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Theatre / Our Town

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Original 1938 production

"Oh, Earth, you're just too wonderful for anyone to realize you!"

Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?
Stage Manager: No - saints and poets maybe - they do some.

Our Town is a three act play written by Thornton Wilder in 1938, set in the fictional community of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire.

Through the actions of the Stage Manager, the town of Grover's Corners is created for the audience and scenes from its history between the years of 1901 and 1913 play out. There is minimal scenery, and nearly all of the props are pantomimed.

Our Town follows a few of the major characters through the important days of their lives. The first act, "A Day in the Life," introduces George Gibbs and Emily Webb, their families, and several other Grover's Corners inhabitants as they go through a typical day in their lives. The second act, "Love and Marriage," illustrates George and Emily's budding romance and eventual marriage. The third act, "Death," plays through a funeral.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 1938. It was made into a motion picture in 1940, which was directed by Sam Wood, starred a young William Holden as George, and was adapted by Thornton Wilder from his own play. Frank Craven and Martha Scott reprised their roles from the original Broadway production as the Stage Manager and Emily, respectively; Thomas Mitchell played Dr. Gibbs. None other than Aaron Copland himself composed the music. It received six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.

The second-most common School Play on television, behind Romeo and Juliet.

This play provides examples of:

  • Absent Aliens: According to the Stage Manager. "There are the stars — doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk...or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself."
  • Absent-Minded Professor: Professor Willard.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: The Grover's Corners cemetery. The spirits of the dead wait around there for a while, waiting for "for the eternal part in them to come out clear," as the Stage Manager puts it. Eventually they shed their earthly concerns—Emily's mother-in-law seems to have half-forgotten who Emily is—and move on. When Emily arrives the souls in the cemetery are from the last generation or two, with the older souls having already gone somewhere else.
  • The Alcoholic: Simon Stimson.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Rebecca and Wally, to George and Emily respectively.
  • Anti-Advice: On George's wedding day, Mr Webb relates the advice his father gave him on his own wedding day, which is all about establishing a strict hierarchy with the husband on top and the wife underneath — before adding that the Webbs' happy marriage is down to him doing the opposite of everything his father told him to do.
  • Arranged Marriage: George's parents.
  • Bottle Episode: The play is performed with very minimal scenery and most of the props are pantomimed.
  • Call-Back: In the first act, Mrs Gibbs mentions that she's been offered $350note  for a piece of antique furniture she's never liked, and she's hoping to persuade her husband to agree to a trip to Paris. In the last act, Emily mentions that Mrs Gibbs left $350 to George and Emily when she died, implying that she never got to use the money as she'd hoped.
  • Close-Knit Community: Grover's Corners.
  • The Cynic: Simon Stimson, especially at the end of Act 3.
    Simon Stimson: Yes, now you know. Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those... of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion or another. Now you know - that's the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.
  • Daddy's Girl: Emily.
  • Day in the Life: Title of the first act, which is just that, a portrait of daily life in Grover's Corners, with emphasis on the budding romance between George and Emily.
  • Death by Childbirth: Emily; Justified because it really was common back in 1913.
  • Downer Ending / Bittersweet Ending: Depends on the reading. Everyone dies, but that's life. Learn to appreciate it while you have it, because you only get one.
  • Driven to Suicide: Simon Stimson
  • Engaging Conversation: Emily and George
  • Everyone Went to School Together: Justified in that it is a small town with only one school.
  • Everytown, America: Portrayed and then somewhat deconstructed, as the play demonstrates the pain and tragedy that one will find even in an Everytown.
  • Fate Worse than Death: After death, you can revisit moments in your life. But doing so will just make you realize (more) how you and everyone you love wasted (in the case of those still alive, is still wasting) their lives.
  • Flat Character: Howie Newsome, although it's intentional. In each appearance, he delivers the milk and exchanges small talk to demonstrate the repetitious nature of small town life.
  • Gainax Ending: The first two acts are a Slice of Life romance, and then the third act begins in a cemetery and reveals that several characters have died, most recently Emily. The afterlife is spent sitting on your grave among the recently dead, able to remember your life with perfect clarity—at first. Memories and the emotional bonds to family and friends are gradually lost as time goes on. However, the Stage Manager says that the dead are waiting for some "eternal" aspect of themselves to emerge once earthly concerns are shed; where the spirit goes afterwards is not explained, but the dead do gain a new and intense appreciation for life, and mourn that the living do not share it.
  • Gayngst: Simon Stimson is predominantly, though not definitively, identified as a closeted gay character, driven to alcoholism and eventually suicide.
  • Girl Next Door: Emily, to George.
  • Greek Chorus: The Stage Manager fills this role, providing exposition and commenting on the action.
  • Happily Married: George's parents, Emily's parents, Emily and George.
  • High-School Sweethearts: Emily and George.
  • Hollywood Geography: The coordinates given for Grover's Corners would actually put you in the ocean just off the coast of Massachusetts. Probably a way for Wilder to avoid identifying Grover's Corners with any real town.
  • Hollywood New England: Averted. Wilder spent a lot of time in New England, and in New Hampshire specifically, so the usual stereotypes are absent.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: "I was the prettiest girl in town next to Mamie Cartwright", says Mrs. Webb, in response to a direct question from Emily as to whether she was pretty when she was young.
  • Interactive Narrator: the Stage Manager.
  • Jerk Jock: George almost becomes one.
  • Leitmotif: The hymn "Blest Be the Tie That Binds" appears at least once an act.
  • Lohengrin and Mendelssohn: Both are played at George and Emily's wedding.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Emily's.
  • Medium Awareness: The first line of the play, delivered by the Stage Manager, is "This play is called Our Town." He then rattles off the names of the director and the cast.
  • Men Don't Cry: Averted by George at Emily's funeral.
  • Mental Time Travel: Emily goes back to a birthday when she was young.
  • Minimalism: The play is specifically directed to be staged with bare-bones scenery and props that are either pantomimed or simple household objects such as chairs and stepladders. This is doubtless one of the reasons it's so popular as a School Play.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Grover's Corners is pretty much accepted to have been based on Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Wilder wrote the first two acts.
  • No Fourth Wall: For the Stage Manager, his on-stage guests, and the question-and-answer session in the first act.
  • Runaway Bride: Emily almost becomes one before her father calms her down.
  • Shout-Out: Word of God says the idea of the Afterlife Antechamber is borrowed from Dante's Purgatorio.
  • Slice of Life: The first act of the play centers around this.
  • The Talk: Mrs. Webb alludes to this on Emily's wedding day.
    Mrs. Webb: I hope some of her girl friends have told her a thing or two. It's cruel, I know, but I couldn't bring myself to say anything. I went into it blind as a bat myself.
  • This Loser Is You: The pessimistic way to interpret the play's ending: you do not (and as per the quotes above, possibly can not) adequately appreciate each moment of your life. (Optimistically, it's just an Aesop about appreciating your life more).
  • Time Skip: The action skips forward between each act, with the first act being set in 1901, the second in 1904, and the third in 1913.
  • Victorious Childhood Friend: Emily and George.
  • We Are as Mayflies: One of the recurring themes of the play, with frequent references being made to the age of the universe, the stars, and how quickly time passes.
  • You Can't Fight Fate

