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.
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.
Michael J. Cummings...©
Act One: "The Daily Life"
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.
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.
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:
a cottage in Polish town, Dr. Gibbs has just delivered the twins of a resident.
the Crowell house, Joe Junior is just getting up to deliver morning papers.
the train depot, Shorty Hawkins is flagging the 6:45 for Boston. (The audience
hears a whistle.)
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.
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.
that education for nothin’," the stage manager says.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
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.
the drugstore, the stage manager—playing Mr. Morgan—fills George's order
for strawberry sodas. Then—in a shy, roundabout way—they begin expressing
their feelings about each other. George says he no longer desires to go
off to college to study agriculture; he’d rather stay home and be with
Emily. George says, "I think that once you've found a person you're very
fond of . . . I mean a person who's fond of you, too, and likes you enough
to be interested in your character . . . Well, I think that's just as important
as college is, and even more so."
thereafter, the big moment arrives:
Emily, if I do improve and make a big change . . . would you be . . . I
mean: could you be . . .
I . . . I am now; I have always been.
scene shifts back to the day of the wedding. George and Emily—both nervous
and both wondering whether they should go through with the wedding—decide
to proceed after each talks with a parent.
marches play at the beginning and end of the ceremony, and George and Emily
become husband and wife.
Act Three: "Death"
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.
is raining. Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, enters to tend to proceedings
at a new grave, Emily’s. Sam Craig, her cousin, also enters. He had gone
out west to live but returned to Grover’s Corners to attend Emily’s funeral.
While they talk, Stoddard tells him Emily died having her second child.
The dead then begin to speak with one another. Mrs. Gibbs tells Mrs. Soames
that Emily died in childbirth. Mrs. Soames says:
forgotten all about that. My, wasn’t life awful—and wonderful."
Soames reminisces about Emily’s wedding and about her reading of the class
poem at graduation.
arrive at Emily’s grave and sing “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds." When
Emily appears wearing white, she greets Mrs. Gibbs. Emily feels uncomfortable,
nervous, as the newest among the dead. She tells Mrs. Gibbs about her life.
and I have made that farm into just the best place you ever saw. We thought
of you all the time. We wanted to show you the new barn and a great long
ce-ment [as written by Wilder] drinking fountain for the stock. We bought
that out of the money you left us."
tells her that life for George will never be the same without her, adding,
“Live people don’t understand, do they?"
the funeral company, she says she never realized in life how troubled many
people are. Nevertheless, she expresses a wish to return to life for a
little while. Mrs. Gibbs says she can but advises her not to. So does Mrs.
Soames. But Emily says she plans to return to a happy day, not a sad one.
“Why should that be painful?"
stage manager answers, saying, “You not only live it; you watch yourself
living it." He also says she will see the future. Mrs.
Gibbs points out another reason Emily should not return: The proper activity
of the dead is to forget all about life and to think only of what is coming
next and to prepare for it. Emily says she cannot forget—and so she returns
to the day of her 12th birthday. First, she sees the routine of life going
on as usual—Howie Newsome delivering milk, Constable Warren telling how
he rescued a man lying in snowdrifts, Joe Crowell delivering newspapers.
Then she sees her mother and father, who are surprisingly youthful to her.
They are preparing to give her gifts.
speaks with her mother, who tells her to eat her breakfast slowly. Mrs.
Webb gives her a dress which she had to “send all the way to Boston" to
get. Her father and Wally also have gifts, but Emily can’t go on any longer
and breaks down, saying she didn’t realize how much the little things of
life—things she did not notice before—really matter. Emily returns to the
cemetery and addresses Mrs. Gibbs:
don’t understand, do they?"
dear. They don’t understand."
stage manager says almost everyone is now asleep in Grover’s Corners. He
winds his watch. Eleven o’clock. He tells the audience to get a good night’s
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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:
ye rosebuds while ye may
time is still a-flying,
this same flower that smiles today
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:
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
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.
the Play Is Popular
Town is a favorite at many playhouses mainly because its setting and
characters are so much like ordinary towns around the United States—and
the rest of the world. Also, it has the one ingredient necessary for a
literary work to become great: universality. Its themes apply to everyone
everywhere. In addition, its simple mise-en-scène—a
nearly bare stage with only a few props and no backdrops—makes it easy
to produce. The absence of scenery also underscores the universal themes,
inasmuch as there are no representations of structures or landscapes associated
with specific locales. Grover’s Corners could be anywhere.
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
ways is your hometown like Grover's Corners? In what ways is your town
were to make a movie based on Our Town, would you include elaborate
sets or retain the spare sets, with few props? Explain your answer.
manager speaks directly to the audience. How effective is this approach?
end of the play, Emily says, “Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody
to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"
Which are among the "wonderful" things about earth and life that you fail
manager says young Joe Crowell graduated at the top of his class at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet Crowell never got a chance to
put his education to use, for he died in combat during World War I. In
commenting on Crowell's death, the stage manager says, "All that
education for nothin’." Was his education, in fact, for nothing? Is the
stage manager's comment intended to be an antiwar statement? As best you
can from details provided in the play, describe Joe Crowell.
The stage manager thinks it
would be a good idea to place a time capsule in the new bank under construction.
In the capsule, he would place 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. What
is the significance of these items in terms of what they tell you about
What does Mrs. Soames mean when
she says, "My, wasn’t life awful—and wonderful"?
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
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.