“Our Town” is a timeless play that explores the evolving relationship between George Gibbs and Emily Webb, two young neighbors who transition from childhood friendship to love and ultimately marriage. The story encompasses three acts, each representing a different stage of life: childhood, adulthood, and death.
Considered one of the greatest American plays ever written, “Our Town” made its debut on Broadway in 1938 and continues to captivate audiences worldwide. Even today, it is regularly performed on stages around the globe.
If you’re contemplating whether to read this book, you’ve come to the right place. This review will provide you with all the information you need to determine if “Our Town” is worth your time.
So, let’s dive in without further delay!
Act 1. Daily Life
The Stage Manager speaks while pointing to different parts of the stage: “Up here is Main Street. … Here’s the Town Hall and Post Office combined. … First automobile’s going to come along in about five years; belonged to Banker Cartwright, our richest citizen, [who] lives in the big white house up on the hill.” A train whistle is heard, and the early birds of the town start to appear. The newsboy and the milkman begin their rounds just as the doctor is finishing his. They stop for a brief exchange of gossip: the school teacher is getting married, the doctor just delivered twins, and the milkman’s horse refuses to adjust to a change in route.
Now Mrs Webb and Mrs Gibbs are spotlighted in their respective kitchens, preparing breakfast. Mrs Gibbs calls up to her children, George and Rebecca, and, as they appear, complains to her husband that George isn’t helping out with the chores. Mrs Webb reminds her son Wally to wash thoroughly. The Gibbs daughter, Rebecca, doesn’t want to wear her blue gingham dress. George negotiates for a raise in his allowance. Each child is reminded to eat slowly, finish his breakfast, stand up straight. … The day has begun.
Later, coming home from school, Emily Webb promises to give George Gibbs some help with his algebra. At the Congregational Church, choir practice can be heard. In the Gibbs home, George and his father engage in a “serious” talk about growing up. Returning from choir practice, Mrs Gibbs prattles on about the drunken choir organist, Simon Stimson. The town constable makes his rounds to ensure that all is well, and the Stage Manager calls an end to this typical day in Grover’s Corners.
Act 2. Love and Marriage
“Three years have gone by,” muses the Stage Manager. “Yes, the sun’s come up over a thousand times. …” The date is now July 7, 1904. It’s been raining. As Mrs Gibbs and Mrs Webb reappear in their kitchens, he continues: “Both of those ladies cooked three meals a day – one of ‘em for twenty years and the other for forty – and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house… and never a nervous breakdown. It’s like what one of those Middle West poets said: You’ve got to love life to have life, and you’ve got to have life to love life. … It’s what they call a vicious circle.”
Howie, the milkman, makes his deliveries to Mrs Webb and Mrs Gibbs, and at each house you hear talk of the same two breakfast-table conversation topics: the weather and the upcoming wedding of Emily and George. The chitchat is typical of things people say before weddings. Mrs Gibbs worries aloud about the inexperience of the bride and groom; the doctor reminisces about being a groom himself. His fear was that he and his new wife would run out of things to talk about – which, he chuckles, hasn’t been the case at all.
When George comes downstairs and is about to leave for a visit with Emily, his mother reminds him to put on his overshoes. But Emily’s mother, though she invites George into her kitchen, won’t let him see her daughter. Traditionally, she says, a groom is not allowed to see his bride on the wedding day until the ceremony begins. Mr Webb placates his jittery young son-in-law to be: “There is a lot of common sense in some superstitions.”
The well-nigh groom sits down to a cup of coffee with his just as anxious future father-in-law. Mr Webb makes various attempts at small talk and reassures George that his nervousness about impending matrimony is typical. “A man looks pretty small at a wedding…all those women standing shoulder to shoulder making sure that the knot is tied in a might grand way.”
He then shares with George the advice his own father gave him when he married, stern counsel to keep his wife in line and show her who’s in charge. George is puzzled until Mr Webb goes on: “So I took the opposite of my father’s advice and I’ve been happy ever since.”
The Stage Manager interrupts this scene by dismissing the characters on stage and telling the audience that he wants to show them “how this all began – this wedding, this plan to spend a life-time together. … I’m awfully interested in how big things like that begin.” He takes two chairs from the Gibbs’s kitchen, arranges them back-to-back, with two planks across and two stools in front, to serve as Morgan’s Main Street Drugstore Counter.
Emily and George again enter, now as high-school sweethearts. They call goodbye to their friends. Over an ice cream soda, George asks Emily if she’ll write to him while he is away at college. She admits her concern that George will lose interest in Grover’s Corners – and in her – once he’s away.
He unhappily contemplates this possibility for a moment, then decides that he shouldn’t go: “I guess new people aren’t any better than old ones.” He struggles to explain that he has decided to stay because of the way he feels about her, and, in half-spoken sentences, the two manage to express their love. The act culminates in a moving wedding scene, containing all the elements of potential sorrow and abundant happiness.
Act 3. Life and Death
Nine years have passed, and we are gazing at a cemetery on a hill. We see that many of the townspeople we came to know in the first two acts have passed on. The Stage Manager slowly speaks: “Whenever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense. … We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names … that something has to do with human beings.” And so the dead stand, patient and smiling, awaiting not “judgment,” but greater understanding of eternity.
Into the midst of the dead is led a young mother. Emily and her second baby have just died in childbirth. She timidly approaches the assemblage, glancing wistfully back toward the mortal life she has just departed. Gradually recognizing the spirits before her, Emily suddenly realizes that none of these people truly understood or appreciated the greatness of being alive! There had been no appreciation of life’s little, fleeting moments; no ability to stop and absorb life’s essence; no comprehension of the deep human value of the moment.
