Part two: From the introduction of Professor Willard to the end of the Act
So—people a thousand years from now. . . . This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.
After shooing Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs offstage, the Stage Manager announces that “we’re going to skip a few hours,” but first introduces an expert on Grover’s Corners to give a “scientific account” of the town. Professor Willard, an academic from the State University, lays out a series of basic facts about Grover’s Corners—geological data, the ethnic makeup of the inhabitants, and population figures. Professor Willard mentions that the town is very homogeneous: nearly all the residents are white—primarily “English brachiocephalic blue-eyed stock”—and are overwhelmingly Republican and Protestant. The population is nearly constant, as the birth and death rates roughly balance each other. The Stage Manager thanks and dismisses Professor Willard, then calls on Mr. Webb, the editor of the local paper, to give a “political and social report.” Mrs. Webb comes onstage to announce that her husband has been delayed because he has just cut his hand while slicing an apple. Mr. Webb soon appears and gives his report, his finger bandaged in a handkerchief.
After Mr. Webb finishes his report, the Stage Manager asks if anyone in the audience has any questions for Mr. Webb. There are indeed several questions, shouted out by actors planted in the crowd. When a Woman in the Balcony asks how much drinking goes on in Grover’s Corners, Mr. Webb replies that only a minimal amount takes place. A Belligerent Man demands to know whether the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners are aware of “social injustice and industrial inequality” and whether any of them intends to do anything to solve these problems. Mr. Webb replies that while people in Grover’s Corners talk about economic disparities all the time and want all “diligent” and “sensible” people to live well, the only thing they can do is try to help those who need help and leave other people alone. When a Lady in a Box asks if there is any “culture or love of beauty” in the town, Mr. Webb answers that though the town itself has little cosmopolitan culture, the residents appreciate the simple pleasures in life, such as the observation of nature. Done taking questions, Mr. Webb retires to his house and begins mowing the lawn. The Stage Manager announces that it is now early afternoon in Grover’s Corners, but then notices that he has misjudged the time and that it is actually later in the afternoon than he thought.
Emily Webb enters, on her way home from school. She reaches her yard, jokes a little with her father, and picks some flowers. George Gibbs walks down Main Street, also coming home from school. He stops to say hello to Emily and compliments her on a speech she gave in class that day. The two talk about mathematics and Emily promises to help George with his homework. George starts to discuss his plans to become a farmer and eventually take over his Uncle Luke’s farm, but he stops when Mrs. Webb comes outside. George says hello to Mrs. Webb, but then hastily leaves to go to the baseball field. Left alone with her mother, Emily asks if she is good-looking. Mrs. Webb scolds Emily for asking such a silly question, but assures her that she is pretty enough.
The Stage Manager interrupts again, thanking Emily and her mother, who withdraw from the stage. The Stage Manager announces that he has yet to reveal everything about Grover’s Corners, and tells the audience about a time capsule being placed in the foundation of the new bank under construction in town. The prospective contents of the time capsule include issues of the New York Times and Mr. Webb’s Sentinel, as well as a Bible, a copy of the Constitution, and a book of plays by William Shakespeare. The Stage Manager says that he will have a copy of this play, Our Town, placed in the cornerstone so that people in the future will know some simple facts about everyday life at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The lights dim as the Stage Manager speaks, and he announces that evening has fallen. A chorus in the orchestra pit, directed by Simon Stimson, begins singing the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” George and Emily reappear onstage, sitting in their respective bedrooms and talking to each other through their open windows. The stage directions indicate that the two youngsters actually sit on the tops of two ladders. Dr. Gibbs calls to his son, asking him to come downstairs for a moment. When George descends, his father asks him to be more responsible around the house and to help his mother with chores more often. Ashamed, George begins to cry, and his father offers him a handkerchief. Before sending George back upstairs, Dr. Gibbs says that he will increase George’s allowance because George will have more expenses as he grows older.
Meanwhile, the ladies—Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb, and Mrs. Soames— return home from choir practice. A tireless gossip, Mrs. Soames tries to strike up a conversation about the apparent alcoholism of the choirmaster, Mr. Stimson. Thinking the subject is inappropriate, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb halt the discussion and say good night. Mrs. Gibbs goes inside and talks to her husband—about Mr. Stimson, no less—while Rebecca joins George at his upstairs window. The two youngsters stare out at the moon.
Mr. Webb comes home from his office at the newspaper. On his way, he encounters Constable Warren and the somewhat unsteady Mr. Stimson. Once home, Mr. Webb says good night to Emily, who is still awake and at her window, while across the way Rebecca and George continue to chat and look at the sky. Rebecca mentions a letter that her friend Jane once received. Rebecca recalls that the letter was addressed to “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” The Stage Manager reappears and announces the end of Act I, telling the audience they may now have a smoke if they wish.
