Our Town

Our Town Summary and Analysis of Act I - "Daily Life"


The stage is empty, without curtain or scenery. As the audience settles into their seats, the Stage Manager enters and begins placing some chairs downstage, to signify the Webb and Gibbs kitchens. When the house lights have gone down, the Stage Manager introduces the play, acknowledging the author and the cast and crew. He begins to describe Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, gesturing at the empty walls and the wings as he points out Main Street and the cemetery. He also points out the two households with which we will be principally concerned - that of the town doctor, Dr. Gibbs, and that of the local newspaper editor, Mr. Webb. At dawn, Doc Gibbs returns from delivering twins and Mrs. Gibbs comes downstairs to prepare breakfast. The Stage Manager mentions the manner in which Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs will eventually die.

Actors begin to appear, pantomiming their daily routine as the Stage Manager briefly sketches their biographies. Mrs. Gibbs lights the fire in her stove, and Mrs. Webb puts on her apron - most props mentioned are imaginary, and most actions are performed in pantomime. A young boy, Joe Crowell, Jr., throws imaginary newspapers until Dr. Gibbs interrupts him with a report of the new twins. The boy reports in turn that his schoolteacher is getting married, and says that he thinks "if a person starts out to be a teacher, she ought to stay one." The pleasantries run their course, and the Stage Manger tells us that the paper boy later won a scholarship to MIT, and was going to be a great engineer, but he was killed in France during the war (as the play was written in 1938, the war in question was World War I). "All that education for nothing," the Stage Manager says.

Each of the main families-the Webbs and the Gibbs'-begin their morning routines, which are similar. The dialog cuts in and out between the neighboring kitchens as we hear mundane details about the children's schoolwork, and the adults' daily routines. For instance, Emily proclaims that she's the brightest girl in school and George requests a raise in his allowance. The children finish their breakfasts and run off to school. Mrs. Gibbs feeds the chickens in the yard, and strikes up a commonplace conversation with Mrs. Webb while she strings beans next door. Mrs. Gibbs remarks that she has a chance to sell her grandmother's highboy (a tall chest of drawers) for a good price, and that she would like to use the money to finance a European vacation if she could only convince Dr. Gibbs to go. The doctor, for his part, isn't interested in travel, except for his regular visits to the battlefields of the Civil War, and thinks that "it might make him discontented with Grover's Corners to go traipsin' about Europe." But Mrs. Gibbs feels that "once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don't talk in English and don't even want to."

The Stage Manager enters and cuts off the conversation, excusing Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb and sending them off stage. The Stage Manager introduces two experts to provide some facts about the town. Professor Willard from the State University discusses the geological composition of their area of New Hampshire, also noting the population as 2,640, which the Stage Manager ups to 2,642, including the twins born that morning. The other expert, Mr. Webb, provides a social and political report. The town is mostly Republican and mostly Protestant, with a smattering of Democrats and Catholics, and the rest "indifferent" on both counts. Mr. Webb's editorial assessment of Grover's Corners is that it is a "very ordinary town... little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller." Ninety percent of the young people stay in town to raise their families, he adds. The Stage Manager invites questions from the audience, and Mr. Webb fields questions about the town's drinking habits (some, but not a big deal), its sense of social injustice (people know rich from poor, but let those who can care for themselves do so), and its culture (mostly interested in birds and sunrises).

We rejoin the day at hand to see Emily walk home with George. He admires her talent for schoolwork, and asks if she would give him hints on some problems when he is stuck; she agrees. At home, Emily asks her mother whether she is pretty, to which her mother replies that Emily is "pretty enough for all normal purposes." The Stage Manager interrupts again and mentions a time capsule that the town intends to put in the cornerstone of the new bank in Grover's Corners; the play, Our Town, will go in the capsule as a record of "our growing up and our marrying and our living and our dying."

George and Emily do their homework in their opposite houses-their second-story rooms represented by ladders-while the town choir rehearses "Blessed be the tie that binds." George gazes at Emily as she gazes at the moon. Further everyday details follow before the choristers return from rehearsal. Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Soames gossip about the choir director, Simon Stimson, who was drunk at rehearsal, a habitual happening. Dr. Gibbs comments on Mr. Stimson's alcoholism, saying, "I don't know how that'll end, but there's nothing we can do but leave it alone." Mrs. Gibbs tries to convince her husband to take a European trip, but he won't hear of it.

After another short interruption by the Stage Manager, Rebecca tells George about a letter her friend received, which included in its address line some unnecessarily detailed directions, finishing with "the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God... and the postman brought it just the same." Then the Stage Manager announces that the first act has ended, and the audience "can go and smoke now, those that smoke."


The most remarkable thing about Our Town is how unremarkable its events are. There is no scenery, no props or costumes to ground the action in a real time or place-Grover's Corners might be anywhere, in any state of the Union. The Stage Manager tells us the day is May 7, 1901, but that doesn't matter much -national events are hardly mentioned (aside from the paperboy's coming death in World War I), technological advances have no bearing on the characters, and the only connection to real historical figures is an aside that "[William Jennings] Bryan once spoke there."

