NEA Big Read

Our Town

Back to Archive

Our Town

By Thornton Wilder (1938)

"It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.” —Wilder on Our Town

Overview

To know a book, you have only to read it closely. But to know a writer, one book is almost never enough. This is certainly true of Thornton Wilder. At first glance, his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and his play Our Town may appear to have little in common. One is about the search for meaning after a fatal bridge collapse in Peru, the other about life in a small New Hampshire town. Only after contemplating these timeless stories side by side do we begin to discover the signature they share: an appreciation for life’s preciousness in the shadow of eternity.

Introduction to the Book

By Tappan Wilder

Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927) and his stage drama Our Town (1938) have enjoyed enormous success since the moment they first appeared. Both won Pulitzer Prizes, and neither has ever been out of print. Because they have been widely read or performed abroad, this novel and play are not only American classics but classics of world literature as well. They are so well known, in fact, that we easily take them for granted. Whether you are rediscovering Wilder’s work or entering his world for the first time, you are joining thousands of his readers in exploring the fundamental meaning of human existence.

At first glance, these two stories may appear to be worlds apart. Our Town is set between 1901 and 1913 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, a community that has produced nobody very “important.” Wilder wrote that his subject was “the trivial details of human life in reference to a vast perspective of time, of social history and of religious ideas.” He was, he told us in an early preface to the play, presenting “the life of a village against the life of the stars.”

As Emily and others reflect on the meaning of their lives in their town, we may see our own experiences more clearly, wherever we live.

There is nothing ordinary about the backdrop of Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, or the characters in his story. The novel is set in Lima, Peru, in the golden age of the 18th-century Spanish colonial empire. Among the exotic cast of characters are the greatest actress of the age, a drunken Marquesa who can’t stop writing letters, an obsessed Harlequin named Uncle Pio, identical twins with a private language, and a legendary ship captain. Nor does the novel lack drama, starting with the very first sentence: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”

As different as these two works are in form and setting, they pose the same enduring questions that Wilder explored throughout his writing career—often employing death as the window to life. He could well have written of The Bridge of San Luis Rey as he wrote of Our Town: “It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.”

Our Town

The fame and wealth that Thornton Wilder received from his fiction—especially The Bridge of San Luis Rey—allowed him to return his attention to his first love, theater.

During his years of writing novels, he experimented with one-acts such as The Long Christmas Dinner, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, and Pullman Car Hiawatha—all plays that embody some of the themes and techniques in Our Town. His full-length play The Trumpet Shall Sound was produced off-Broadway in 1926, and by the 1930s, he had turned his attention to play translations such as Lucrèce (1932) and adaptations such as A Doll’s House (1937).

On January 22, 1938, the first performance of Our Town took place at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. The first New York performance occurred less than two weeks later, a now-famous production at the Henry Miller Theatre directed by Jed Harris. Now, more than seventy years later, it is said that a production of Our Town is performed somewhere in the world every night.

What is so special about Our Town, a play often heralded as the great American drama, and which made Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, an internationally famous address?

“Our Town” is Anytown, U.S.A., but it is not in any way a historical reflection of small-town life. The townspeople know many pleasures: seeing the sun rise over the mountain, noticing the birds, watching for the change of seasons. Wilder himself said that the play "is not offered as a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or as a speculation about conditions of life after death...It is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life.”

The audience encounters these events through the point of view of the Stage Manager—a character in the play who functions as the narrator and a sympathetic director. While he sometimes talks directly to the actors, he maintains his distance. Most of his lines are delivered as an address to the audience. He freely says they are watching a play written so “people a thousand years from now” will know that “this is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

The opening stage directions are clear and radical, especially for 1938: “No curtain. No scenery.” The costumes are simple; the lighting instructions, complex. The three acts mostly follow two characters, Emily Webb and George Gibbs, who go to school together in Act I, marry in Act II, and experience tragedy in Act III.