Tropes particular to the 1940 film:

  • Born in the Theater: The question-and-answer scene from the play is reproduced in the film. Given that this is a film, it plays out as this trope, with the characters looking right at the camera while questions are called out from the audience.
  • Dream Sequence: Act III and Emily's death turn out to be a long dream sequence in the film.
  • Happy Ending: A major change from the play, as Emily turns out to be alive at the end.
  • Idiosyncratic Wipe: The Medium Awareness and No Fourth Wall from Wilder's play manifest themselves in a different way in the film. The conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Webb in the film is interrupted by a hand covering the camera. It turns out to be the Stage Manager, as the hand passes away from the camera to reveal him somewhere else, introducing the next scene.
  • Inner Monologue: Most of the movie is faithful to the No Fourth Wall motif of the play, but the scene right before George and Emily are married where various characters are expressing inner doubts is presented with voiceovers.
  • It Always Rains at Funerals: Pouring rain at Emily's melancholy funeral in Act III.
  • Match Cut: Several of these between the Gibbs and Webb households at the beginning of Act I and Act II, as Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb get breakfast ready, suggesting the similarities of small-town family life.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film did not attempt to recreate the minimalist staging of the play, instead using perfectly ordinary sets suggesting a small New England town. Otherwise it's a highly faithful adaptation of the film, except for the revised ending, including the Stage Manager's narration and all the Medium Awareness from the play.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: That horrifically depressing ending to the play is omitted from the film. Instead Act III turns out to be a dream of Emily's, and she ends the movie very much alive.