Finding universality in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

24 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Dörte Ridder (Author)


Table of Contents

I. Introduction
A. Problem Definition
B. Circumscription
C. Selection Criteria
D. Research Method
E. Research Criteria
F. Research Report
G. Structure

II. Development
A. Rezeptionsgeschichte
1. Pre-War-Period
2. Post-War-Period
3. Cold-War-Period
4. Period of Sociocultural Upheaval
5. Globalization-Period
B. The Creation of Universality in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town
1. Ordinary Life
2. Birth-Marriage-Death: The Cycle of Life
3. Manipulation of Time
4. Use of Numerals

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography
A. Primary Sources
B. Secondary Sources

I. Introduction

A. Problem Definition

“The human adventure is much the same in all times and at all places.”[1]

The quotation above can be interpreted as proof of Thornton Wilder’s claim of universality in his drama Our Town. Nevertheless, at all times many have voiced their doubts about the existence of universality in Wilder’s dramas. In order to contribute to solving this problem this paper will try to find evidence proving the existence of universality.

B. Circumscription

In order to analyze the concept of universality in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the primary focus will be on how people from its first staging until now have reviewed the play and how far their different viewpoints show an existing universality.

C. Selection Criteria of the texts

Essential for this paper are, apart from Thornton Wilder’s drama Our Town, several reviews from different historical periods. Since the drama has always been staged quite frequently, the range of reviews, accordingly, has always been wide. This paper will focus mainly on American and German reviews and reference will be made to reviews from other countries only where it seems necessary for explanatory reasons. Where accessible, original reviews have been chosen, but in some cases the use of comprehensive review surveys has been necessary.

Beside these reviews several monographs and essays dealing with Our Town are of importance for this paper.

D. Research Method

The chosen approach for this paper is primarily based on reception aesthetics, in as much as it will show the Rezeptionsgeschichte of Our Town and how far the aesthetic norms and expectations have changed over the decades.

The German literary historian Hans Robert Jauß, who coined the term reception aesthetics (Rezeptionsästhetik) in 1970, remarks that by ‘seeing the history of literature against an existing horizon of expectations between work and audience, the contrast of its aesthetic and historical aspect is constantly imparted and leads to the temporary experience of the fiction. The meaning of a work will thus change as such horizons shift.’[2]

As the Rezeptionsgeschichte in this paper mainly serves as a means to explore the universality of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the term and idea behind this concept of universality will briefly be examined: In 1938 the idea of universality as an organizational principle occurred in a literary work for the first time, namely in Our Town. ‘But the concept of universality can be traced back to the Greeks. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) defined the concept of universality in terms of space and colonization.’[3] As this idea gained ground, it was adopted in many fields and is nowadays applied to politics, religion, and philosophy of law. ‘They all have in common a similar principle, where all phenomena can be grouped and applied equally across the whole spectrum of space and time, at all scales and epochs of the universe.’[4]

E. Research Criteria

The first criterion to be examined in this paper will be the variability in the reviews of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the course of five different periods of history. Based on the previously gained understanding through research, universal aspects in the drama itself will also be demonstrated.

F. Research Report

Not until 1961, two decades after Our Town was written, did the publication of treatises commence with Rex Burbank’s work on Thornton Wilder.[5] In the following years several portrayals of Wilder’s life and work, both in English and German, were published by Goldstein,[6] Kuner,[7] Papajewski[8] and Haberman.[9] Whereas all of these monographs support the idea that Our Town offers more than a description of small town life, none of them elaborates on the concept of universality. The first, and to date only, single thorough preoccupation with the subject of universality occurred with Nimax’s publication in 1983.[10] He expands on the connection between Wilder’s essayistic writings and his dramas and novels from 1938 onwards.

Regarding the Rezeptionsgeschichte of Our Town, various studies were published from the beginning of its staging. Interestingly the most complex synopsis can be found in the German-speaking area with the works of Frenz[11] and Oppel.[12] As a result of Our Town’s popularity reviews from all decades can be found in archives of newspapers and journals.

Notwithstanding this range of reviews, critics either concentrated on reviewing one period, or they reviewed Our Town since its staging, but did not concentrate on the relation between the play against the socio-cultural backdrop of its period and the aspect of universality.

G. Structure

According to the paper’s first research criterion, the first part will examine reviews of Our Town from different historical and political times. Reviews from the pre-war-period, the post-war-period, the cold-war-period, the period of sociocultural upheaval (beginning with the sixties) and the globalization period (here: since 1989) will be closely examined. Proceeding from the accounts of those reviews inquiries into why reviewers might have seen Our Town the way they did will be undertaken, subject to the historical, political and social background. This will lead to a closer understanding of people’s viewpoint at their specific time.

The second part of this paper will deal with different aspects of universality in Our Town, in order to show that Thornton Wilder obviously aimed at creating the perception of universality.

The structure is meant to provide the framework encompassing the examination of universality from the addressee’s and the author’s point of view.

II. Development

“There is possibly not a night in any year when ‘Our Town’ is not being played somewhere in the Western world, often in a dozen towns at once, with the audience in each feeling that it was written especially for them.”[13]

A. Rezeptionsgeschichte

1. Pre-War-Period

When Our Town had its debut in 1938, critics were not uniformly enthusiastic about the drama. After all, Wilder had written anything but a conventional play with a stage bare of scenery and a stage manager guiding the action.

