So—people a thousand years from now—this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.—This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.
The Stage Manager makes this declaration in the middle of Act I. He has just discussed how historical documents tend not to reveal much about the real lives of ordinary people and has mentioned that he wants to put a copy of Our Town into the time capsule alongside several more famous texts. The play, he says, will reveal to future readers facts about human life other than the Treaty of Versailles. The Stage Manager’s position of authority within the play allows him to speak philosophically and articulate Wilder’s own ideas. This quotation in particular clarifies Wilder’s general intent in writing this play. Many dramas, the Stage Manager implies, deal with moments of heightened emotion or rare events, and many historical resources relate esoteric incidents. Our Town, however, addresses daily events and traditional, recognizable ceremonies. We witness through the Gibbs and Webb families the full spectrum of human existence, from birth to marriage to parenthood to death. The Stage Manager’s direct address to future readers, the “people a thousand years from now,” suggests his wish that Our Town persist as a source of information about the importance of appreciating the simpler details in life.
Mrs. Gibbs makes this remark in Act II, on the morning of George’s wedding to Emily, as she comments to her husband on the importance of companionship. Mrs. Gibbs’s remark articulates one of the play’s central themes: the sanctity of human interactions. This theme is echoed in the repeated singing of the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds” and in the fact that the narrative structure focuses on the marriage between George and Emily. In context, Mrs. Gibbs’s statement pertains to marriage and to the natural tendency for romantic love to flourish between two people. However, her comment also applies in a broader sense to the other, nonromantic relationships that receive attention throughout the play. In fact, Wilder may even privilege platonic companionship and general human connections above romance. Mrs. Gibbs implies that marriage is “natural” and that marriage eradicates loneliness.
In reality, however, some married people remain lonely in the play, like Simon Stimson and his wife. Stimson, the lonely drunk who has “seen a peck of trouble,” receives very little active compassion from his fellow townspeople, who never even tell us what his “trouble” is. Without his community’s active compassion and care, he becomes even more cynical and pained. Wilder asserts that all loneliness, including loneliness in marriage, is unnatural, and thus implicitly criticizes Mrs. Gibbs’s small town idealism. In Our Town, Wilder highlights the importance of communication and human connections, literally bringing his audience into contact with his characters by breaking the fourth wall and thereby defying the theatrical convention of separating the actors from the audience.
I think that once you’ve found a person that 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. That’s what I think.
George says these words to Emily while the two sit in Mr. Morgan’s drugstore, drinking ice-cream sodas, during the flashback in Act II. This passage is one of the play’s crucial moments, when the two young people first reveal their romantic feelings toward one another. George’s revelation persuades him to forego agriculture school and stay in Grover’s Corners with Emily instead. Rather than set love aside in order to continue his education, George prefers to focus on what he considers truly important. By prioritizing love above college, George illustrates the human desire for companionship that pervades the play. As the Stage Manager says a little later, our millions of ancestors “set out to live two-by-two also.” Our Town is a play about community as much as it is about individual experience. George and Emily simply exhibit the desire for love that all human beings share. This moment also suggests that college may not be a natural or inevitable stage of human development. Love, however, is natural—at least in the context of Wilder’s view of life as a general movement from birth to death.
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
The Stage Manager delivers this passage during his long monologue at the beginning of Act III. This quotation prefaces the opinions of the dead, who believe that human beings “don’t understand” the true significance of existence. While living, they say, human beings tend to get so caught up in day-to-day details and responsibilities, feeling so obligated to the mundane chores of daily life that they often miss the meaningful nature of human existence. The Stage Manager echoes this sentiment here, implying that human beings possess the gut knowledge that something is eternal but lack an understanding of what constitutes the eternal. Like the dead in Act III, the Stage Manager insists that the “eternal” exists within each and every human being, and that people can share this eternal nature through their daily interactions with one another.
The Stage Manager’s words thus highlight Wilder’s interest in finding the eternal among the details of daily life. Humans possess individual eternal souls that may live on after physical death, but their interactions with one another while still on Earth may exceed even the unfathomable beauty of the afterlife. The Stage Manager considers what the souls in the play are “waitin’ for,” but he can only pose his thoughts in the form of a question: “Aren’t they waitin’ for the eternal part in them to come out clear?” Wilder depicts the dead souls in Act III primarily in order to acknowledge the transience of human life on Earth. This transience gives life its beauty and its eternal, divine value, regardless of whatever unknown events may lie ahead. Our Town, though ending with the afterlife, insists that the eternal exists on Earth during each and every moment of human interaction.
Emily asks this question of the Stage Manager at the end of Act III, after she has revisited her twelfth birthday. The Stage Manager answers that humans indeed do not realize life, except for perhaps the “saints and poets, maybe.” Perhaps the play’s best-known passage, these words emphasize the value of everyday events. Throughout the play, the characters place importance on moments of ceremony and consequence, such as George and Emily’s wedding and Emily’s funeral. But the characters do not seem to value or make an emotional connection to the daily activities of their rather ordinary lives.
Instead of attempting to “realize life” at every moment, the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners—and people the world over, by implication—often lack any sense of wonder at what passes before their eyes every day. When Emily relives her twelfth birthday, she futilely tries to get her mother really to look at her and not take her presence for granted. This experience causes Emily to realize that during her own life, she herself did not pay enough attention to detail and did not appreciate her family and her town the way she does now that she is dead. Emily’s remark directly precedes her return to the cemetery, and it signals her resignation to the realm of the dead souls. Emily is pained by her recognition that human beings waste great opportunities at every moment, and her realization dampens her desire to return to the world of the living.