Our Town marked the beginning of Wilder’s success in the dramatic arts. He would go on to win his second Pulitzer Prize in drama for The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), and write The Matchmaker (1955)—which would later bring him even more renown when it became the musical Hello, Dolly! (1964). But perhaps the sometimes overlooked complexity of Our Town keeps audiences mesmerized year after year. In Emily's final epiphany—wisdom she has learned through suffering—we seem to hear Thornton Wilder's voice speak to us: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

Major Characters

The Stage Manager is the play’s narrator, who both directs the play and addresses the audience. Always descriptive, sometimes didactic, often funny, he begins the play on May 7, 1901, and ends it twelve years later in the summer of 1913.

The Webb Family

Mr. Webb is the publisher and editor of the town newspaper, the Grover’s Corners Sentinel.

Mrs. Webb’s dour demeanor contrasts with her beautiful garden of sunflowers and her maternal devotion.

Emily, the brightest girl in Grover’s Corners, dreams of living an extraordinary life. In Act II, she marries George Gibbs after realizing that his opinion means more to her than anyone else’s.

Wally, the Webb’s youngest child, dies after his appendix bursts while on a Boy scout camping trip.

The Gibbs Family

Dr. Gibbs is the town doctor. He will die in 1930; the new hospital will be named after him.

Mrs. Gibbs, Dr. Gibbs’s wife, dies from pneumonia during a visit to Ohio.

Even as a teenager, George Gibbs wants to be a farmer and marry Emily.

Rebecca Gibbs, George’s older sister, marries and leaves Grover’s Corners for Ohio.

Other Townspeople

When the play begins, Joe Crowell is the town’s 11-year-old newsboy. He later gets a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Simon Stimson, the organist at church who secretly drinks too much, “has seen a pack of trouble.”

001-Wilder.png

Man seated holding a straw hat in his hand.

Thornton Wilder in the role of George Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth. Photo courtesy of Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)

Thornton Niven Wilder is the only writer to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction (The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1928) and drama (Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our Teeth in 1943).

Born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1897, Wilder was the son of Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Niven Wilder. Amos Wilder was a man of intellect and ambition. Having earned a PhD from Yale University in political economy, Amos became a well-known public speaker and the owner and editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Amos consul general in Hong Kong, and again in 1909 in Shanghai. While Amos directed his children’s education, Isabella encouraged them to pursue their interests in literature and music. This environment of international education and an appreciation for the arts nurtured all the Wilder children. Wilder’s older brother, Amos Niven, was a biblical scholar, poet, and literary critic; his sister Charlotte a professor and poet; Isabel a successful novelist with training in drama from Yale; and Janet a zoologist and environmentalist.

Isabella Wilder and the children lived in China briefly before settling in Berkeley, California. Thornton attended college at Oberlin College and Yale, after which he studied archaeology at the American Academy in Rome. Before returning to the United States, Wilder spent time in Paris, where he received a telegram from his father: “ HAVE JOB FOR YOU TEACHING NEXT YEAR […] LEARN FRENCH. ” Wilder already knew some French, and improved his skills so he could take a teaching position at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.

Wilder volunteered to serve in both World Wars. During the first, he served as an enlisted man in the Army’s Coast Artillery Corps section, stationed in Newport, Rhode Island. In World War II, he advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel after three years of active duty in North Africa and Italy. His military honors include the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

Education was one of Wilder’s deepest passions. During his time at Lawrenceville, he earned a master’s degree in French literature from Princeton University. Even after the success of The Bridge of San Luis Rey made a day job unnecessary, he continued to teach when interesting opportunities arose. During the 1930s, he taught courses in classics and composition at the University of Chicago and served as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University in 1951-52.

An Interview with Thornton Wilder

For more than 50 years, the Paris Review has published interviews with great writers from around the world. The following is excerpted from an interview with Thornton Wilder that appeared in the winter 1956 issue.

Paris Review: Do you feel that you were born in a place and at a time, and to a family all of which combined favorably to shape you for what you were to do?

