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Our Town

Thornton Wilder

Act I: Part one

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Act I: Part two

Part one: From the beginning of the Act through Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb’s conversation in the garden

Summary

The play opens with a view of an empty, curtainless, half-lighted stage. The Stage Manager enters and arranges minimal scenery—a table and three chairs—to represent two houses, one on each side of the stage. The houselights dim as the Stage Manager moves about the stage. When the theater is completely dark, he introduces the play, naming the playwright, producers, director, and cast. He then identifies the setting: the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, just before dawn on May 7, 1901.

The Stage Manager speaks directly to the audience as he maps out local landmarks. The audience must use its imagination, since the minimalist set does not detail any of these landmarks, which include Main Street, the public schools, Town Hall, and several churches. The Stage Manager explains that the two sets of tables and chairs denote the homes of the Gibbs family and the Webb family. As he speaks, his assistants wheel out two trellises to represent the back doors of Mrs. Webb’s and Mrs. Gibbs’s homes. “There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery,” the Stage Manager comments. He mentions that the 5:45 a.m. train to Boston is just about to depart. A train whistle blows offstage and the Stage Manager looks at his watch, nodding.

As dawn breaks over Grover’s Corners, the Stage Manager proceeds to introduce the audience to the town’s inhabitants. We witness the beginning of a new day in the Webb and Gibbs households and observe the morning activities of the two families and a few other townspeople. The characters pantomime many of their actions due to the absence of props and scenery. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs enter their respective kitchens, light their stoves, and begin making breakfast. The Stage Manager informs the audience that both Dr. Gibbs and Mrs. Gibbs have died since 1901, when this scene originally took place.

Dr. Gibbs, on his way home from delivering a local woman’s twin babies, stops to chat briefly with the paperboy, Joe Crowell, Jr. They discuss the upcoming marriage of a local schoolteacher. Dr. Gibbs stands in the street and reads the paper as Joe exits. The Stage Manager interrupts the immediate action to inform the audience that Joe would go on the become the brightest boy in high school and study at Massachusetts Tech. Well on his way to becoming a successful engineer, Joe would be killed in France during World War I.

Howie Newsome, the milkman, enters with an invisible horse. Howie stops to converse with Dr. Gibbs, who gives him the news of the twins’ birth. After Howie delivers his milk to the Gibbs residence, Dr. Gibbs goes inside and greets his wife, who has made coffee for him. Mrs. Gibbs asks her husband to speak to their teenage son, George, about helping around the house more often. Next door, Mrs. Webb calls her children—Emily and Wally—down to breakfast. In the Gibbs household, George and his sister, Rebecca, enter the kitchen and sit at the table. Both pairs of children chatter over breakfast, then go outside, meet in the street, and hurry off to school together.

Left alone, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb go outside into their gardens. The two women see each other and come together for a chat. Mrs. Gibbs tells Mrs. Webb that she has some news: a traveling secondhand furniture salesman recently offered her the hefty sum of $350 for her highboy, an old piece of furniture. The women discuss whether Mrs. Gibbs should accept the offer and what she would do with the money. Mrs. Gibbs says that if she does decide to sell the highboy, she hopes to live out the “dream of [her] life” and travel to Paris for a visit. Her excitement is tempered, however, by the fact that Dr. Gibbs has already told her that “traipsin’ about Europe” might make him disheartened with Grover’s Corners, and thus thinks a trip to Paris might be a bad idea. Mrs. Gibbs says that her husband only cares about going to Civil War battlefields. Mrs. Webb remarks that her husband, an eager student of Napoleonic history, greatly admires Dr. Gibbs’s Civil War expertise. At this point, the Stage Manager interrupts abruptly and tips his hat to the two women, who nod in recognition. He thanks the two ladies, and they return to their houses and disappear from the stage.

Analysis

As its title suggests, Our Town is a play about a typical town—in this case, a typical American town. The Stage Manager tells us that we are peering in on Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, but we get the feeling that we could be in any small American town. The introduction—wherein the Stage Manager acquaints us with the town’s layout, its people, and their activities—establishes a familiarity between the world onstage and the world offstage. The Stage Manager speaks directly to the audience, as if the audience members are people passing through the town, rather than distant, detached theatergoers.

