|January 22, 1938
Princeton, New Jersey
|Life and death in an American small town
|1901 to 1913. Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, near Massachusetts.
Our Town is a three-act play created by American playwright Thornton Wilder in 1938. Described by Edward Albee as "the greatest American play ever written", it presents the fictional American town of Grover's Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.
Wilder uses metatheatrical devices, setting the play in the actual theatre where it is being performed. The main character is the stage manager of the theatre who directly addresses the audience, brings in guest lecturers, fields questions from the audience, and fills in playing some of the roles. The play is performed without a set on a mostly bare stage. With a few exceptions, the actors mime actions without the use of props.
The first performance of Our Town was at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 22, 1938. It went on to success on Broadway and received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and remains popular today with frequent revivals.
The Stage Manager introduces the audience to the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and the people living there as a morning begins in the year 1901. Joe Crowell delivers the paper to Doc Gibbs, Howie Newsome delivers the milk, and the Webb and Gibbs households send their children (Emily and Wally Webb, George and Rebecca Gibbs) off to school on this beautifully simple morning. Professor Willard speaks to the audience about the history of the town. Editor Webb speaks to the audience about the town's socioeconomic status, political and religious demographics, and the accessibility and proliferation, or lack thereof, of culture and art in Grover's Corners. The Stage Manager leads us through a series of pivotal moments throughout the afternoon and evening, revealing the characters' relationships and challenges.
It is at this time when we are introduced to Simon Stimson, an organist and choir director at the Congregational Church. We learn from Mrs. Louella Soames that Simon Stimson is an alcoholic when she, Mrs. Gibbs, and Mrs. Webb stop on the corner after choir practice and "gossip like a bunch of old hens," according to Doc Gibbs, discussing Simon's alcoholism. It seems to be a well known fact amongst everyone in town that Simon Stimson has a problem with alcohol; all the characters speak to his issue as if they are aware of it and his having "seen a peck of trouble," a phrase repeated by more than one character throughout the show. While the majority of townsfolk choose to "look the other way," including the town policeman, Constable Warren, it is Mrs. Gibbs who takes Simon's struggles with addiction to heart, and has a conversation with her husband, Doc Gibbs, about Simon's drinking.
Underneath a glowing full moon, Act I ends with siblings George and Rebecca, and Emily gazing out of their respective bedroom windows, enjoying the smell of heliotrope in the "wonderful (or terrible) moonlight," with the self-discovery of Emily and George liking each other, and the realization that they are both straining to grow up in their own way.
The audience is dismissed to the first intermission by the Stage Manager who quips, "That's the end of Act I, folks. You can go and smoke, now. Those that smoke."
Three years have passed, and George and Emily prepare to wed. The day is filled with stress. Howie Newsome is delivering milk in the pouring rain while Si Crowell, younger brother of Joe, laments how George's baseball talents will be squandered. George pays an awkward visit to his soon-to-be in-laws. Here, the Stage Manager interrupts the scene and takes the audience back a year, to the end of Emily and George's junior year. Emily confronts George about his pride, and over an ice cream soda, they discuss the future and confess their love for each other. George decides not to go to college, as he had planned, but to work and eventually take over his uncle's farm. In the present, George and Emily say that they are not ready to marry—George to his mother, Emily to her father—but they both calm down and happily go through with the wedding.
Nine years have passed. The Stage Manager, in a lengthy monologue, discusses eternity, focusing attention on the cemetery outside of town and the people who have died since the wedding, including Mrs. Gibbs (pneumonia, while traveling), Wally Webb (burst appendix, while camping), Mrs. Soames, and Simon Stimson (suicide by hanging). Town undertaker Joe Stoddard is introduced, as is a young man named Sam Craig who has returned to Grover's Corners for his cousin's funeral. That cousin is Emily, who died giving birth to her and George's second child. Once the funeral ends, Emily emerges to join the dead. Mrs. Gibbs urges her to forget her life, warning her that being able to see but not interact with her family, all the while knowing what will happen in the future, will cause her too much pain. Ignoring the warnings of Simon, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Gibbs, Emily returns to Earth to relive one day, her 12th birthday. She joyfully watches her parents and some of the people of her childhood for the first time in years, but her joy quickly turns to pain as she realizes how little people appreciate the simple joys of life. The memory proves too painful for her and she realizes that every moment of life should be treasured. When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it, he responds, "No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some." Emily returns to her grave next to Mrs. Gibbs and watches impassively as George kneels weeping over her. The Stage Manager concludes the play and wishes the audience a good night.
Wilder began making notes for the play while he was teaching and lecturing in Chicago in the 1930s. Constantly on the move, he worked on the play wherever he went. In June 1937, he stayed in the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, one of the many locations where he worked on the play. It is believed Wilder drafted the entire third act during a visit to Zürich in September 1937, in one day, after a long evening walk in the rain with a friend, author Samuel Morris Steward.