But apart from positive and negative feedback about the new theatrical experience, reviewers praised the play for its message. In the Washington Post it was hailed as “the intimate story of all who are born, live and die in the friendly relationship that so completely unravel the tangled problems of a complex and jangled world.”[14] As Bell states Our Town was regarded as demonstrating the “homely fundamentals of sound human living”[15] that stood in sharp contrast to the then political situation. At the beginning of 1938 people had just recovered from the Great Depression and yearned for a period of stability that was threatened by the menace of a new war. Our Town was therefore often analyzed as offering a comfort, “since it reiterated the enduring values of the human spirit at a time when Europe was perched on the edge of a volcanic eruption and a new barbarism was sweeping the world, Our Town, with its faith and affirmation, touched almost everyone.”[16] As the play’s values were seen as those of the ideal American small town in the stable, pre-internationalized period before the First World War, reviews often showed that people associated this play with the wish to return to the happy days of the beginning of the century: “many people in the audience were fortunate to have lived during the years embraced in the play.”[17] The reason why this nostalgic affirmation of the past occurred becomes obvious in the explanation by some critics that everyone can identify with such a typical American town. Stark Young interpreted the play as “a kind of factual reverie.”[18] It did not show so much the real town as it existed at this time but the picture that comes up in the people’s dreams. And again the interconnectedness of drama and the audience could be observed. Goldstein expresses this as follows: “Since the entire spectrum of political opinion from far-right isolationism to far-left interventionism wished to encourage representations of ‘grass-roots America’ in the arts, the play won general favor.”[19]

The approaching war in Europe lead to different receptions. German audiences did not get a chance to see it and in Rome it was performed against the will of Italian politicians. In both countries it was criticized as an anti-Fascist play.[20] In the Scandinavian countries, as well as in Romania, the play was successfully staged and the fact that it was already translated into several languages shows its popularity from the beginning onwards.

Although Our Town obviously moved audiences, some critics had reservations. They attacked Wilder as a shallow optimist, out of touch with the dark realities of American life today: “It presents a false picture, …, because it contains none of the ugliness of small-town life in America as it exists.”[21] These critics argued that Wilder was not sufficiently attuned to the problems of his day, that by setting his play in remote times and places, he was ignoring the past. Robert Benchley expressed this perception with the words: “so much ersatz.”[22] Other critics complained that the play was overly sentimental or lacked depth of character and meaning: “The perspective is, to be sure, hazardous: it invites bathos and sententiousness.”[23]

However, there were already those who were able to detach the play from its past or present message and apply it to the sphere of timeless, universally applicable human experience: “Mr. Wilder, by observing a New England village, touches the common denominator of American life and expands the family album into a history of the world … to capture a glimpse of all living within its microcosm.”[24]


[1] Thornton Wilder, “Thoughts for Our Times,” Harvard Alumni Bulletin LIII (1951): 781.

[2] Hans Robert Jauß, „Literaturgeschichte als Provokation der Literaturwissenschaft,“Texte zur Literaturtheorie der Gegenwart, eds. Dorothee Kimmich, Rolf Günter Renner, Bernd Stiegler (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1996) 43-44.

[3] Samuel Vinay, “Globalization and Theological Education,” Transformation, 14 Feb. 2005, <>.

[4] Eugene Wigner, “Gravity Driven Cosmological Evolution and the Origin of Life,” 14 Feb. 2005, <>.

[5] Rex Burbank, Thornton Wilder (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961).

[6] Malcolm Goldstein, The Art of Thornton Wilder (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).

[7] Mildred C. Kuner, Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972).

[8] Helmut Papajewski, Thornton Wilder (Frankfurt am Main: Athenäum Verlag, 1961).

[9] Donald Haberman, The Plays of Thornton Wilder: A Critical Study (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967).

[10] Manfred Nimax, >Jederzeit und allerorts<: Universalität im Werk von Thornton Wilder (Frankfurt am Main: Haag und Herchen, 1983).

[11] Horst Frenz, “The Reception of Thornton Wilder’s Plays In Germany,” Modern Drama III (1960): 125.

[12] Horst Oppel, “Thornton Wilder in Deutschland: Wirkung und Wertung seines Werkes im deutschen Sprachraum,” Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, Jahrgang 1976/77, Nr. 3 (Wiesbaden: Steiner Verlag, 1977).

[13] Malcolm Cowley, “The Man Who Abolished Time,” Saturday Review 6 Oct. 1956: 50.

[14] Nelson B. Bell, “‘ Our Town ’ Is Master Drama Of the Year,” rev. of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, The Washington Post 13 Dec. 1938: 12.

[15] Bell 12.

[16] Kuner 21.

[17] Bell 12.

[18] Stark Young, “Place and Time,” rev. of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder , The New Republic 23 Feb. 1938: 74.

[19] Goldstein 17.

[20] Compare: Claus Clüver, Thornton Wilder und André Obey: Untersuchungen zum modernen epischen Theater (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1978) 129.

[21] Qtd. in: Thomas Siebold, Our Town (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000) 111.

[22] Qtd. in: Charles Getchell, Benchley at the Theatre: Dramatic Criticism, 1920-1940 (Ipswich, MA: Ipswich Press, 1985) 47.

[23] Qtd. in: Linda Simon, Thornton Wilder. His World (New York: Doubleday&Company, 1979) 139.

[24] Brooks Anderson, “This Year’s Theater,” rev. of Our Town, by Thornton Wilder , The Saturday Review of Literature 2 Apr. 1938: 1.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Finding universality in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town"
University of Münster  (Englisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar: Modern American Drama
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Dörte Ridder (Author), 2005, Finding universality in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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