An authoritative figure who resembles a narrator as he guides the audience through the play, the Stage Manager is an unconventional character in the canon of dramatic literature. He is not simply a character in the play. As his name suggests, he could be considered a member of the crew staging the play as well. He exists simultaneously in two dramatic realms. At the beginning of Act I, he identifies the play and the playwright, and introduces the director, the producer, and the actors. Furthermore, every act begins and ends with the Stage Manager’s expositions and announcements. During each act, he frequently interrupts the play’s action for the purpose of cueing another scene, providing the audience with pertinent information, or commenting on what has just happened or what is about to happen. All of these functions suggest that even though the Stage Manager occupies center stage, he is neither an actor nor a character, but rather someone who works behind the scenes.
But while the Stage Manager occupies a position outside of the narrative action—that is, outside of the play’s central plot—he does occasionally assume the role of an inhabitant of Grover’s Corners. For example, in Act II, after narrating the action, cuing a flashback, and changing the set to prepare for the next scene, he steps directly into the plot and becomes Mr. Morgan, the drugstore owner who serves ice-cream sodas to Emily Webb and George Gibbs. The Stage Manager is just as adept at changing sets as he is at changing roles, and this versatility enables him to exist both within the world of Grover’s Corners and within the world that the audience occupies. Wilder deliberately makes the Stage Manager’s location in the play ambiguous, because it is precisely this ambiguity that allows the Stage Manager to bridge the gap between the audience and the characters onstage.
The Stage Manager essentially plays the role of the audience’s guide. He breaks through the fourth wall—the imaginary barrier between the audience and the action on the stage—to facilitate a dialogue between the audience and the content of the play. Indeed, through the Stage Manager, the interaction between the audience and the play actually becomes part of the content of the play itself. It is not clear whether the Stage Manager is a native of the town or an outsider who has been given a privileged view of Grover’s Corners. This ambiguity makes him both familiar and mysterious and ultimately gives him a metaphorical role in the play, hinting at the presence of a God. Although Our Town avoids discussion of religion, Wilder hints that a spiritual force or entity manages human life in much the same way that the Stage Manager dictates the flow of this play, or as the stage manager of any play dictates its dramatic production. In any case, the Stage Manager makes great demands on the members of the audience to be active participants in the play. His presence blatantly disobeys the theatrical convention that has traditionally separated the audience from the events onstage.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
With the exception of the Stage Manager, Emily is Our Town’s most significant figure. Emily and George Gibbs’s courtship becomes the basis of the text’s limited narrative action—these two characters thus prove extremely significant not only to the play’s events but also to its themes. In Act I, Emily displays her affection for George by agreeing to help him with his homework. In Act II, the play bears witness to Emily’s marriage to George, and the young couple’s wedding becomes emblematic of young love. In Act III, when the play’s themes become fully apparent, Emily emerges as the primary articulator of these themes. After her death, Emily joins the dead souls in the town cemetery and begins to view earthly life and human beings from a new perspective. She realizes that the living “don’t understand” the importance of human existence. After reliving her twelfth birthday, Emily sees that human beings fail to recognize the transience of life and to appreciate it while it lasts. This conclusion, which Emily expresses in her agonized wish to leave her birthday and return to the cemetery, encapsulates the play’s most important theme: the transience of individual human lives in the face of general human and natural stability.
Well, I think that’s just as important as college is, and even more so. That’s what I think.
If Emily displays an awareness—even if only after death—of the transience of human existence, George Gibbs lives his life in the dark. George is an archetypal all-American boy. A local baseball star and the president of his senior class in high school, he also possesses innocence and sensitivity. He is a good son, although like many children he sometimes neglects his chores. George expects to inherit his uncle’s farm and plans to go to agriculture school; he ultimately scraps that plan, however, in favor of remaining in Grover’s Corners to marry Emily. Indeed, all of George’s achievements prove less important to him than Emily. She is George’s closest neighbor since early childhood, and he declares his love for her in all-American fashion, over an ice-cream soda.
The revelation of Emily’s death at the start of Act III draws attention to the thematic significance of George’s life. The fact that George lays down prostrate at Emily’s grave vividly illustrates Wilder’s message that human beings do not fully appreciate life while they live it. The group of dead souls looks on George’s prostrate body with confusion and disapproval, and Emily asks, rhetorically, “They don’t understand, do they?” Instead of mourning for his lost wife, the dead suggest, George should be enjoying his life and the lives of those around him before he too dies. Wilder forces the audience to pity George, partly because of the tragedy he has suffered in Emily’s death, but also because he epitomizes the human tragedy of caring too much about things that cannot change. At the same time, seeing George’s pitiable condition, we realize that the dead souls’ demand that George stifle his emotions is difficult, if not impossible. In this light, Wilder implies that perhaps the demanding dead souls “don’t understand” either.