Wilder explained his vision in writing the play:
"Our Town" is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village or as a speculation about the condition of life after death. . . .It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our life. I have made the claim as preposterous as possible, for I have set the village against the largest dimension of time and place. The recurrent words in this play (few have noticed it) are "hundreds", "thousands", and "millions".
The play is set in the actual theatre where the play is being performed, but the date is always May 7, 1901. The Stage Manager of the May 7, 1901, production introduces the play-within-the-play, which is set in the fictional community of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. The Stage Manager gives the coordinates of Grover's Corners as 42°40′ north latitude and 70°37′ west longitude (those coordinates are actually in Massachusetts, about a thousand feet off the coast of Rockport), and at the beginning of Act III, he mentions several real New Hampshire landmarks in the vicinity: Mt. Monadnock and the towns of Jaffrey, Jaffrey Center, Peterborough, and Dublin.
In Wilder's writing of Our Town, he employed a metatheatrical style. He utilized the Stage Manager role to narrate the story and also to appear as several different characters. The Stage Manager, as the play's "Narrator," creates the story's point of view. The Narrator is supernatural as he is entirely aware of his relationship with the audience; as such it allows him freedom to break the fourth wall and address them directly.
The play's stage direction indicates that the play is to be staged and performed with little scenery, no set, and minimal props. Wilder's reasoning was, "...I tried to restore significance to the small details of life by removing the scenery. The spectator through lending his imagination to the action restages it inside his own head. In its healthiest ages, the theatre has always exhibited the least scenery."
Wilder commented on the sparse stage setting:
Each individual assertion to an absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. And here the method of staging finds its justification–in the first two acts there are at least a few chairs and tables; but when Emily revisits the earth and the kitchen to which she descended on her twelfth birthday, the very chairs and table are gone. Our claim, our hope, our despair is in the mind–not in things, not in "scenery". Moliere said that for the theater all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The climax of this play needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.
The characters mime the objects with which they interact. Their surroundings are created only with chairs, tables, staircases, and ladders. For example, the scene in which Emily helps George with his evening homework, conversing through upstairs windows, is performed with the two actors standing atop separate ladders to represent their neighboring houses.
Wilder called Our Town his favorite out of all his works, but complained that it was rarely done right, insisting that it "should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness—simply, dryly, and sincerely."
Our Town was first performed at McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 22, 1938.
It next opened at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, on January 25, 1938.
The New York City debut of Our Town was on February 4, 1938, at Henry Miller's Theatre and later moved to the Morosco Theatre, where it ran until November 19, 1938; this production was produced and directed by Jed Harris. Wilder received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 for the work. The Jed Harris production of Our Town was revived at New York City Center on January 10, 1944, running for 24 performances until January 29, with Montgomery Clift as George, Martha Scott as Emily, and Thomas W. Ross as Mr. Webb.
In 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave."
Victor Carin directed a production by the Edinburgh Gateway Company in 1965.
Henry Fonda played the Stage Manager in a production that ran on Broadway from Nov 27 to Dec 27, 1969. Elizabeth Hartman played Emily and Harvey Evans played George. Margaret Hamilton and Ed Begley were in the cast.
A production at New York City's Lincoln Center opened on December 4, 1988, after 27 previews, and ran for 136 performances until April 2, 1989; the cast included Spalding Gray as "Stage Manager," Frances Conroy as Mrs. Gibbs, Penelope Ann Miller as Emily, and Eric Stoltz as George. The production was videotaped for broadcast on PBS (see "Adaptations" below).
In 2003, Paul Newman, marking his final stage performance, acted in the role of Stage Manager, with Jayne Atkinson as Mrs. Gibbs and Jane Curtin as Mrs. Webb, in a production staged at New York City's Booth Theatre. It opened on December 4, 2002, after three previews and ran until January 26, 2003. The production was videotaped for broadcast on Showtime and later on PBS (see "Adaptations" below).
An award-winning revival of Our Town opened at the Barrow Street Theatre, in New York City, on February 26, 2009. The production was directed by David Cromer, who also performed the role of Stage Manager for much of the show's run. Upon closing, the production had played four preview and 644 regular performances, making it the longest-running production of the play in its history. In addition to Cromer, other notable actors who performed in the role of Stage Manager included Helen Hunt, Michael McKean, Jason Butler Harner, Stephen Kunken and Michael Shannon.
In 2017, Tony Award-winning Deaf West Theater, a Los Angeles–based theater company, co-produced with the Pasadena Playhouse a production of Our Town performed in American Sign Language and spoken English.
A new revival directed by Kenny Leon is scheduled to open on Broadway in the fall of 2024. Casting, theatre, and specific dates are still to be announced.
Mr. Wilder Discusses Such Matters as Realism, Convention, Even Scenery, in Connection With Grover's Corners