Emotions in Our Town
Thornton Wilder's iconic play Our Town works on several different levels, and understanding these levels is critical to understanding the point of the play. On one level, Our Town is the story of the people in a town and the changes that they undergo at the time. On a second level, Our Town is the story of a town and how it changes over time because of changes in its inhabitants. On a third level, Our Town is the story of the changes, or at least the perceived changes, in American society over the course of the time period covered in the play. When one looks at all three of these levels, it becomes clear that the graveyard scene, in which the stage manager gives an extended soliliquey to the audience, is speaking not only of the death of human beings, but also of the death of ideals, and how that type of transformation takes place. While this scene is powerful in most renditions of Our Town, it becomes even more powerful in the movie, where the iconic stage manager character is played by Paul Newman, himself an icon in American theater. The juxtaposition of that iconic actor with that iconic character highlights the message of Act III, which is that all things die, but that there is something eternal that survives even the most tragic of deaths. This truth remains, whether the death refers to the death of a loved one, such as Emily's death, the death of a town, such as the slow death the audience witnesses of Grover's Corner, or the death of an era, such as the death of the idealize America that is portrayed at the beginning of the play.
The plot of Our Town is basically uncomplicated, which actually differed from much of American theater at that time, which frequently featured convoluted plots with significant amounts of intrigue. This sparse plot is highlighted by the staging instructions, which call for minimal props and sets. What is most fascinating about the movie version of Our Town is that it really strives to capture the feeling of the play. The movie does not feature elaborate sets or plots. Instead, it is as close to a film version of the play as one could imagine. For an audience used to seeing elaborate sets, props, and special effects, this setting might seem distracting, especially because movie adaptations of plays are generally expected to have more elaborate props and scenery than stage productions. Other filmed versions of Our Town have featured more elaborate scenery, just as some stage producers have decided to forego the staging instructions and actually provide the play with more staging. The fact that this movie chose to go with the sparseness of the play relates directly to the Stage Manager's opening soliliquey in Act III. While that will be discussed more in-depth later in this paper, the message talks about the idea of eternity and dismisses the idea that things can be eternal. How could a producer makes this idea more clear than to stage a production in which things are non-existent? Props are absent, but the story is eternal. Therefore, even this decision is pivotal to the telling of the story.
The story opens in May 1901 in Grover's Corners, a New Hampshire town, though it could happen almost anywhere in the United States at that time, as long as the inhabitants of that town were primarily white. The play begins with the routine events of the day, the milkman and paperboy making their deliveries, a doctor delivering babies, housewives making breakfast, and children going off to school. It is meant to be a picture of everyday life in America, and the characters act out this everyday life in typical fashion. However, the stage manager, who could be seen as the omniscient narrator of the tale, can pull people out of their everyday routines. For example, the stage manager asks certain townspeople to come to the stage, where they speak to the audience and even answer questions from actors posed as audience members. In the midst of the everyday routine, the audience meets George Gibbs and Emily Webb, next door neighbors who have a crush on each other. George and Emily represent themselves, but they also represent the idea of American youth; next door neighbors who fall in love with each other, having spent all of their lives together.
The next act opens on George and Emily's wedding day. However, the scene contains a flashback to the kids' last year of high school, where George has become a high school star because of his baseball playing and being class president, and Emily accusses him of becoming stuck up. This altercation leads the two of them to confess their affection for one another, and George decides to stay home in Grover's Corner rather than going away to school. The flashback ends and the characters are married, bringing the audience into their marriage as if guests at a wedding. This scene is interesting, because it shows conflict in growth. George has attained some measure of fame and greatness through his actions, even if that fame is limited to his small town, but he is not encouraged to pursue that behavior. Instead, Emily believes that he has allowed the accolades to change him as a person. Emily very strongly resists that change, and, she is able to convince George to do so as well. He foregoes the future that he has planned for himself and stays in Grover's Corner to marry Emily. In one way, George's staying seems to forestall the town's dying, but, between George and Emily, one sees that George has only delayed his own removal from the vitality of life.
Act III begins about a decade after George and Emily have married, which would place the young people in their late 20s. Instead of a happy home bustling with children and the possibility of a long and fruitful life together, Emily has died in childbirth, leaving George widowed and stricken. The focus of Act III is not on the living inhabitants of the town, but on the dead people in the cemetery. The dead speak, though they do so with an almost clinical detachment from the work of the living. Emily, newly dead, does not have this detachment from the living. She misses life and wants to go back and relive moments of it, convinced that she can recapture the vitality she had when she was alive. Here, the ominiscent and seemingly omnipotent stage manager becomes helpful, because he allows Emily to go back into the past. She relives moments from her past, basically taking the audience back to the beginning of the story, when she was twelve years old, before her marriage to George. She sees the everyday events of the life of the town and has a renewed appreciation for them, most especially for the mundane actions her parents took to make her life better. However, while Emily can appreciate the living and the minutia of their everyday lives, she cannot actually rejoin them. Instead, she is relegated to the status of an observer, which makes her quite unhappy and dissatisfied. Instead of staying to watch the people, she makes the decision to return to the cemetery and join with the dead, instead of questing after life. However, George, still among the living, is seen to be copiously grieving Emily's loss.
Looking at the play at three different levels, it is clear that the third act is meant to discuss death and dying, because it focuses on the death of a main character and reveals the death of the town. Obviously, the events of Act II speak specifically about Emily's death. Emily dies in childbirth and is quite literally no longer part of the inhabitants of Grover's Corner. When she longs to return to life, she cannot. Instead, she can observe life, even her life, but she can no longer be a participant in it. She is shut out of human existence, and learning that, she learns the lesson that the other inhabitants of the cemetery tried to share with her, which is that trying to be among the living is painful for someone who has died. The play makes it clear that it is impossible for Emily to live once she had died. She then decides to step away from life and spend the rest of her time in the cemetery, with its other dead inhabitants.
However, while the play focuses on Emily's physical death, it would be incorrect to label Act III as pessimistic. The Stage Manager gives a lengthy speech in the beginning of the act, setting the stage for the action that is about to transpire. He says:
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth, and it ain't even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is…