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Our Town

Thornton Wilder

Act II

Act I: Part two

Act III

Summary

[P]eople are meant to go through life two by two. ’Tain’t natural to be lonesome.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

The Stage Manager watches the audience return from intermission, and announces that three years have passed. It is now July 7, 1904, just after commencement at the local high school. The Stage Manager tells us that the first act was called “Daily Life,” and that this second act is entitled “Love and Marriage.” He says that a third act will follow, and that the audience can guess what that act will be about.

We witness another morning scene, much like the first, except this time it is raining heavily. Howie Newsome delivers milk and runs into the paperboy—now Si Crowell, the younger brother of Joe Crowell, Jr.—and Constable Warren. They discuss the impending marriage of George Gibbs. Si bemoans the fact that George will have to stop playing baseball. He says George was the “best baseball pitcher Grover’s Corners ever had.” The Constable and Si continue on their way, and Howie stops to chat at the Gibbs household, where Mrs. Gibbs is preparing for the wedding guests she expects to host later that day. Howie then crosses the yard and talks to Mrs. Webb. Their conversation reveals to the audience that George has become engaged to Emily Webb.

Back in the Gibbs’s kitchen, Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs reminisce about the morning of their own wedding. George comes downstairs and announces that he is going next door to see Emily. Mrs. Gibbs makes him put on overshoes because of the rain. George hurries across the yard, but Mrs. Webb will not let him see Emily because she believes it is bad luck for the groom to see the bride anytime on the wedding day prior to the ceremony. Mr. Webb agrees with this superstition, and Mrs. Webb runs upstairs to make sure Emily does not come down. Left alone, Mr. Webb and George awkwardly discuss weddings and the idea of what makes a happy marriage. The Webbs then shoo George out of the house.

The Stage Manager reappears and interrupts the action again. He announces that, before proceeding, we need to find out how George and Emily’s relationship began. We flash back to the beginning of George and Emily’s courtship, at the end of their junior year in high school. George and Emily appear onstage. George has just been elected president of his class, and Emily has been elected secretary and treasurer. Emily carries a handful of invisible books, which George offers to carry for her. As they walk home together, Emily remarks that a change has come over George since he became a local baseball star. She says he has become “conceited and stuck-up.” Although hurt, George takes her words to heart. Emily, suddenly mortified at her own bluntness, apologizes to George and begins to cry.

George tells Emily not to be concerned and invites her to have an ice-cream soda with him at the local drugstore. The Stage Manager dons spectacles and assumes the role of the druggist, Mr. Morgan. Emily and George sit at the counter and talk about the future. George talks about his tentative plans to go to the State Agriculture School. Throughout the conversation, however, George weighs the idea of continuing his formal education against the idea of staying in Grover’s Corners with Emily, revealing his fondness for her.

The Stage Manager takes off his spectacles and returns us to the day of the wedding. He waits and watches while stagehands clear away the chairs and tables and set up rows of pews at center stage. After announcing that he will now play the role of the clergyman and that the play is about to get “pretty serious,” the Stage Manager launches into a short sermon about the divine power that wills the existence of marriage and procreation and about the importance of marriage in human history.

The congregation streams in and fills the pews. Mrs. Webb enters last, and before she sits down, she turns toward the audience and talks for a moment about how girls lack adequate preparation for marriage. George makes his way from the back of the theater through the audience and toward the altar onstage. A group of George’s baseball teammates heckle him good-naturedly, and the Stage Manager orders them offstage. At the front of the church, George withdraws nervously. When his mother leaves her seat and advances, he anxiously tells her that he does not want to grow up and get married. After George finally comes to his senses, Mrs. Gibbs fixes his tie. Emily, also feeling jittery, enters in her wedding dress and confesses her own apprehensions to her father. A choir has begun singing “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” Mr. Webb tries to calm his daughter and then calls George over. Putting his arm around the couple, Mr. Webb tells George he is content to give away his daughter. His encouragement solaces George and Emily, who proceed with the wedding.