Yet this impression of complete unspecificity of time and place comes with an almost comical reverence for its factual specificity. The play is obsessed with statistics. We are told the latitude and longitude of Grover's Corners to the minute; a professor is introduced to inform the audience about the geological makeup of the area and several versions of the official population. The Stage Manager points out various features of the landscape and the town, gesturing at the bare walls. Yet this specificity serves, paradoxically, to further highlight the anonymity of Grover's Corners. There is no personality in numbers, however factual they are presented to be. Grover's Corners is thus a town concocted completely without a distinct cultural identity-it is bland to the point of (literal) invisibility, consisting only in human clichés and bare statistics, each equally barren of human color.

Wilder purposefully de-personalizes the citizens of Grover's Corners in order to present them as blank slates. The audience is meant to see themselves in Emily and George, and their own parents in the Webbs and Gibbs'. The very title of the play itself emphasizes inclusivity - not my town, or your town, but our town. The events of the narrative are the sort of things that happen to almost everyone, and the characters don't even react in unique ways. This makes the basic moral of the story somewhat ironic - your life isn't very special, in the grand scheme of things, so celebrate and cherish every moment of it, because it's all you've got. Wilder, by giving us a sort of bare template for human interaction, invites us to fill out the drama with our own memories and experiences-to act, as it were, within the play he is staging.

Wilder develops this invitation to recognize our role within these familiar patterns of human life on a historical level as well. In his unpublished preface to Our Town, Wilder wrote that since visiting ancient archeological sites in Rome, he often tried to look at the world around him through the eyes of a future civilization. "Babylon once had two million people in it," the Stage Manager says in his monologue halfway through the first act, "and all we know about 'em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, -- same as here." (Never mind that there were no chimneys in Babylon.) Thus there is a commonality of human experience-from Babylon to Grover's Corners-which Our Town tries both to enact and to remember, as it were.

The clearest example of Our Town's role as a collective memory-or, more specifically, as a template for human memory-is when the Stage Manager explains that a copy of Our Town will be placed in the time capsule in the cornerstone of the new Grover's Corners bank, so that in a thousand years it will be known that "this is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying." This record will not emphasize the uniqueness of Grover's Corner's inhabitants: it will emphasize their similarity. The hypothetical audience of a thousand years hence will assumedly gain the same insight from the play that we do today-or that audiences in the 1930's did: that human life is remarkably consistent throughout all space and time. The same coordinates-growing up, marrying, dying-are common to nearly every human culture, and will probably continue to be so as long as there are human cultures.

The Stage Manager is essential to the sense of human continuity in the play. He exists at once without the play and without; at once inside and outside of its action. To some degree, his role is not new to theater-the ancient Greek chorus, for instance, provides an instance of a link between players and audience at the dawn of acting. However, the extent to which he acknowledges the play's constructedness-even to the point of beginning with a nod to the author-was quite experimental for the time. In his actions, the Stage Manager is a sort of a cross between a representation of the author (Thornton Wilder even played the Stage Manager himself for a stint in the first run of the play) and a plainspoken god figure: he foresees and controls the histories of his characters (and, it is suggested, of all humanity), to the extent of authoring them-he orders them offstage in order to talk to the audience alone, much like an author interposes exits in his manuscript-which both playwright and god in fact do. If he is in some way a god-or at least a representative of God-he is the hands-off sort (much like the townsfolk themselves in this way) letting the pre-ordained course of fate take its path, not intruding except to momentarily freeze the action-without ever altering it-or to provide a deeper look at the events unfolding-without ever changing them.

Indeed, Grover's Corners is a place of continuity and repetition, a town with an unchanging life cycle. The names on the gravestones in the cemetery are the "same names as are around here now." Juxtaposed with Dr. Gibbs' delivery of twins is the Stage Manager's presentation of the future deaths of Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs-two lives for two deaths. The only thing "serious goin' on in the world," according to the newsboy Joe, is that his schoolteacher is getting married, and in the context of Our Town this is a serious event - a wedding marks the passage of time, the advance of a life from one stage to the next. The milkman's horse Bessie, on the other hand, cannot understand and adjust to change, and resists changes to the milk route. Like the phases of the moon, which plays such a major role in the First Act, human life is a sequence of barely changing gestures, beginning in life and ending in death, with only the minutest differences from individual to individual.

Speaking of the moon, its nighttime light serves to unify the vignettes of the First Act's closing scenes: the last section of the act begins with the singing of the hymn "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds," and the tie that binds the characters in the scene is, in many ways, the moon. The choristers walk home together in moonlight "as bright as day," their gossip serving to bring together the concerns of different members of the town community. Elsewhere, Emily is romantically distracted from her homework by the "terrible" moonlight; her parents, too, are susceptible, taking a stroll to "smell the heliotrope in the moonlight." And young Rebecca imagines the moon closing in on the earth, then soliloquizes that the moon is shining on "half the whole world," uniting humanity by the common sight. The moon in this scene illustrates the play's conceit that those things that are common to all humanity (the moon, or, life and love and death) make us all members of the same human community - it's how we differently experience these common elements that gives us each our unique experience.