In February 1938, during the Great Depression, Our Town opened on Broadway, Tappen Wilder in the afterword states, “in spite of mixed reviews when the box-office opened Saturday morning there were 26 people in line; the line continued all day, the police had to close it for ten minutes so the audience could get into the matinee” (Wilder, 114). Even with continued mixed reviews of Our Town, the play itself has remained popular throughout cultures with multiple runs not only on Broadway and foreign theaters, but also, television and radio adaptions making the play itself more accessible to the public.
Throughout the play by Thornton Wilder, many issues central to the overall human experience are addressed such as relationships/marriage, and the importance of life, through the use of Wilder’s minimalistic scenery allowing for the ideas presented by Wilder to be timelessly universal. Some of course, have argued that Wilder’s short play with no plot, conflict or action, and unimportant/irrelevant characters simply does not have any lasting significance in today’s society.
Wilder presents what appears to be a one-sided play that only is to be applied to the characters themselves, for example, the stage manager states “so I’m going to have a copy put in the cornerstone and the people years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us” (Wilder, 33) giving the appearance that this story is simply about the story itself. Additionally, the stage manager states “this is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and our living and in our dying” (Wilder, 33) adding to lack of greater depth to the play itself.
Furthermore, a literary critic states “in effect, the Stage Manager attempts to lead the audience to assent to the proposition that the minimal existence of Grover’s Corners is an adequate base for encompassing the experiences and finding out the fate of mankind. If the audience takes him seriously, it must accept the assumption that what matters most in human existence is apparent in the limited world which the Stage Manager does, in fact, present” (Hagopian). The stage manager, whose intent is to keep the audience engaged and move the play along, does simply that and does not present a deeper meaning to the audience.
Nevertheless, although there is critique of Wilder’s seemingly unimportant work, the themes addressed throughout the play convey items pivotal to the overall human experience. Grover’s Corner is not simply used as the setting of the play, but the author’s use of scenery and the description of the town itself allows for the creation of a meaning that is much larger than Grover’s Corner itself. For example, a critic states “although the play begins and ends in one precisely described place, Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, it ranges far beyond the village boundaries in each of its three acts.
By eliminating scenery and props, except for two small trellises to appease persons who cannot do without scenery, Wilder avoids from the outset any suggestion that the meaning of the action relates only to Grover’s Corners” (Goldstein). The play opens with scenery as such: “No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light” (Wilder, 3) establishing the simplistic nature of the play, which allows for the creation of a universal meaning. Furthermore, another critic states “Wilder uses his characters allegorically to convey his universal truth.
If he were merely concerned with the importance of Grover’s Corners as a particular town in the cosmos, he might have used scenery. But his town represents the universe so that the events in the lives of his characters happen in the lives of all people (D’Ambrosio). Wilder’s characters represent far more than their story lines applied to them, throughout Wilder’s relatable characters allow for the audience to more easily understand the significance. Throughout the play Wilder uses his character’s relationships to appeal to the general human experience through relationships such as, family, friendships, and marriage.
For instance, prior to the wedding of Emily and George Mr. Webb tells George about bad advice given to him by his father before his wedding day and then states, “so I took the opposite of my father’s advice and I’ve been happy ever since. And let that be a lesson to you, George never to ask advice on personal matters” (Wilder, 60). This is not only advice given to George on his wedding day, but is also a warning to the audience about accepting advice from others.
In addition, prior to explaining how Emily and George’s relationship began the stage manager urges the audience, “I want you to try and remember what it was like to have been very young. And particularly the days when you were first in love; when you were like a person sleepwalking, and didn’t quite see the street you were in, and didn’t quite hear everything that was said to you” (Wilder, 63). By engaging the audience the stage manager is allowing them to feel a personal connection to the play and further relate the play and its ideals to their personal experiences.
Additionally, at the wedding Mrs. Webb states “oh, I’ve got to stay it: you know, there’s something downright cruel about sending our girls out into marriage this way…It’s cruel, I know, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I went into it as blind as a bat myself” (Wilder, 76). Although Mrs. Webb’s words seem harsh, especially since she is talking about her daughter, what she is trying to convey is that marriage is not easy and everyone goes into it rather blind to what the experience will be like.
Furthermore, while sharing icecream George tells Emily “I think once you’ve found a person that you’re very fond of…I mean a person who’s fond of you, too, and likes you enough to be interested in your character…Well, I think that’s just as important as college is, and even more so. That’s what I think” (Wilder, 71-72). Although this play was written in 1938 the meaning behind this statement is strong throughout time, it establishes the importance of relationships themselves and the level of importance they should take within people’s lives.
Wilder, establishes his central idea of the importance of life in an unconventional way by explaining it through the universal experience of death. For example, at the beginning of the second act the stage manager states “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 cycle” (Wilder, 49) establishing a paradox of life, one that must be lived in order to be truly appreciated.
Moreover, opening the third act the stage manager tells the audience “we all know something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that has something to do with human beings” (Wilder, 87-88) creating the central idea that the things in life don’t matter, but rather the relationships established are what is truly important.
Furthermore, following her death Emily tells Mrs. Gibbs and the rest of the dead, “I’ve never realized before how troubled and how…how in the dark live persons are” (Wilder, 97) which establishes Wilder’s ideal that live people are missing out on living. Additionally, Emily asks “do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute” (Wilder, 108) further establishing that so many people are missing out on their lives instead of appreciating it while they can.
In addition, defeated Emily states “they don’t understand, do they” (Wilder, 111) furthering the strong sense that there is so much life being lived that is simply underappreciated. A literary critic states “Wilder celebrates the intrinsic holiness of ordinary life by presenting a simply story of love, marriage, and death in a totally unadorned fashion” (Berkowitz) throughout this play Wilder uses his simple stage decoration and universal characters to relate with and place a deeper understand upon his audience.
After Emily visits her 12th birthday and realizes that life is not what she expects the stage manager tells her “now you know—that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness” (Wilder, 109). While the stage manager is harshly describing the human existence his harshness is to create a sense of understanding with the audience about the importance of life. Although Wilder’s play opens with the introduction of a small New Hampshire town, Grover’s Corner, this play is not about Grover’s Corner at all, but rather is about the great experience of life.