The Stage Manager begins the service, but Mrs. Soames drowns out his words while chattering noisily about how “lovely” she finds the wedding. After George and Emily exchange rings and a kiss, the scene freezes briefly in a tableau, and the Stage Manager, still acting as the clergyman, muses about the number of couples he has married over time. Without cynicism, he remarks that one in a thousand wedding ceremonies is interesting. The scene comes back to life as an organ plays the “Wedding March,” and George and Emily run to the audience and down the aisle. The Stage Manager announces the end of Act II and a ten-minute intermission.

Analysis

The similarity between the morning activities in Act I and Act II implies that an underlying stability defines life in Grover’s Corners, despite the onset of marriage and other indications of individual growth and maturation. Though the Stage Manager says that several years have passed since Act I, very little in the town seems to have changed. Howie Newsome still delivers milk, a member of the Crowell family still delivers the papers, and the train whistle stills blows at 5:45 every morning. The Stage Manager’s description of the passing of time emphasizes the difference between individual change and broader change. On an individual level, “babies that weren’t even born before have begun talking regular sentences already; and a number of people who thought they were right young and spry have noticed that they can’t bound up a flight of stairs like they used to.” On a more general level, the Stage Manager notes the slow shifts in geology, saying that weather and erosion have gradually worn the mountains. Even though, as he says, “millions of gallons of water went by the mill” and the “sun’s come up over a thousand times,” these natural and environmental forces remain cyclical and steadfast.

Despite the fact that flashbacks typically heighten the sense that individual human lives pass quickly, the Stage Manager uses flashbacks to contribute to the sense of general stability. Here, he uses the technique of flashback to slow down time. He interrupts George and Emily’s wedding day and returns to the moment at which their romantic relationship begins. In this case, the flashback offers a comparison between the two scenes that emphasizes the play’s focus on stability. Emily and George’s nervousness at the drugstore counter mirrors their wedding day jitters. Although the idea of a wedding suggests that the two young people should have matured, Emily and George remain childlike in their anxiousness. Comforting their children, the parents demonstrate the constancy of the dynamic between parent and child. This relation of thematically similar but temporally separated scenes implies that past, present, and future all bear a striking resemblance to each other.

The relationship between George and Emily comprises the central narrative of the play. Wilder traces the progression of George and Emily’s love from initial neighborly friendliness to later romantic affection and marriage, and ultimately to grief over the loss of a loved one. With its rather generic emotions and rituals, Emily and George’s relationship is representative of a broad spectrum of relationships in the play—including those of Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs and Mr. and Mrs. Webb—but it is the only relationship we see in its entirety, from start to finish. Wilder foregrounds George and Emily, suggesting that the couple’s experience, with love as a central component, epitomizes the human experience. This focus on their relationship emphasizes one of the play’s central themes, the human need for interaction and companionship. Throughout the course of the play we listen in on conversations among brothers and sisters, schoolmates, adults and children, choir members, and neighbors. Romantic love represents the most powerful version of this desire for companionship, for communion with another human being.

Though Emily and George are the central figures in Act II, their parents also feature prominently. Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs use the wedding day as an opportunity to reflect on their own marriage, which is portrayed as being quite happy. The Gibbses ponder the complex aspects of love, especially the fears that accompany a wedding and the difficulties of raising a family. The anxieties that await Emily and George are the same ones that awaited Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs years ago. The wedding ceremony itself is not the only ritual passed from generation to generation. Other elements, such as the bride and groom’s cold feet and the challenges of handling the practicalities of married life, are just as enduring.

Wilder infuses Act II with a sense of tradition. The Stage Manager’s discussion of the specific details of George and Emily’s wedding is accompanied by a discussion of the universal ideas surrounding the tradition of marriage. This sense of tradition is emphasized by the sanctity of the choir’s music, the formality of the wedding rituals, and the inevitable comparisons drawn between the newlyweds and older married couples. The Stage Manager’s comment that only “[o]nce in a thousand times [is marriage] interesting” suggests the generic, traditional quality of the wedding ceremony. Wilder implies that, in general, the significance of an individual marriage lies in its relation to the greater human condition. Indeed, much of the play’s action would be unremarkable if taken out of the context of the philosophical and metaphysical ramblings of its characters. Act II illustrates the essence of young love: Wilder does not intend the activities and daily lives of the inhabitants of Grover’s Corners to interest us in and of themselves, but rather to encapsulate the nature of life.

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