Professor Willard’s and Mr. Webb’s direct addresses to the audience serve several purposes. First, the fact that the two men appear at the request of the Stage Manager establishes the Stage Manager as an almost godlike authority within the text of the play. He appears to manage everything that happens on the stage, halting the action at will, pulling characters away from their daily activities to converse with the audience, and asking them to leave the stage when their presence is no longer required. Second, Professor Willard’s and Mr. Webb’s reports, as well as Mr. Webb’s question-and-answer session, strengthen the bond between the characters and the audience. The apparently spontaneous—though actually staged—interaction between the audience and Mr. Webb indicates Wilder’s desire for the audience to feel included in the daily life of Grover’s Corners. Third, the presentation of facts about the town’s past and present complements the Stage Manager’s own omniscient knowledge of the town’s events and his foresight of the characters’ deaths. Wilder implies that an accurate understanding of the town comes not only from meeting its current inhabitants but also from knowing its history. Finally, the two reports underscore how remarkably ordinary the town is, and how racially, ethnically, religiously, and politically homogenous. Professor Willard’s geological references imply that very little has changed throughout the history of Grover’s Corners, and his mention of the stagnant birth and death rates and lack of population change suggests that little change is expected in the future.
Though the character of the town as a whole changes little over the years, individual lives are transient. In the first half of Act I, the Stage Manager reflects upon the fact that Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs and Joe Crowell, Jr. have already died by the time Our Town is performed. In the second half of Act I, time passes quickly and even the Stage Manager mistakes the time, believing it is early afternoon but then realizing it must be later, since he can hear the children on their way home from school. Additionally, the Stage Manager foreshadows the fact that the play deals with both marriage and death before the evening ends when he says that the play details the “marrying . . . living and . . . dying” of the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners. Moreover, Wilder foreshadows Emily and George’s burgeoning romance through their uneasy conversations and through Dr. Gibbs’s comment that George will soon need a larger allowance to take care of unspecified “things” associated with growing older. Wilder foreshadows Emily’s death by describing her as an exemplary scholar with great potential—just like Joe Crowell, Jr., the prized student and engineer who had great potential but was tragically killed in World War I.
A number of scholars and reviewers have criticized the homogeneity of Grover’s Corners, a largely white, Protestant town. Our Town has been derided as an escapist fantasy that ignores the realities of the racism, sexism, and economic hardship that defined American life during Wilder’s era and that continue, to some degree, to define American life today. Some of these criticisms may be somewhat merited. Our Town does not offer a serious critique of social injustice, which makes the play appear out of step with and irrelevant to its own time. Nor does the play highlight the growing diversity in America at the time. While the Stage Manager mentions the presence of some Polish and Canuck, or French-Canadian, families in his opening remarks in Act I, these families do not appear in the play, and we do not hear of their experiences.
At the same time, Wilder appears to anticipate, and perhaps even encourage, such criticism even within the play itself. While the play may fail to address pressing social issues, it does not idealize the town and its citizens. The Belligerent Man who questions Mr. Webb attacks the townspeople’s apparent lack of social activism, in effect stealing the thunder from Wilder’s own critics. Similarly, Professor Willard provides a dark image of European influences upon Native American populations: “Yes . . . anthropological data: Early Amerindian stock. Cotahatchee tribes . . . no evidence before the tenth century of this era . . . now entirely disappeared. . . .” Details such as these indicate Wilder’s intent to portray a community complete both with virtues and flaws.
Despite the townspeople’s well-meaning nature, they have only a limited ability or willingness to act or confront societal problems. Mr. Webb and Constable Warren simply watch Mr. Stimson walk by in a drunken haze. Mr. Webb offers to walk with Mr. Stimson, but does not press the matter beyond the realm of polite interaction. Likewise, when Mrs. Gibbs mentions Stimson’s drinking to Dr. Gibbs, he merely replies that “some people ain’t made for small-town life.” Dr. Gibbs feels more comfortable relegating problems such as alcoholism to other spheres of life, like the city. There is a sense that, though isolated, Grover’s Corners is inextricably bound to the rest of the world and its accompanying problems. The residents of Our Town clearly have faults, but we recognize these faults as our own and take them to heart.
Wilder addresses the question of Our Town’s cultural relevance in the Stage Manager’s discussion of the time capsule. In addition to the essential cultural and political artifacts that are deposited in the time capsule—the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, the Constitution—the Stage Manager wishes to include this very play. The purpose of a time capsule is to give people in the future an accurate idea of what it was like to live in a previous time. A grandiose drama like Hamlet may be a pinnacle of human civilization’s literary achievements, but it has an exceptional story, not one that details ordinary lives. Our Town, on the other hand, concerns an unexceptional group of people in an unexceptional town, and as such represents everyday life better than any of Shakespeare’s writings. However, while concerned with ordinary events, Our Town will serve an extraordinary purpose: when the capsule is opened, it will show “people a thousand years from now . . . the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” Wilder intends for his play not only to engage but also to inform its audiences. In depicting ordinary life in a small town, the play becomes relevant to the human desire to know the details of human history.