Thornton Wilder: Comparisons of one’s lot with others’ teaches us nothing and enfeebles the will. […] Everyone is born with an array of handicaps—even Mozart, even Sophocles—and acquires new ones. In a famous passage, Shakespeare ruefully complains that he was not endowed with another writer’s “scope”! We are all equally distant from the sun, but we all have a share in it.

PR: Would you say the same tendencies that produced the novelist produced the dramatist?

TW: I think so, but in stating them I find myself involved in a paradox. A dramatist is one who believes that the pure event, an action involving human beings, is more arresting than any comment that can be made upon it. On the stage it is always now: the personages are standing on that razor edge, between the past and the future, which is the essential character of conscious being; the words are rising to their lips in immediate spontaneity. A novel is what took place; no self-effacement on the part of the narrator can hide the fact that we hear his voice recounting, recalling events that are past and over, and which he has selected—from uncountable others—to lay before us from his presiding intelligence. […] The theater is supremely fitted to say: “Behold! These things are.” Yet most dramatists employ it to say: “This moral truth can be learned from beholding this action.”

PR: Is your implication, then, that drama should be art for art’s sake?

TW: Experience for experience’s sake—rather than for moral improvement’s sake. When we say that Vermeer’s Girl Making Lace is a work of art for art’s sake, we are not saying anything contemptuous about it. I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. This supremacy of the theater derives from the fact that it is always now on the stage.

PR: Someone has said [. . . ] that a writer deals with only one or two ideas throughout his work. Would you say your work reflects those one or two ideas?

TW: Yes, I think so. I have become aware of it myself only recently. Those ideas seem to have prompted my work before I realized it. Now, at my age, I am amused by the circumstance that what is now conscious with me was for a long time latent. One of those ideas is this: an unresting preoccupation with the surprise of the gulf between each tiny occasion of the daily life and the vast stretches of time and place in which every individual plays his role. By that I mean the absurdity of any single person’s claim to the importance of his saying, “I love!” “I suffer!” when one thinks of the background of the billions who have lived and died, who are living and dying, and presumably will live and die. [. . . ]

This preoccupation came out in my work before I realized it. Even Our Town, which I now see is filled with it, was not so consciously directed by me at the time. At first glance, the play appears to be practically a genre study of a village in New Hampshire. On second glance, it appears to be a meditation about the difficulty of, as the play says, “realizing life while you live it.”

PR: Mr. Wilder, why do you write?

TW: I think I write in order to discover on my shelf a new book that I would enjoy reading, or to see a new play that would engross me.

PR: Is there some final statement you would wish to make about the novel?

TW: […] Gertrude Stein once said laughingly that writing is merely “telling what you know.” Well, that telling is as difficult an exercise in technique as it is in honesty, but it should emerge as immediately, as spontaneously, as undeliberately as possible.

  1. How is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, like or unlike the town where you grew up?
  2. In Act I, the Stage Manager mentions that a new bank is being built in Grover’s Corners, and things will be put in the cornerstone for people to “dig up a thousand years from now.” What objects do they put in it? What would you put in a time capsule?
  3. In Act I, Emily’s successful speech at school on the Louisiana Purchase encourages her dreams of greatness, and she tells her mother that she “wants to make speeches all [her] life.” How is that goal realized? How is it not?
  4. In Act II, the Stage Manager focuses on love and marriage. Why does he choose to show one particular conversation between Emily and George? What does it reveal about their relationship? What might this suggest about love?
  5. Discuss the portrayal of marriage in Our Town. Compare the marriages between Mr. and Mrs. Webb and Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs. What does Mrs. Webb mean when she says that sending girls into marriage is “cruel”?
  6. If you were in charge of the play’s lighting, how would you direct Emily’s return to Grover’s Corners in Act III—as a realistic scene, or as a dream?
  7. Simon Stimson opines in Act III, “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance . . . To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
  8. How would you answer Emily’s question: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
  9. If you could revisit one “ordinary day” from your past, which would it be?
  10. Our Town accelerates time, looking back and forward at major events while also describing what happens in mundane, daily life. What might Wilder be suggesting by this?