It is impossible for modern productions of Our Town to recreate the experience of the first audiences, who walked into the theater to find "an empty stage in half-light," with "no curtain, no scenery." Modern audiences are prepared for the pantomime of Our Town - even if they are unfamiliar with the play, they are familiar with decades of experimental stagecraft that is now de rigueur in major theaters. Our Town no longer shocks.
But in 1938, a bare stage was unexpected and disorienting. Standard at the time was the realistic box-set, pioneered by nineteenth-century theater, which filled the stage with a realistic room, with the fourth wall removed (many plays and most sitcoms still use this technique). The audience sees the set as an exact representation of a particular time and place, a slice of life.
The bare stage was not a new idea. Shakespeare's plays were generally performed on an empty stage at the Globe Theatre, despite the lavish productions that became common in the nineteenth century. Ancient Greek theater used verbal description from the chorus to set the scene, and the Chinese employed placards that gave the location in a few words. Before Our Town, however, most productions that used bare stages did so for budgetary reasons. But in Our Town, Wilder rejected theatrical realism in favor of a staging that challenged the audience to see the play on stage for what it was - a play.
There is no "fourth wall" in Our Town - indeed, there are no third, second, or first walls either. The metaphor of the fourth wall comes from the realistic box-set, but Our Town has no set whatsoever, besides a few trellises for "those who think they have to have scenery." Additionally, the constant interruptions of the action serve to prevent the audience from feeling like they are watching "real life" - the very aim of most theater. Wilder wanted to escape from the realism of contemporary theater, because he felt that too much realism dragged down and limited a play, harnessing it to a particular time and place. Better to do away with the set and scenery, and with standard theatrical conventions like "don't talk to the audience."
"They loaded the stage with specific objects," wrote Wilder of the box-set, "because every concrete object on stage fixes and narrows the action to one moment in time and place... When you emphasize place in the theater, you drag down and limit and harness time to it. You thrust the action back into past time, whereas it is precisely the glory of the stage that it is always 'now' there."
In traditional theater, the audience never quite forgets that they are watching a play, but they play along with the illusion because that's what you do when you are at the theater. But Wilder not only did not wish for the illusion of real life - he actively encouraged the audience to see the artifice. Wilder complains in his preface that a realistic Juliet is one girl, in one place, in one time - an isolated clinical case, with her realistic uniqueness preventing any possibility of seeing oneself in her position. Therefore, a realistic Emily Webb would defeat her purpose, as would a too particular Emily with character traits more strongly defined. She is anybody, and yet, through the power of theater, she is us.
Wilder further ensures the absence of realism through the Stage Manager's interruptions of scenes and discharge of the actors, the fake missed cue when the actor playing Mr. Webb cuts his hand, the question and answer session with the audience, the introduction of the cast and the dismissal of the audience at intermission. Wilder purposely exposes those facets of theater which are usually invisible, chipping away at the artifice so that all that remains are the ideas.