Our Town is a three act play by Thornton Wilder that is set in the fictional community of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, which is based loosely on the actual town of Peterborough, N.H. (At the time, Wilder's residence was at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.) It is a story of character development that details the interactions between citizens of an everyday town in the early 20th century through their everyday lives (particularly the lives of George Gibbs, a doctor's son, and Emily Webb, the daughter of a newspaper editor). Our Town opened on February 4, 1938 in New York City at Henry Miller's Theatre, and later moved to the Morosco Theatre. The play was produced and directed by Jed Harris.
The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938. It was adapted into a film in 1940 and a television musical starring Frank Sinatra and others in 1955.
The play, when staged, is often self-aware with many characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience. Traditionally, it is performed with little or no scenery, set, or props often with many of the characters miming the objects they interact with and their surroundings. Often the only props used are those that are more difficult to mime and/or signify important physical positions including chairs, tables, and ladders. Also, the scene in which Emily and George share homework answers through their windows is traditionally performed with the two actors standing atop separate ladders to simulate elevated windows of neighboring houses.
Wilder's use of archetypes and stereotypes appeal to average families and make this play a "timeless classic." Beginning with the routine and tiny necessities of daily life, the audience is exposed to the intimate and habitual life of a real American family. Emily Webb and George Gibbs are portrayed as the familiar "girl and boy next door"; George is stereotyped as the athletic jock, while Emily's studious habits mark her intelligence. Their marriage is the standard of any other: filled with doubts and apprehensions. Our Town's strong grasp on its audience last through the finale of the play, when the ghost of Emily Gibbs visits an "unimportant" day in the past. Through this transaction, Wilder conveys the meaning and significance of the little pleasures in life. The theme of daily life and routine is once again brought back into the play. The magnitude of small town America, with its slow-moving culture and relaxed atmosphere, is revealed. Because these life lessons are relevant even to today's fast-paced culture, the timelessness of Our Town is underscored.
Throughout the play, the omniscient Stage Manager conducts the story being told, taking questions from the audience, describing the locations and making key observations about the world he or she creates for the audience. This "man of the hour" also plays several different but key roles within the story he or she tells, such as a preacher and the owner of a soda shop.
Act One (Daily Life)
The play begins with the Stage Manager providing a description of the town. After this are scenes within the Gibbses' and Webbs' homes of both families preparing their children for school. The Stage Manager then guides the audience through a day in the life of the town. He also has Professor Willard, a long-winded local historian, and Mr. Webb, editor of the Grover's Corners Sentinel, talk about the town. After a scene within the Congregational Church, Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Gibbs, and Mrs. Soames discuss Simon Stimson. Stimson is the church organist with a reputation for being a drunkard. Due to his non-conforming nature, he is often the subject of the town's gossip. The act also includes a scene in which George and Emily discuss George's trouble in school, foreshadowing a future relationship. The subject of "daily life" addressed throughout this act stereotypes the average "American family".
Act Two (Marriage and Love)
Three years pass and George and Emily announce their plans to wed. The day is filled with stress, topped off by George's visit to the Webbs' home. There, he meets Mr. Webb, who tells George of Mr. Webb's father's advice, telling George to treat Emily like property and never respect her needs. Mr. Webb continues to say that he did the exact opposite of his father's advice and has been happy since. Mr. Webb concludes by telling George to never take advice from anyone on matters of that nature. The wedding follows, where George, in a fit of nervousness, tells his mother that he is not ready to marry. Emily, too, tells her father of her anxiety about marriage. However, they both regain their composure and George proceeds down the aisle to be wed by the Stage Manager, who is playing a preacher.
Act Three (Death)
The Stage Manager introduces the location: a graveyard atop a hill overlooking Grover's Corners. Sam Craig, George's cousin, and Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, are walking through. Emily, after dying in childbirth, is being buried here today. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the living, the dead observe the living while seated in their "graves". Among the dead are Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Soames, and Simon Stimson. Emily soon joins them. As Mrs. Gibbs tells them of the cause of Emily's death, Mrs. Soames makes the remark, "My, wasn't life awful - and wonderful," a line that somewhat summarizes the whole play, showing that life has both its upsides and downsides and that we never really notice the importance of our lives while we live them. Emily finds that she is able to relive moments in her life and, against the advice of Mrs. Gibbs and with the help of the Stage Manager, decides to relive a day in her life. Mrs. Gibbs advises Emily that if she is to pick a day to relive, she should pick one that is insignificant; the reasoning behind this suggestion is that not only will Emily relive the day, she will also observe the day with the knowledge of the future. Emily decides to revisit her twelfth birthday. She is at first overwhelmed with joy, but this succumbs to tears, when she realizes how much she took for granted when she was alive and how quickly life speeds by. She says "We don't even have time to look at one another." After one last look at Grover's Corners and being alive, Emily tells the Stage Manager she is ready to go back to the graveyard. She asks if any living person ever truly notices everything as he or she lives it. The Stage Manager responds saying "saints and poets, maybe" but it seems as if no living person truly appreciates every detail in his or her life. Back in the cemetery, Simon Stimson, who committed suicide by hanging himself in the attic, reveals the bitterness of his soul, remarking that life was full of ignorance and blindness. Mrs. Gibbs reassures Emily that Simon's bitter view "ain't the whole truth and [he] knows it." Stars are mentioned as a metaphor of life and how it is always changing, always evolving. Here Wilder addresses life's ongoing cycle: the "circle of life". While looking at the whole picture, the dead understand how miniscule human life is, especially when comparing it with the millions of years it takes for the light of stars to travel to earth. The play drives its moral home when George Gibbs approaches Emily’s grave and collapses in tears, as Emily watching this is saddened and amazed at how the living "don't understand." The play closes with the Stage Manager making a few comments about how tomorrow is new day - the implication being that we, the audience, the living should live every, every minute.
The named characters are: