There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
The stage has been set with three rows of chairs, representing gravestones. At the end of the intermission, Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, Mrs. Soames, and Wally Webb, among others, take their seats. All of these characters have died in the intervening years between Act II and Act III, and the stage has become the local cemetery, situated at the top of a hill overlooking Grover’s Corners. The Stage Manager appears and announces that another nine years have passed—it is now the summer of 1913. The Stage Manager talks about the dead, telling us that the dead lose interest in the living and in earthly matters. He says that “everybody in their bones knows that something is eternal,” and that the dead spend their time waiting for this eternal part of their selves to emerge.
A few living people have been hovering at the back of the stage and now come to the foreground. The Stage Manager introduces Joe Stoddard, the town’s undertaker, who is watching over a freshly dug grave, and Sam Craig, a cousin of Emily Gibbs. We learn that Sam left Grover’s Corners twelve years ago to go west and has returned to town for Emily’s funeral. Sam reads the headstones, represented by the characters sitting in chairs. He sees his Aunt Julia, known to us as Mrs. Gibbs, and Mr. Stimson, who, we learn from Joe, hanged himself in his attic. Sam asks Joe how Emily died, and Joe replies that she passed away in childbirth.
A funeral party enters with a casket. Among the mourners are George, Dr. Gibbs, and the Webbs. While the living characters huddle at the back of the stage, Mrs. Soames and Mrs. Gibbs talk dispassionately about the cause of Emily’s death. Mrs. Soames reminisces about George and Emily’s wedding. A group standing by the grave begins singing “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” Emily emerges from the funeral party and joins the characters in the cemetery—her body has just been interred. She sits in an empty chair beside Mrs. Gibbs and tells her mother-in-law all about the improvements she and George had been making to their farm. Emily suddenly stops, seemingly struck by an epiphany, and looks at Mrs. Gibbs. “Live people don’t understand,” Emily says. Sitting with the dead, now one of them herself, Emily remarks how distant she feels from the living.
Even so, Emily says, she still feels like one of the living, and against the advice of the other dead souls, she decides to go back and relive one happy day from her life. With the assistance of the Stage Manager, Emily goes back to 1899, to the day of her twelfth birthday. It is dawn, and we witness another typical Grover’s Corners morning. As Constable Warren, Howie Newsome, and Joe Crowell, Jr. chat in the street outside Emily’s house, Mrs. Webb comes downstairs to fix breakfast. Mr. Webb has been away in another town for the last few days, but now he returns home with a surprise gift for his daughter. When Mrs. Webb gives the young Emily her presents, however, the scene becomes unbearable for Emily’s deceased soul. Overcome by her observation that human beings go through life without savoring their time on Earth, Emily tells the Stage Manager that she is ready to go back to 1913 and return to the cemetery.
Emily again takes her place next to Mrs. Gibbs. The dead talk and watch the stars come out over Grover’s Corners. Emily exclaims that she should have listened to the dead and stayed in her grave. Simon Stimson angrily replies that Emily now understands how the living waste time, trampling on the feelings of others and existing in a self-centered world of “ignorance and blindness.” Mrs. Gibbs defends the living, telling Simon that he has not told Emily the whole truth. Still contemplating the stars, one man among the dead recalls his son telling him that starlight takes millions of years to travel to the Earth from its source.
George appears and, overcome with grief, throws himself down in front of Emily’s grave, prompting several disapproving comments from the dead souls. As Emily watches her husband lie prostrate on the ground, she asks Mrs. Gibbs, “They don’t understand, do they?” The Stage Manager reappears and draws a dark curtain across the stage. He offers a few closing remarks about Grover’s Corners as it settles down for the night. Looking at the stars, he says that the Earth may be the only place in the universe where life exists. Winding his watch, he ends the play by telling the audience to go home and get some good rest.
