Our Town is a 1938 three-act play by American playwright Thornton Wilder. It tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.
As far as I can recall, it was the first play I saw on a professional stage. At some point during my junior high or high school years, we took a class trip to see it performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. Serendipitously, that is also where it was first staged in 1938.
It went on to Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It remains popular today and revivals of it are frequent, especially with student productions.
One reason for its performance popularity is the deliberate minimalism of the staging and sets. Wilder sets the play in the theater where it is being performed. It is often staged with only a few tables, chairs, benches and ladders on the stage. The audience is asked to see someone on a ladder as being at a second floor window, for example.
A main character is the stage manager who directly addresses the audience. My recollection of my first impression in seeing the play (totally unprepared by my teacher) is that I was disappointed. What a lousy set! It looks like a rehearsal. Not even as nice as some of our school productions.
And the stage manager seemed like a narrator (We had those in school plays.) but he would bring in guest lecturers, answer questions from the audience (Were those real audience members or shills?) and even filled in playing some other roles. (Couldn’t they hire a few more actors?).
Most of the time the actors didn’t have props and would mime actions. (They couldn’t afford some ordinary household items?)
I did like that there were some characters our age. George Gibbs meets his neighbor Emily Webb outside the gate of her house after school. Some romance brewing. Emily confers with her mom. Then the Stage Manager thanks them and dismisses Emily and her mom.
The Stage Manager tells us that a time capsule will be placed in the foundation of a new bank building in town. He wants to put a copy of Our Town into the time capsule.
By Act II, it is three years later and George and Emily are getting married.
Act III is what I remembered best. I went back to the play to fill in the blank spaces. It is only nine years later, but we are in a cemetery outside town. Emily has died in childbirth. This is a burial.
The dead who inhabit the cemetery were sitting in chairs at the front of the stage and they speak. Death has made them pretty much indifferent to the living. Emily isn’t ready to join them. She misses life and wants to go back.
The Stage Manager can do whatever and he allows Emily to go back and relive her twelfth birthday.
As both 12 year old Emily and dead Emily walks through that day, she sees it differently. She appreciates the beauty and preciousness of the everyday and realizes that her parents and the other living characters do not appreciate it at all.
She goes back to the cemetery where George is at her tomb. She is sad because she knows that the living do not understand life. She asks the Stage Manager if anyone understands the value of life while they live it. “No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some, ” he tells her.
Emily returns to her grave. The Stage Manager concludes the play, wishes the audience a good night, and the play ends.
There is a 1940 film version of Our Town. It stars William Holden and Martha Scott. It was free to watch on Amazon if you have a Prime membership. Although it follows most of the play, it takes some big liberties. One big change is that it has a happy Hollywood ending.
Thornton Wilder was unhappy with that 1940 film (and also a 1957 musical versions of the play). Before his death, in 1975, Wilder worked to have a definitive version of his play. That version was broadcast on NBC in 1977, with Holbrook, Ned Beatty, Sada Thompson, John Houseman, Glynnis O’Connor and Robby Benson. The Wilder estate was so satisfied that they decided there was no need to permit another television version of the play, but they did make an exception for a PBS production in 1989.
We just don’t understand. Prove the Stage Manager wrong.