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Our Town

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Our Town

Our Town

Our Town from Thornton Wilder is probably that playwright's most famous play, and is certainly one of his best. Written with a lucidity and belief in the human spirit that is highly commendable, Our Town takes a moral stance against vacuity, and pleads with us to make a difference in our lives. Despite its commonplace setting, the play is was staged in a very progressive manner--giving up Realism for Minimalism, and focusing the audience's attention on the actions of the characters, rather than the unnecessary fripperies of set, costume and effects.
Overview: Our Town

Our Town opens with a monologue by the stage manager, who speaks directly to the audience, and will be our guide for the evening's entertainment. He introduces us to a small town called Grover's Corner, and on stage we see numerous characters going about their daily business.

We are particularly taken with two young people--George Gibbs and Emily Webb--who are at the beginning of a blossoming romance. Emily talks to her mother about her new beau, who she is started to have feelings for, and we are then led into a choir practice taking by a drunken and cynical music teacher Simon Stimson.

As the first act comes to a close Emily and George are sitting and their respective windows, and Emily wonders about the importance of their small town in the enormity of the world, the universe and, finally, the mind of God.

The second act takes us forward three years to the day of Emily and George's wedding in which the very normal and everyday activities are in full swing; the desperate attempts to keep the bride and groom apart, the awkward conversations between the father of the bride and his new son in law, the feeling of elation on the part of the bride’s mother. After a brief flashback, in which we understand how Emily and George finally expressed their love (and how George gave up his college dreams to stay in Grover's Corner with Emily), the second act ends with the couple very much in love.
A Simple Life?: Our Town

In the final act, most of the townspeople are at the graveyard for Emily's funeral (she died giving birth). Along with the living are sat the dead, who watch over the world, cynical and detached. Emily is led into this world by the stage manager, and is assured that she too will learn to see the world as a passing shadow. However, despite the dead's advice, Emily decides to go back and live part of her life. She returns to when she was twelve years old.

It is her birthday, and the world is passing much as it did in the first act. However, in her new state, Emily realizes how beautiful this simplicity is. She is saddened by the way that the living don't truly understand the beauty of the world and their lives. Our Town ends on that tone of sadness.

Meaning: Our Town

The central message of Our Town is the power and simplicity of ordinary life, and the way that we can take our lives for granted whilst we are living them. In the first acts, not a lot happens, and an audience member could be forgiven for wondering precisely what the play is about. Despite the seeming everyday nature of the first two acts, Thornton Wilder manages to make dramatic capital out of his very ordinary material.

Far from trying to make Our Town fantastic and unusual, Thornton plays upon the simplicity of his setting. In so doing, he helps his audience to understand that it is in this simplicity that we find goodness, beauty and truth.
That is not to say that Our Town is particularly a feel-good play. As the lights fade out on the stage for the final time, we are left with Emily's final words, "They don’t understand." The suggestion is that we cannot truly understand the beauty (and transience) of our world until it, or we, have gone. Our Town is a beautifully written play, with a beautiful message. In all the complexity of our modern-day world, we couldn't ask more from a play than that.

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