How does the temporal structure of Our Town reflect and influence the main ideas of the play?
Our Town does not simply depict ordinary life in a small town, but engages deeper subject matter such as the influence of time on human lives. Future readers of the play, according to the Stage Manager, will be able to discern from the play’s content the ways in which ordinary humans’ lives move and change “in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” The three-act structure of the play reflects this focus by mirroring the stages of a human life: Act I begins with a birth in early morning and offers a glimpse of daily life in Grover’s Corners; Act II shows us courtship and an afternoon wedding; Act III culminates with death and the afterlife, and as the play ends, night has fallen. Although scenes of the evening do exist in other parts of the play, the play’s overarching structure begins with dawn and ends with dusk. Significantly, however, Wilder juxtaposes the momentum of individual lives with the unchanging nature of human existence. The play returns again and again to scenes that take place in the morning—the milkman delivering milk, the paperboy delivering the paper—indicating a timelessness and lack of change despite the passage of years. With a structural emphasis on stability, a single marriage becomes representative of many marriages, past, present, and future, and a single romance becomes representative of universal feelings of love.
As little happens in the play in terms of dramatic events, the thematic content of the play and Wilder’s attempt to engage his audience actively take center stage. The success of the play depends on its ability to break down the so-called “fourth wall” between the audience and the actors. How does Wilder break down this barrier between the audience and the action onstage?
Throughout the play, Wilder turns theatrical conventions inside out, exposing the seams of his drama. A particularly vivid example of the liberty that Wilder takes with dramatic conventions is his breaking down of the fourth wall in Act I. Here, Mr. Webb takes questions from members of the audience, who are actually characters in the play seated in the audience. By interspersing his characters among his audience, Wilder groups them all into the same reality. Wilder also emphasizes the artifice of his play by allowing the audience to see how the sets change and by having the Stage Manager announce when it is time for intermission.
The Stage Manager, whose title suggests that he should be a member of the crew rather than the cast, embodies Wilder’s attempt to break the fourth wall. The Stage Manager exists both in the world of the audience and the world of the play, sometimes interrupting the action to provide information, and sometimes assuming various roles within the play. By conversing directly with the audience, the Stage Manager requires the audience to participate in the theatrical experience rather than simply observe a slice of small town life. The play’s title breaks down the barrier as well: Grover’s Corners is not literally our town, but we realize that metaphorically, it could be.
Is Thornton Wilder’s view of small town life positive or negative?
Wilder wrote Our Town in the 1930s, a time of widespread economic hardship that led many to expect authors to use their works as instruments of social criticism. Wilder’s story of small town life exists within a genre that often found authors attempting to reveal the corruption beneath the surface of the seeming tranquility of rural life. On one hand, Our Town seems to offer a defiant, overwhelmingly positive portrayal of a fictional New England town around 1900. The children appear well behaved, the parents appear decent and hardworking, and all one must do to find love is ask a neighbor to have an ice-cream soda.
On the other hand, however, Wilder does not idealize the town of Grover’s Corners. He actively encourages us to think about the aforementioned criticism of small town life by actually voicing such criticism within the play, during the question-and-answer section with Mr. Webb. Moreover, the way the characters relate to Simon Stimson reveals much about the limitations of small town life. They talk about Simon’s alcoholism and refer opaquely to his “peck of trouble,” but they never clarify what constitutes Simon’s trouble or make a concerted effort to help him. Instead, people like Dr. Gibbs allow Simon to wallow in his loneliness, saying that he just is not made for small town life. Ultimately, Wilder never answers the question of who holds responsibility for such troubles. However, whether or not one condemns the residents of Grover’s Corners for not paying attention to certain troubles seems irrelevant to the major themes of Wilder’s play. Although problems and hypocrisy exist everywhere, Wilder still finds humanity and power in the simplicity of this small town.
1. Discuss the character of the Stage Manager. How does he fit into the world of the play?
2. Analyze the play’s portrayal of love, courtship, and married life. How do these aspects of life operate within the play’s overarching themes?
3. Why is Emily unhappy when she tries to relive part of her life after she dies? Defend your answer.
4. Discuss the conception of the “eternal” in the play. What does the Stage Manager believe “eternal” means? Do the events of the play agree with him? Why or why not?