The action in this section does not revolve around a dramatic incident, but rather serves to establish a sense of the town’s atmosphere and the temperament of its people. Moreover, Wilder’s presentation of the morning rituals of two families and the activities of the town gives us insight into what the townspeople’s lives look like not just on this morning, but perhaps on every morning. The Stage Manager correctly notes that the train whistle will blow around 5:45 A.M., looking at his watch and nodding to emphasize the predictability and regularity of the town’s activities. Wilder discusses the importance of these daily activities throughout the remainder of the play.

The Gibbses and the Webbs represent two archetypal American families, just as Grover’s Corners represents the archetypal small American town. The two families’ homes are the only homes into which we are allowed to see, and their ambitions and lives are the only ones to which we are given extended access. We see other characters, such as Howie Newsome and Joe Crowell, Jr., only as transient figures projected against the lives of the Gibbses and Webbs.

Wilder establishes the centrality of these particular families in the opening scenes, but he does so while focusing on what could be the daily activities and aspirations of any middle-class American family. Dr. Gibbs and the paperboy gossip about the marriage of a local schoolteacher, the children converse about schoolwork and their allowances, and Mrs. Gibbs talks about her lifelong desire to take a vacation in Europe. Neither poor nor rich, the Gibbses and Webbs live modest, but busy and full lives.

Wilder chooses to portray two families so that he can emphasize their similarities. Both homes have the same layout and the same number of chairs at the table. Both Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs work in their respective gardens, just as both Mr. Webb, as the editor of the local newspaper, and Dr. Gibbs, as the town doctor, occupy positions of social status. Moreover, both men have the similar hobby of the study of wars. Though these two families are archetypically American, Our Town illustrates the universality of human concerns and desires, regardless of national identity.

The play focuses on characters rather than on dramatic action in order to protect this sense of universal applicability. No profound conflicts emerge that lead us to believe that life in Grover’s Corners differs from life anywhere else. Wilder wants us to sympathize with his characters and to put ourselves in their shoes, not to view them as people with dramatic problems foreign to our own. We are drawn in by the modest but ardent hopes of people such as Mrs. Gibbs, who yearns for a vacation, and the satisfactions of those such as her husband, who has just successfully delivered twins. Wilder emphasizes these sorts of everyday ambitions and accomplishments throughout the play. The hopes, dreams, and morning rituals of the townspeople we meet are characteristic of people all the world over. Likewise, the townspeople’s personal tragedies echo broader modern tragedies, evident when we learn that the prize pupil Joe Crowell, Jr. will meet an untimely end in World War I.

While most readers identify with the content of the play simply through the dialogue, Wilder augments the play’s universality through the use of numerous theatrical techniques when the play is actually performed. The minimal scenery and pantomimed actions—the paperboy throws imaginary newspapers, the children pretend to eat breakfast—force each person in the audience to imagine objects that do not really exist. The imaginary quality of these objects makes the play more universal, since we, as members of the audience, can use our own sense of imagination to envision the props in our own way. This flexibility engages the audience and personalizes Our Town for each viewer, making the play more immediate and accessible.

Wilder further connects his play with the audience through the figure of the Stage Manager, whose bodily presence alone breaks the boundary separating the audience from the actors. The Stage Manager, whose very title reflects his intermediary function in the play, facilitates the viewer’s communion with the action and characters. He alternately functions as a narrator communicating with the audience and as an inhabitant of Grover’s Corners—he plays the role of Mr. Morgan in Act II, and other roles later. The Stage Manager, then, exists both inside and outside the world of the play, and he has the ability to draw the audience into the play personally. Moreover, as he does in the second half of Act I, he can engage the members of the town, drawing them out onto the stage to speak with the audience.

The play’s very title contributes to this intimacy between the play and the audience. The Stage Manager frequently refers to the setting as “our town” rather than Grover’s Corners, especially in the introduction. By announcing the play’s author, director, producers, and so on, and by abruptly breaking in on the action to move the play along, the Stage Manager destroys the illusion that the play depicts real life. Instead, the play depicts a representative form of reality. We in the audience need not worry about suspending our disbelief because the Stage Manager allows us to accept the imaginary nature of the play. We identify with the characters in the play, but we identify even more with the Stage Manager. Owing to the Stage Manager’s presence, a person watching a performance of Our Town is likely to realize that the scenes onstage could be enacted anywhere, at any time.

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