Places: Our Town

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1938

First produced: 1938

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Symbolism

Time of work: 1901-1913

Places DiscussedGrover’s Corners

Grover’s Our TownCorners. Fictional New Hampshire town that is the setting for the entire play. The depiction of this small village is primarily dependent upon the descriptions given by the pivotal character of the stage manager. He explains that the town is “just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes.” He goes on to describe what a typical morning sky looks like in Grover’s Corners, with its “streaks of light” and the morning star still shining brightly within it. The effect of the stage manager’s words is both cinematic and hypnotic; it accomplishes what mere scenery could not. Through his words, the audience sees, as if they are behind a moving camera, the heavens that look down upon the town, the town’s busy streets and communities, and even more specific spots, such as the stores the townspeople frequent and the schools their children attend.

Finally, when the stage manager approaches the table and chairs that serve as the Gibbs house and points to the spot that is to be Mrs. Webb’s garden, vine and flower-covered trellises are rolled out “for those,” he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek, “who think they have to have scenery,” and the audience then focuses on the individual lives that are to be examined in this play, rather than on superfluous details.

Main Street

Main Street. Street at the heart of Grover’s Corners on which almost every character in the play is, at one time or another, seen bustling along. However, the actions of these people take on far greater meaning against the backdrop of Emily’s return visit to earth. Even Howie Newsome’s job of delivering the daily milk seems poignant when Emily “listens in delight” to the sound of his voice, along with Constable Warren’s and Joe Crowell Jr.’s, sounds she very likely heard every day of her life.

Gibbs house

Gibbs house and Webb house. Childhood homes of George Gibbs and Emily Webb. The introductory stage directions for act 1 state that the audience is to see nothing but “an empty stage in half-light” upon arriving. Eventually, the stage manager strolls out and places “a table and three chairs downstage left,” and another set of table and chairs downstage right. These items, along with a small bench, serve as the Gibbs and Webb houses. These are the sole objects seen as the stage manager begins to describe Grover’s Corners in the play’s opening lines. When Emily revisits the Webb home in act 3, as Wilder himself once pointed out, even the kitchen table and chairs are gone. “Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind–not in things, not in ‘scenery,’” Wilder said.

Morgan’s drugstore

Morgan’s drugstore. Grover’s Corners’s combination pharmacy and soda shop. Again emphasizing the irrelevance of place and props in this play, the stage manager takes two chairs from the Gibbs family’s kitchen and places a board across their backs to create the counter of what is presumably the local teen hangout. It is here that George and Emily first realize they want to spend their futures together.

Cemetery

Cemetery. Hilltop graveyard that becomes Emily’s final resting place. Given the theme of the play, it is not surprising that its last act emphasizes the specifics of nature. According to the stage manager, the graveyard lies beneath “lots of sky, lots of clouds,–often lots of sun and moon and stars.” He also tells the audience that lilacs and mountain laurel cover this hill, and admits to being puzzled when he thinks of people who choose to be buried in a place like Brooklyn when they could spend eternity in this corner of New Hampshire.

As with every setting in the play, the beauty of the cemetery could not have been conveyed in a more effective way than through words alone. Paradoxically, the very absence of concrete place is what makes every aspect of Grover’s Corners come so vividly to life. However, as Wilder intended, each audience member’s idea of the town will be specific to that individual’s own imagination and rendering. “The climax of this play,” he said, “needs only five square feet of boarding and the passion to know what life means to us.”

BibliographyCastronovo, David. “The Major Full-Length Plays: Visions of Survival.” In Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. A striking, intelligent, and convincing reading of Our Town as “American folk art.”Corrigan, Robert W. “Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life.” In The Theater in Search of a Fix. New York: Delacorte Press, 1973. Finds that Wilder’s plays “fall short of tragedy” but argues that “no other American dramatist more fully affirms that miracle of life which so much modern drama would deny.”Fergusson, Francis. “Three Allegorists: Brecht, Wilder, and Eliot.” In The Human Image in Dramatic Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1957. Still one of the best discussions of Wilder’s unusual dramatic technique and its relationship to the themes of his plays.Haberman, Donald C. Our Town: An American Play. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A thorough examination of the play and its place in literary history. Attempts “to recover the play’s intellectual respectability and to demonstrate how solid and at the same time how revolutionary its stagecraft is.”Wixon, Douglas Charles, Jr. “The Dramatic Techniques of Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht: A Study in Comparison.” Modern Drama 15 (September, 1972): 112-124. A thorough analysis of the devices Wilder uses to subordinate the theatrical illusion of reality and to emphasize the examination of ideas.
Categories: Places