
Professor Willard Expert on the geological and anthropological background of Grover's Corners. In a boring speech, he helps the stage manager describe the town and its history to the audience.
Simon Stimson He is the choirmaster at the Congregationalist church and the town alcoholic. He commits suicide.
Louella Soames Choir member and friend of Myrtle Webb and Julia Gibbs. She criticizes Simon Stimson for his drinking.
.......The action takes place in the fictional town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, just north of the Massachusetts line, between 1901 and 1913 . (However, one of the central characters—the stage manager—exists in the 1930'. While describing the town and its characters and commenting on the action, he flashes back and forth between the early part of the 20th Century and the 1930s.)Grover's Corners serves as a microcosm; it is the world condensed into a small community with characters reflecting the hopes and dreams, the failures and successes, of people everywhere.
.......Peterborough, N.H., may have been the model for Grover's Corners, a conclusion reached by some townspeople after Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town there while he was in residence at the MacDowell Colony, a famous retreat for several hundred composers, writers, and painters. Pianist Marian Nevins MacDowell and
her husband, composer Edward Alexander MacDowell, founded the colony in 1907 at Peterborough, located in southern New Hampshire about 15 miles north of the Massachusetts border.
.......The climax of Our Town occurs when the deceased Emily returns to life briefly in the final act to visit Grover's Corners. Her experience is bittersweet, making her realize the importance of simple, ordinary events that make up the patterns of life.
Theme 1: People should appreciate life while they are living it. Even ordinary, uneventful activities are important. Indeed, they might be the most important activities of all—whether they involve smelling flowers, eating breakfast, chatting with the milkman or the paperboy, or looking out the window at the moon.
Theme 2: Carpe diem (seize the day). This Latin phrase, which has become part of the English language, urges people to live for the moment, seizing opportunities to enjoy or enrich their lives. Life is short, after all; such opportunities may present themselves only once. This is an old literary motif, written about many times over the centuries. The Roman poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) coined the phrase carpe diem in Book 1 of his famous odes, when he advised people to “seize the day, put no trust in tomorrow!” English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) repeated the sentiment in a memorable poem:
.......Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
.......Old time is still a-flying,
.......And this same flower that smiles today
.......Tomorrow will be dying.
In Our Town, Wilder reminds the audience again and again that time is “a-flying” with references to passing trains—which, like life, move swiftly forward—and with references to the generations of Grover’s Corners residents who have come and gone. The flowers in the gardens of Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are still another reminder: Smell and appreciate them now, for they will not last long. So is Professor Willard’s boring speech about the geological and anthropological developments in the vicinity of Grover's Corners thousands of years ago. The wheel of history and its life cycles spins rapidly. However, "seizing the day" does not necessarily mean that people need to pursue lofty enterprises or careers or to run off to see the world. George Gibbs seizes the day by choosing to marry Emily rather than going to agricultural school. Mrs. Gibbs seizes the day by accepting the simple life of Grover's Corners rather than insisting that her husband go on vacation with her to the city of her dreams, Paris.
Theme 3: Little things in life are really big things. This theme points out that seemingly insignificant happenings in everyday life are actually among the most important ones. However, people experiencing them usually do not comprehend this truth at the time, as Emily observes in the cemetery when she says to Mrs. Gibbs, “They don’t understand, do they?
Theme 4: No town can isolate itself from the rest of the world. Grover's Corners is a pleasant, easygoing community that seems to be a separate world unto itself. But it is not. Rather, it spins on the same axis as the rest of the world and is subject to the same influences affecting outsiders. Its residents read Shakespeare and The New York Times. Trains going to Boston pass through regularly. And there comes a time when Ford cars replace horses and people begin to lock their doors, just like their big-city counterparts. Joe Crowell Jr., dies in World War I. English poet John Donne wrote in 1624:
.......No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
........ . . any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never
.......send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Grover's Corners is not an island. And when the bell tolls for Emily at the end of the play, it tolls for everyone.
Theme 5: No community is perfect, not even idyllic Grover's Corners. Grover's Corners has its town drunk, Simon Stimson, whom Mrs. Soames says is a "scandal." Believing life is not worth living, he commits suicide. Grover's Corners also apparently has a form of segregation, for there is a "ghetto," Polish town, where Polish-American Catholics live.
Why the Play Is Popular
.......Among the symbols in the play are the trains, the tombstones, and the stage manager's watch, all representing the passage of time and the inevitability of death; the birth of the twins in Polish town, the birth of Emily's second child, and the blooming of flowers, all representing the continuing life cycle; the moon, the mountains, the lakes, and the gardens of Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, all representing the glories of nature that people tend to ignore.
.......Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897, in Madison, Wis. He graduated from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 1920 and continued his studies in Rome, Italy, where he studied archeology. He taught literature at the University of Chicago from 1930 to 1937. Among other plays he wrote were The Skin of Our Teeth, published in 1942, and The Matchmaker, published in 1954. The popular film Hello, Dolly! was based on the latter play. Wilder also wrote several novels, the most famous of which is The Bridge of San Luis Rey, published in 1927. Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for that book and another for Our Town.Wilder died on Dec. 7, 1975, in Hamden, Conn.