Our Town is a 1938 metatheatrical three-act play by American playwright Thornton Wilder. It tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover's Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.
1938 first edition cover from the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division
|Written by||Thornton Wilder|
Mrs. Myrtle Webb
Mr. Charles Webb
Joe Crowell Jr.
Mrs. Julia Gibbs
Dr. Frank F. Gibbs
Woman in the Balcony
Man in the Auditorium
Lady in the Box
Three Baseball Players
|Date premiered||January 22, 1938|
|Place premiered||McCarter Theatre|
Princeton, New Jersey
|Subject||Life and death in an American small town|
|Setting||1901 to 1913. Grover's Corners, New Hampshire near Massachusetts.|
Throughout, 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.
Our Town was first performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey in 1938. It later went on to success on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It remains popular today and revivals are frequent.
Act I: Daily Life
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. Professor Willard speaks to the audience about the history of the town. 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.
Act II: Love and Marriage
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 they 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.
Act III: Death and Eternity
Nine years have passed. The Stage Manager opens the act with a lengthy monologue emphasizing eternity, bringing the audience's attention to the cemetery outside of town and the characters 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.
- Stage Manager – a narrator, commentator, and guide through Grover's Corners. He joins in the action of the play periodically, as the minister at the wedding, the soda shop owner, a local townsman, etc., and speaks directly to Emily after her death.
- Emily Webb – one of the main characters; we follow her from a precocious young girl through her wedding to George Gibbs and her early death.
- George Gibbs – the other main character; the boy next door, a kind but irresponsible teenager who matures over time and becomes a responsible husband, father and farmer.
- Frank Gibbs – George's father, the town doctor.
- Julia (Hersey) Gibbs – George's mother. She dreams of going to Paris but doesn't get there. She saved $350 for the trip from the sale of an antique furniture piece but willed it to George and Emily. Dies while visiting her daughter in Ohio.
- Charles Webb – Emily's father, Editor of the Grover's Corners Sentinel
- Myrtle Webb – Emily and Wally's mother.
- Joe and Si Crowell – local paperboys. Joe's intelligence earns him a full scholarship to MIT where he graduates at the top of his class. His promise will be cut short on the fields of France during World War I, according to the Stage Manager. Both he and his brother Si hold marriage in high disdain.
- Simon Stimson – the choir director and church organist. We never learn the specific cause of his alcoholism and suicide, although Joe Stoddard, the undertaker, observes that "He's seen a peck of troubles." He remains bitter and cynical even beyond the grave.
- Howie Newsome – the milkman, a fixture of Grover's Corners.
- Rebecca Gibbs – George's younger sister. Later elopes with a traveling salesman and settles in Ohio.
- Wallace "Wally" Webb – Emily's younger brother. Dies of a burst appendix on a Boy Scout camping trip.
- Professor Willard – a rather long-winded lecturer
- Woman in the Balcony – attendee of Editor Webb's political and social report - concerned with temperance
- Belligerent Man at Back of Auditorium – attendee of Editor Webb's political and social report - concerned with social justice
- Lady in a Box – attendee of Editor Webb's political and social report - concerned with culture and beauty
- Mrs. Louella Soames – a gossipy townswoman and member of the choir
- Constable Bill Warren – the policeman
- Three Baseball Players – who mock George at the wedding
- Joe Stoddard – the undertaker
- Sam Craig – a nephew of Mrs Gibbs who left town to seek his fortune. He came back after 12 years in Buffalo for Emily's funeral.
- Man from among the Dead
- Woman from among the Dead
- Mr. Carter (Dead)
- Farmer McCarty
- Bessie – Howie Newsome's horse (visible to the characters, but not the audience)
Wilder wrote the play while in his 30s. In June 1937, he lived 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.
The play is set in the actual theatre where the play is being performed, but the year is always 1938. The Stage Manager of the 1938 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).
