Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Although Wilder explores the stability of human traditions and the reassuring steadfastness of the natural environment, the individual human lives in Our Town are transient, influenced greatly by the rapid passage of time. The Stage Manager often notes that time seems to pass quickly for the people in the play. At one point, having not looked at his watch for a while, the Stage Manager misjudges the time, which demonstrates that sometimes even the timekeeper himself falls victim to the passage of time.
In light of the fact that humans are powerless to stem the advance of time, Wilder ponders whether human beings truly appreciate the precious nature of a transient life. Act I, which the Stage Manager entitles “Daily Life,” testifies to the artfulness and value of routine daily activity. Simple acts such as eating breakfast and feeding chickens become subjects of dramatic scenes, indicating the significance Wilder sees in such seemingly mundane events. Wilder juxtaposes this flurry of everyday activity with the characters’ inattentiveness to it. The characters are largely unaware of the details of their lives and tend to accept their circumstances passively. The Gibbs and Webb families rush through breakfast, and the children rush off to school, without much attention to one another. They, like most human beings, maintain the faulty assumption that they have an indefinite amount of time on Earth. Mrs. Gibbs refrains from insisting that her husband take her to Paris because she thinks there will always be time to convince him later.
The dead souls in Act III emphasize this theme of transience, disapproving of and chastising the living for their “ignorance” and “blindness.” The dead even view George’s grief and prostration upon Emily’s grave as a pitiable waste of human time. Instead of grieving for the dead, they believe, the living should be enjoying the time they still have on Earth.
The medium of theater perfectly suits Wilder’s intent to make ordinary lives and actions seem extraordinary, as the perspective of the dead souls parallels the audience’s perspective. Just as the dead souls’ distance finally enables them to appreciate the daily events in Grover’s Corners, so too does the audience’s outsider perspective render daily events valuable. We have never before witnessed a Gibbs family breakfast, and when the scene is dramatized on the stage, we see it as significant. Indeed, every action on the stage becomes significant, from Howie Newsome’s milk delivery to the town choir practice.
Because birth and death seem inevitable, the most important stage of life is the middle one: the quest for companionship, friendship, and love. Humans have some degree of control over this aspect of life. Though they may not be fully aware of their doing so, the residents of Grover’s Corners constantly take time out of their days to connect with each other, whether through idle chat with the milkman or small talk with a neighbor. The most prominent interpersonal relationship in the play is a romance—the courtship and marriage of George and Emily—and Wilder suggests that love epitomizes human creativity and achievement in the face of the inevitable advance of time.
Though romance is prominent in Our Town, it is merely the most vivid among a wide range of bonds that human beings are capable of forging. Wilder depicts a number of different types of relationships, and though some are merely platonic, all are significant. From the beginning of Act I, the Stage Manager seeks to establish a relationship with the audience, which forges a tie between the people onstage and the audience offstage. Within the action of the play, we witness the milkman and the paperboy chatting with members of the Gibbs and Webb families as they deliver their goods. The children walk to and from school in groups or pairs. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, next-door neighbors, meet in their yards to talk. We glimpse Mr. and Mrs. Webb and Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs in private conversation. As Mrs. Gibbs articulates, “Tain’t natural to be lonesome.”