Dramatically speaking, very little happens over the course of these three acts, but thematically the play spans the whole of human life, beginning with Dr. Gibbs’s delivery of twins, continuing through daily life and a wedding, and concluding with burial and death. The three separate focuses of Our Town—“Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage,” and “Death”—reflect the course of life from its beginning to its middle to its end. Appropriately, the tone of the play changes from act to act. Act I focuses on a rather mundane day in Grover’s Corners, and the dialogue is straightforward and informational. In Act II, an increased complexity in the language conveys the heightened state of feeling. Emily and George’s conversations, both in high school and on their wedding day, are full of subtleties and periods of awkwardness that demonstrate the couple’s deepening emotions. The tone of Act III differs strikingly from that of the earlier scenes. The disinterested dialogue of the dead characters, contrasted with the emotional speeches of live characters in this and other acts, confers a sense of solemnity and inevitability upon death. This last section of the play takes on an almost mystical, religious quality. The Stage Manager’s Act I remark that the play will be included in a time capsule to preserve “simple facts” about life suggests that perhaps Emily’s death will represent just another recorded event for future generations to study. Emily’s experience in Act III, however, shows how the play also delves into emotional response, as she exclaims the flaws and joys of a complex human existence.
The sorrowful, emotional atmosphere of Act III stems not from Emily’s death, but from the realization that most people do not cherish life the way they should. Ironically, according to Emily’s experience during her flashback, the living despair about the end of life, but do not make much effort to cherish life while they still have it. Emily, however, is only able to realize how precious her life is after she has died. Even the dead characters who insist that Emily should not relive her life do so because it seems they once made the same attempt to return themselves. The dead already have made the painful realization that Emily will soon reach. Wilder reveals to his living audience that most people “don’t understand” that the power of life exists not only in the moments of great passion and joy, but in the details of everyday existence as well. When George prostrates himself on Emily’s grave at the end of the play, the dead react as if the time for emotion has passed.
The ritualistic quality of the funeral further emphasizes the quality of timelessness and the lack of change that we see in the first two acts. The townspeople view death as a normal facet of life, and though grief-stricken, they follow ceremonial conventions. Joe Stoddard prepares Emily’s grave as he has prepared many graves before, and the funeral party sings a hymn just like the many funeral parties before them. Moreover, the song, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” appears twice earlier in the play—once during choir practice in Act I, and again during the wedding in Act II. The fact that we hear the song again in this last act underscores the idea that death is just one part of an unchanging human existence.
Even though Wilder focuses on a primarily Christian—and specifically Protestant—town, in the final act he leaves the question of religion up in the air. In Act I, the Stage Manager discusses the multiplicity of churches in the town, emphasizing the idea that faith can take many forms. The choir scene in Act I takes on a decidedly comic tone with the drunken Stimson as choir director, undermining the notion of the church as a sanctuary. We do not see prayers or church services figure heavily in the daily lives of the two families. Even in the Stage Manager’s “sermon” in Act II, he refrains from using the word “God” in reference to a higher power. In Act III, though Mrs. Gibbs tells Emily to stay and prepare for “what’s ahead” rather than return to the world of the living, Wilder does not clarify where the afterlife will lead.
Instead, Wilder concludes Our Town with references to the unfathomable nature of the universe, echoing similar references from earlier in the play. The dead man’s remark about the millions of years it takes for starlight to reach the Earth implies that human beings comprise only a small portion of a larger framework. Yet, even so, the Stage Manager says that human life is probably unique and that therefore it has an activity and perhaps a divinity all of its own.
In his opening remarks to Act III, the Stage Manager indicates that the “eternal” lies in each and every human being and in the interactions between human beings. However, the Stage Manager’s insistence that most people fail to recognize the eternal in themselves and in those around them during their earthly lives highlights Wilder’s contention that though life is transient, it is nonetheless precious. Watching the dead souls, the Stage Manager asks, “Aren’t they waitin’ for the eternal part in them to come out clear?” His meaning is ambiguous, but it seems that Wilder is indicating that human beings should engage the eternal while on Earth. They do not need to wait until the afterlife in order for their eternal nature to shine forth.
The appearance of Simon Stimson reintroduces the play’s sociopolitical discussion in this final act. With Stimson’s comment that people “move about in a cloud of ignorance . . . always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another,” Wilder yet again gives voice to the social critics who contend that people who blind themselves to the social ills of the world are wasting their time on Earth. Even so, Wilder quiets such relentless criticism through Mrs. Gibbs’s rebuttal, putting to rest the notion that life consists only of “ignorance and blindness.” Wilder acknowledges that greed and injustice exist in the world, and he does not deny that they probably exist in Grover’s Corners too. However, like Mrs. Gibbs, Wilder maintains that much good exists in the world as well.
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