First produced and published in 1938, this Pulitzer Prize--winning drama of life in the small village of Grover's Corners has become an American classic and is Thornton Wilder's most renowned and most frequently performed play.
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Our Town: A play in three acts
This is different. No curtain. No scenery. Immediately, we become aware that the author is changing the structure of the stage to give us something new--no backdrops or major scenery! Thorton Wilder uses what is called a "minimalistic approach" to keep us focused on the issues and themes in the play. He's telling us that the characters and what they do and say are more important than the glitz and glamour of the setting. Although there are a few props, the characters mime most objects, such as cups, bottles of milk, etc. A picture of the stage can be seen below. How does a play without scenery change the way you view things? (This annotation contains an image)
From the beginning of the play it is clear that the stage manager will serve what unique role?
Thorton Wilder grew up in the New Hampshire area. In fact, this town most likely resembles a place where he spent some of his life. It is representative of a small town. The same families have persisted in this area. The shops and businesses are local. Everybody knows everybody else. Have you ever lived or been through a small town? If so, what did you think?
What do the italicized sections of the play represent?
Watch the following video on structure. Then consider the stage manager's comments and how they flash-forward to the far future and tell us the fate of this character. Although the play begins in 1901, the stage manager has, on a few occasions already, told us what will happen. Consider the purpose of these comments that give us a glimpse of the future. Why would he do this? (This annotation contains a video)
Based on the tone the stage manager uses, what can we infer about his feelings about Joe Crowell's death?
The highlighted passage shows the way in which the author has weaved colloquialisms into this play. The following video shows what this concept means, and explains its importance in literature. Be prepared to see questions about how the language the characters use helps the reader make connections. What do you notice about the way Dr. Gibbs speaks here? What does this tell you? (This annotation contains a video)
What does this expression most likely mean?
The action in this scene is unfolding in a unique way between the two families. Explain the structure that is being utilized, and cite evidence from the text to support your response.
What most likely indicates that Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are close friends?
This popular idiom means to say tell somebody something in an indirect way as a way to avoid a touchy subject or shameful topic. The phrase comes from the sport of bird hunting in which the non-shooting men would take sticks and beat the bushes until the birds flew out and the hunters could shoot them down. Because those who beat the bush didn't actually perform that main goal--shooting the bird--this phrase fit well with people who won't just come out and say what they need to say.
As the stage manager interrupts the conversation between Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb, he does so because we heard the important part that he wanted us to hear. The topic that the women were discussing--wanting to travel but feeling stuck in a small town--brings to light an important aspect of this town and these people. Langston Hughes poem, A Dream Deferred, provokes good questions that are related to these women's struggles. Read the following poem as you think about this topic: What happens to a dream deferred? "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore-- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over-- like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"
The way the audience participates in the play (though staged) indicates a very important aspect of this play--the actors do not ignore the audience. The "fourth-wall" as it is referred to in the theatre industry is meant to separate the action on stage from the audience. In this play, however, this traditional concept is challenged as the stage manager engages the audience and even seems to improvise the action and stage directions throughout the play.
In describing a history of their own town, a few townspeople and the stage manager point out a few implied short-comings of a small town. Which of the following is one of them?
Using evidence from the text, what does this phrase most likely mean?
Emily is an intriguing character, and the stage manager lets us overhear this conversation to give us glimpses at a typical theme among young women: their search for purpose. Obviously, Emily is smart. She just finishes telling her mom about how well she did with her speech. But her main concern is whether or not she is pretty enough to find a mate. This contrast between securities and insecurities is often a common flaw in tragic heroes and heroines. In what ways could this attitude cause her problems down the road?
The focus of this play seems to be
What is the mood in the first act of this play?
The following video shows the song that Mr. Webb sings here. Listen to this song and think about the lyrics and how they apply to the people of his town. (This annotation contains a video)
The purpose of this letter being brought up is to highlight an important theme in this story: our relative size in this universe is small compared to the greatness of everything else. However, it is in the smallness of our existence that we must live. The author wants us to think about this as we move forward in the story.
Act I Quiz
Which idiom would best summarize the highlighted sentence?
Thorton Wilder contrasts nature and human life consistently throughout the play. He provides an interesting way to look at what happens over the passage of time. In only a few years, mountains changed by only "a few fractions of an inch" yet many people "fell in love and got married." Look for other ways that the playwright highlights the similarities and differences between the natural world and the human life cycle.
The monotony of life wears down any human soul. How does this statement apply to the text? Use evidence to support your response.
What does this phrase mean?
This phrase is referring to cold feet--the experience that many men have before they get married when they regret giving up their independence and bachelorhood. (This annotation contains an image)
Marriage is a sacred right of passage in every culture. Although there have been various views on when, how, and who to marry, it is a widely held belief that marriage is meant to keep people from going through life alone and to give them someone who becomes a part of them. Consider this passage from the Book of Genesis, that likely shaped the views of the Gibbs and their community: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." The person you marry becomes your lifetime companion. In what way are George's and his parents' views about marriage different?
What can we infer based on George's comment and actions here?
In today's world, Mr. Webb's father's advice would be seen as
The author again quantifies a random fact about marriage--if you stay married to someone over the course of a lifetime, you'll eat +50,000 meals together. This trivia is humorous, but it serves a larger purpose in this text. Why do you think the author includes these random facts?
What was Emily's contention with George about? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
As you might know from other literature that tells stories of small-town places, most people who live in such a town, are not forward or progressive thinking. This includes a strong dislike of new inventions and technology. These people are not backwards, but they have a reluctance to bring on new changes that affect their way of life.
Which of the following is true about the timeline of the narrative in this play?
The sermon told by the minister suggests a Darwinian view of marriage. That is, according to Darwin's theory of evolution, species breed in order to perfect their species. The view of marriage as a sentimental partnership is challenged here by the stage manager acting as a minister. The irony of this sermon is that it contradicts the religious beliefs of the Protestants in this play.
What do George's comments and actions here represent?
Why does the stage manager make us feel so uneasy about the marriage between Emily and George? Use evidence from the text to support your response.
Act II Quiz
Define the word "lugubriousness." Which of the following words is an antonym (the opposite in meaning) of this word?
As expressed earlier in Act II, the stage manager points out that people in this small town are slow to change and adopt new ideas, customs, and technology. Though cars have come into town, he states that not much else has changed. Why are people in small towns less likely to change than in a big city?
Here is a picture of Mt. Washington. The natural scenery in New Hampshire is stunning. Majestic mountains and forests crowd the entire state. (This annotation contains an image)
What does the stage manager suggest about grief?
The stage manager's comments highlight an important theme that is emerging in this act: very few people think about eternity and take the time to reflect about how this changes things. What would you do differently if there were an eternity?
What do the stage directions suggest about Emily?
What do the pithy responses of the dead seem to indicate?
Another theme begins to emerge here: the living are in the dark and spend their days worrying about things that do not matter. This view of humanity is not new. In fact, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, written more than two thousand years ago, brings up a similar view. Watch the video below. What similarities do you see between the stage manager's view and Plato's? (This annotation contains a video)
What is the danger in reliving an important day in your life?
What does this idiom express?
What do most people not do when they are alive?
What does the star most likely symbolize in the context of this conversation?
Act III Quiz