Emily is given the choice to return to earth and relive a day in her life. The dead – including her mother-in-law, Mrs Gibbs – try to discourage the idea, warning her that returning to earth will be too painful. Nonetheless, Emily elects to re-experience one of the happiest days of her life – her twelfth birthday.
As the day unfolds, however, Emily’s excitement turns to disillusionment. She feels no joy in watching herself with her father and mother and her little brother Wally; the day is wasted with trivial preoccupations. She cries to her mother: “Just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” Then, pangs of remorse fill her – her life, just like the lives of her family members and Grover’s Corners neighbors, was never fully savored either. It came, was lived in self-centeredness and petty preoccupations, then swiftly departed – all quite meaningless. The suicidal Simon Stimson appears and offers a poignant yet bitter comment: “Life is a time of supreme ignorance, folly and blindness.”
Unable to endure this disturbing vision, Emily hurries back to her body’s resting place. There she finds George, her husband, weeping by her grave.
Too late, she now understands: Our time on earth is an irreplaceable gift, one to be treasured and relished every moment; life is a fragile gift that is delivered to us in pieces, and it only achieves meaning as we cherish and blend the pieces – even the seemingly insignificant pieces – into a full, universal whole.
1. A Masterful Portrayal of Small-Town Life
Wilder’s portrayal of small-town American life is simply masterful. The play starts off seemingly mundane, following the lives of ordinary people in a small town. However, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that beneath the surface lies a deeper exploration of the human experience.
Wilder’s ability to capture the essence of everyday life and transform it into a thought-provoking reflection on the human condition is truly impressive. The characters and their interactions feel authentic, and the play highlights the beauty and significance of seemingly ordinary moments.
2. A Captivating Exploration of Life’s Meaning and Value
Another standout aspects of “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder is its profound exploration of the meaning and value of life. While the plot may appear simple and the events seemingly mundane, Wilder masterfully weaves a thought-provoking narrative that forces readers to reflect on their own lives.
As the play progresses, Wilder delves into deep philosophical questions about the nature of existence and the significance of even the smallest moments. Through the character of Emily, we are confronted with the realization that we often fail to appreciate the beauty and preciousness of everyday life. This introspective journey allows readers to reevaluate their own perspectives and gain a renewed sense of gratitude for the simple joys that surround them.
Wilder’s ability to capture the essence of human experience is truly remarkable. He reminds us that life is made up of a series of fleeting moments, and it is our responsibility to cherish and embrace each one. The play serves as a poignant reminder to slow down, savor the present, and find value in even the most seemingly insignificant aspects of our lives.
3. Timeless Themes and Emotional Impact
“Our Town” carries timeless themes that resonate with readers of all ages. Thornton Wilder’s exploration of the value and meaning in even the most mundane aspects of life is a powerful reminder of the preciousness of each day.
The play culminates in a third act that leaves a lasting impact, tugging at the heartstrings and evoking strong emotions. The juxtaposition of the banality of daily life with the wonder and significance of existence exposes our human fallibility and the need to appreciate every moment we are given. “Our Town” provokes introspection and serves as a poignant reminder to embrace life fully.
1. Mundane and Slow Plot
The overall plot of “Our Town” revolves around the daily lives of ordinary people in a small town. While this simplicity is intentional and serves a purpose in highlighting the value of everyday moments, it can make for a slow and uneventful reading experience.
The lack of exciting events or gripping conflicts may not engage readers who prefer more action-packed or dynamic narratives. It took me until the final act to truly understand and appreciate the deeper meaning behind the seemingly mundane plot.
2. Lack of Character Development
Throughout the play, I struggled to connect with the characters on a deeper level. While Thornton Wilder’s intention may have been to emphasize the universality of the human experience, it left me wanting more in terms of character development and personal investment.
Without a strong emotional connection to the characters, it was difficult for me to fully engage with the story and feel a sense of empathy or attachment.
3. Initial Boredom and Lack of Interest
The initial two acts of “Our Town” can be challenging to get through, especially for readers who are seeking immediate excitement or entertainment. The slow pace and seemingly mundane events may deter some readers from fully investing in the story.
However, it is important to note that the play’s impact and meaning become more apparent in the powerful final act, which brings everything together and leaves a lasting impression.
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” defies the conventions of its time and delivers an informal, intimate, and compelling human drama. Dissatisfied with the uninspiring theatrical productions of his era, Wilder sought to create a play that had heat, bite, and a sense of responsibility. With its far-reaching themes, unmistakable symbolism, and focus on the magic of the mundane, “Our Town” stands apart from the typical depression-era plays.
The setting of Grover’s Corner transcends time and place, becoming a representation of every community, anytime, and anywhere. Wilder’s skillful use of constantly shifting verb tenses and the juxtaposition of pantomime and conversation serve to portray the continuum of life’s passage through time and space.
Central to the play is the enigmatic Stage Manager, who remains a constant presence on stage, serving as a narrator, philosopher, host, and friend to the audience. Through the Stage Manager’s perspective, we gain insight into the characters’ feelings and experiences, creating a sense of familiarity and relatability. Wilder’s portrayal of types rather than individuals allows each audience member to connect with the characters, recognizing echoes of people they have known or emotions they have felt.
“Our Town” evokes a powerful sense of recollection, both thrilling and haunting, as it reminds us of our shared humanity and the fragility of life. Wilder’s play challenges us to reflect on the ordinary moments we often overlook and to appreciate the value and beauty inherent in our everyday existence.