Wilder was dissatisfied with the theatre of his time: "I felt that something had gone wrong....I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive." His response was to use a metatheatrical style. Our Town's narrator, the Stage Manager, is completely aware of his relationship with the audience, leaving him free to break the fourth wall and address them directly. According to the script, the play is to be performed with little scenery, no set and minimal props. 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 once said: "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in 'scenery.' "
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."
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 and Martha Scott as Emily.
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 starred as "The 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 that opened on December 4, 2002 after three previews and ran until January 26, 2003; this 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.
- Our Town was first performed on radio May 12, 1939, on The Campbell Playhouse. The cast included Orson Welles as the Stage Manager, John Craven of the original stage production as George Gibbs, and Patricia Newton as Emily Webb.
- Our Town (1940 film), adaptation starring Martha Scott as Emily and William Holden as George Gibbs, with an original music score composed by Aaron Copland. Many members of the original cast repeated their roles in this film, although the ending was changed so that Emily lived.
- Our Town (1940 radio), on May 6, 1940, a radio version was performed by many of the same film actors for Lux Radio Theater.
- Our Town (1946 radio), on September 29, 1946, a radio version was performed on the Theatre Guild on the Air featuring Thornton Wilder himself as the Stage Manager and Dorothy McGuire as Emily.
- Our Town (television), a live musical 1955 television adaptation on Producers' Showcase starring Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager, Paul Newman as George Gibbs, and Eva Marie Saint as Emily. The first and only musical version of the play to be telecast.
- Our Town, a 1977 television adaptation of the play, starring Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager, Robby Benson as George Gibbs and Glynnis O'Connor as Emily Webb.
- Grover's Corners, a 1987 musical adaptation performed at the Marriott Theatre.
- Our Town, a 1989 telecast of a Lincoln Center stage production starring Spalding Gray, Frances Conroy, Penelope Ann Miller, and Eric Stoltz
- OT: Our Town, a 2002 documentary by Scott Hamilton Kennedy about a production of the play by Dominguez High School in Compton, California
- Our Town, a 2003 television film adaptation starring Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. It was shown on PBS as part of Masterpiece Theatre after first being shown on the cable channel Showtime. It was filmed at the Booth Theatre in Manhattan, where it played on Broadway in 2002.
- Our Town (opera), an operatic version of the play with music by Ned Rorem
- In 1994, Philip Jerry choreographed a balletic adaptation set to the music of Aaron Copland and has been performed by the American Repertory Ballet in Princeton, New Jersey in the decades since its premiere.
- "Our Town: A History". pbs.org. Retrieved February 21, 2015.
- Steward, Samuel; Gertrude Stein; Alice B. Toklas (1977). Dear Sammy: Letters from Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas. Houghton Mifflin. p. 32. ISBN 0-395-25340-3.
- Wilder, Thornton. Thornton Wilder, Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. Preface.
- Lumley, Frederick (1967). New Trends in 20th Century Drama: A Survey since Ibsen and Shaw. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 333. OCLC 330001.
- "Our Town". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
- The Pulitzer Board (1938). "Pulitzer Prize Winners of 1938". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
- "Play 'Our Town' is Banned in Soviet Berlin Sector", Christian Science Monitor, Feb 13, 1946, p. 13.
- "Our Town". Playbill.com. Archived from the original on 2010-09-18. Retrieved 2010-12-12.
- "Our Town". pasadenaplayhouse.org.
- (tsalagicelt) (30 May 1977). "Our Town (TV Movie 1977)". IMDb.
- W. Jones. ""Great Performances" Our Town (TV Episode 1989)". IMDb.
- "Paul Newman". Television Academy. Retrieved October 21, 2015.
- "Our Town". americanrepertoryballet.org.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Our Town.|
- Our Town at the Internet Broadway Database
- Our Town Teaching and Reading Educational Materials; by The Thornton Wilder Society
- Dramatic and Theatrical Aspects in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”
- Cummings Study Guide of Our Town
- Our Town 1940 film; free download at archive.org
- Our Town Plot Summary and Critical Analysis; by The Thornton Wilder Society
- Documentary Video on the legacy of Our Town; by The Thornton Wilder Society