Can you imagine Our Town as a play in the manner of the nineteenth century? Imagine an educated, interested audience watching the story of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. Threre is a stage in front of them decorated with the façade of two houses, two fences, some flowers, a painted butternut tree. There are two stoves inside the buildings, tables with tableclothes, some kitchen utensils, a hall-stand and so on.
The audience follows the story. They watch Dr. Gibbs chatting with Howie Newsome, the Webbs having breakfast. They see how George and Emily fall in love with one another in Morgan’s drugstore and then they marry. Emily dies and George mourns for his wife while she is talking to other deaths.
Of course this is a speculative question, but do you think people would enjoy that play? It would be rather boring, I think. “The play has no dramatic conflict, there is no significance within the plot. There is nothing special about George and Emily. The whole thing is ordinary and unimportant”, they would probably say – and they would be right.
So why did Our Town win the Pulitzer-Prize? Why was it called the American drama by some critics and why did it become so popular in postwar Germany ?
Because it is not presented in the manner the nineteenth century. The construction of Our Town is totally different from what we call “fourth-wall stage”. The play is presented in a (at that time) new way: It is a narrative drama. As the form of such a drama gives new possibilities to potray a story, Our Town is far more than just its plot. The main emphasis of the meaning moves away from the plot towards the form.
The epic aspects of Our Town and its effects on the interpretation will be the topic of this essay.
The first astonishing thing for the audience about Our Town is the arrangement of the stage. There is almost no scenery. Just two tables and three chairs next to each of them. Concrete objects (houses, stoves, windows, bags) are merely indicated or just to be imagined; the flowers in the families’ gardens (I, p. 8) are even just mentioned by the stage director. Since these things are not arranged in a certain way but meant to become shaped in the minds of the audience, they lose individuality. At the same time people watching the play notice that this unconvetional scenery has to mean something. When the scenery is mostly imaginary, there is no way to experience the story as just a story. The illusion of reality portrayed on a stage cannot be maintained any more. Besides the effect that the audience is not deflected by a lavish scenery, the need to imagine it creates a certain generalizing picture. That means: the lacking concretness of objects makes the things happening on stage become universal.
Far more important than the curious scenery is the stage manager. Following the stage directions he has to wait for the arriving audience on stage (I, 5). Then he introduces the play, the actors and soberly gives some information about Grover’s Corners. He mentiones the day the play begins (May, 7, 1901, I, 6). The stage manager gives introducing information which usually are given in a paper handed out in the theater and the audience expect the stage manager to leave the stage and the play to begin. But after a sign (a rooster’s crow) actually the play begins and the stage manager is still part of it (I, 6). Now he transforms into a narrator. He describes the town, tells where Main Street is, where the several churches lie, the Town Hall, the schools and so on. Like a narrator the stage manager tries to create pictures in people’s minds, he invites the audience to pretend to be in Grovers Corner’s because he does not just say “Grover’s Corners has a Main Street, the Baptist Church is by the river, Town Hall and Post Office are combined,...”. He uses words like “Up here – is Main Street”, “Over there is the Congregational Church”, “Along here’s a row of stores” (all I, 6,7) and he points to the imaginary parts of Grover’s Corners. The stage manager also addresses the audience, he really talks to them: “Well, I’d better show you how our town lies.” (I, 6). These words make clear that the stage manager considers himself as part of the town as well. The audience must feel like a group of tourist listening to a guide introducing his town.
So only in the first minutes of the play the stage manager has three different functions: He is an announcer, a narrator and – of course – an actor. This beginning does not admit to watch Our Town like an “usual” play. The illusion of reality is destoyed right at the beginning.
In act one the stage manager also directs the play. He interfers within dialogues (I, 11) and cuts them off (I, 21). He gives some additional information about the factory of Grover’s Corners (I, 15, 16). It seems that he has a certain overview about everything. The stage manager is omniscient, too. As a narrator he tells a story that has happened, a story from the past. Our Town starts in 1901 and when the stage manager introduces Dr. Gibbs he tells that he died in 1930, that his wife died before him (I, 9). When Dr. Gibbs chats with Joe Crowell Jr., the paper boy, the stage manager interfers and tells what has happened (that means – from Joe’s pint of view – what is going to happen) with him: He became a successful student and died in France in the Great War (I, 12). That gives the impression that the audience is not watching something happening but something that has happened.
 cp. Eva-Maria König, epilogue in: Thornton Wilder, Our Town. A play in three acts, ed. Eva-Maria König (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2001) 105.
 Thornton Wilder, Our Town. A play in three acts, ed. Eva-Maria König (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2001). All following page references in the text concern this edition.
 The function of the stage director will be discussed later.
 cp. Hermann Stresau, Thornton Wilder (New York: Frederick Ungar Publ. Co., 1971) 61.
- Quote paper
- Florian Burkhardt (Author), 2004, Some Thoughts on the Construction of 'Our Town' (Thornton Wilder), Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/46352