Our Town Summary

Thornton Wilder

Our Town

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Our Town Summary

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Our Town is a 1938 metatheatrical, three-act play by American playwright Thornton Wilder. Telling the story of Grover’s Corners, a fictional small town, it takes place between 1901 and 1913, tracking the lives of a group of ordinary, small-town Americans as they go about their daily routines. In the metatheatrical tradition, Our Town breaks the fourth wall, with the main character being the stage manager of the theater who directly addresses the crowd. There will often be interactive elements to productions, with the manager taking questions from the audience. Known for being performed on a mostly bare stage and relying entirely on the performers to get across the setting and events, it is considered a masterpiece of minimalist theater. Renowned for its exploration of themes, including life, love, mortality, personal choices, and what it truly means to be an American, Our Town has been consistently staged since its 1938 debut in Princeton, New Jersey. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938, and a revival won both the Drama Desk Award and the Tony Award in 1989. Film, radio, and opera adaptations have also been staged.

Our Town is divided into three acts. The first act, titled “Daily Life,” begins with the stage manager introducing the audience to the small town Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. As the people begin their day, the manager introduces the residents. Professor Willard, a long-winded local lecturer, speaks to the audience about the town’s long history. The town’s doctor, Frank “Doc” Gibbs, gets the newspaper from paperboy Joe Crowell, while milkman Howie Newsome makes his daily deliveries. The two main characters, Emily Webb and George Gibbs, are introduced in their respective homes as they start the day, interact with their families, and head off to school. The stage manager emphasizes that this is a beautifully simple morning, and the residents of Grover’s Corners don’t have a care in the world.

Act two, “Love and Marriage,” flashes forward three years. George and Emily are now engaged and their wedding day is finally here. Everyone is feeling the stress of the preparations. It’s a rainy day, and Howie Newsome is delivering milk again. Si Crowell, Joe’s younger brother and the new paperboy, is talking about how George could have been a professional ballplayer if he had chosen not to get married. George pays an awkward visit to his future in-laws. The Stage Manager then takes the audience back a year, as Emily and George discuss their future at the end of their junior year of high school. Emily confronts George about his pride, and as the two share an ice cream soda, they try to figure out if their plans for the future can work together. George agrees to turn his back on his original plans to go to college and play baseball, and instead go to work, and eventually take over, his uncle’s farm. In the present, both George and Emily are consumed with doubts about the wedding, confessing their cold feet to George’s mother and Emily’s father respectively. However, their parents are able to calm them down, and soon George and Emily meet at the altar and are happily married.

Act three, “Death and Dying,” picks up nine years later. The Stage Manager opens with an extended monologue talking about mortality and eternity, and focuses the audience’s attention on the cemetery outside of town. In the nine years that have passed, several characters have passed on. They include George’s mother, who died of pneumonia while traveling, and Emily’s younger brother Wally, who died of appendicitis while camping. Choir director Simon Stinson struggled with alcoholism and eventually committed suicide, while local gossip Louisa Soames is gone as well. Joe Stoddard, the town undertaker, is introduced, as is Sam Craig, a young man who is in town for a cousin’s funeral. That cousin is revealed to be Emily, who died in childbirth having her second child with George. The funeral is held, and Emily steps out on stage to join the other dead. Mrs. Gibbs urges her to let go of her life on Earth and to move on with them, but she ignores the warnings and returns to Earth to relive one perfect day—her twelfth birthday. Reliving the memory from beyond turns out to be extremely painful; she realizes that every moment of life must be treasured. She asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they’re alive, and he says that perhaps only the saints and poets do. Emily returns to her grave next to her mother-in-law and watches as George weeps over the grave. The Stage Manager concludes the play by wishing the audience a good night.

Thornton Wilder is an American playwright and novelist, and a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for Our Town; The Skin of Our Teeth; and his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Coming from humble means and serving in both World War I and World War II, he is considered one of the pioneers of modernist writing and minimalist theater. His works often focused on political themes, with Wilder being a staunch anti-fascist who warned against the spread of such ideas from Europe. He wrote dozens of plays and seven novels over his lifetime, although he is most widely known for his three Pulitzer-winners, as well as his film collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, Shadow of a Doubt.