Our Town

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Our Town
Our Town.jpg
1938 first edition cover from the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Written by Thornton Wilder
CharactersStage Manager
Mrs. Myrtle Webb
Mr. Charles Webb
Emily Webb
Joe Crowell Jr.
Mrs. Julia Gibbs
Dr. Frank F. Gibbs
Simon Stimson
Mrs. Soames
George Gibbs
Howie Newsome
Rebecca Gibbs
Wally Webb
Professor Willard
Woman in the Balcony
Man in the Auditorium
Lady in the Box
Constable Warren
Si Crowell
Three Baseball Players
Sam Craig
Joe Stoddard
Date premieredJanuary 22, 1938
Place premiered McCarter Theatre
Princeton, New Jersey
Original languageEnglish
SubjectLife and death in an American small town
Setting1901 to 1913. Grover's Corners, New Hampshire near Massachusetts.

Our Town is a 1938 metatheatrical three-act play by American playwright Thornton Wilder which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover's Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens.


Throughout, Wilder uses metatheatrical devices, setting the play in the actual theatre where it is being performed. The main character is the stage manager of the theatre who directly addresses the audience, brings in guest lecturers, fields questions from the audience, and fills in playing some of the roles. The play is performed without a set on a mostly bare stage. With a few exceptions, the actors mime actions without the use of props.

Our Town was first performed at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey in 1938. [1] It later went on to success on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Described by Edward Albee as "the greatest American play ever written", [2] the play remains popular today and revivals are frequent.


Frank Craven as the Stage Manager in the original Broadway production of Our Town (1938) Craven-Our-Town-1938.jpg
Frank Craven as the Stage Manager in the original Broadway production of Our Town (1938)

Act I: Daily Life

The Stage Manager introduces the audience to the small town of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and the people living there as a morning begins in the year 1901. Professor Willard speaks to the audience about the history of the town. Joe Crowell delivers the paper to Doc Gibbs, Howie Newsome delivers the milk, and the Webb and Gibbs households send their children (Emily and Wally Webb, George and Rebecca Gibbs) off to school on this beautifully simple morning. The Stage Manager leads us through a series of pivotal moments throughout the afternoon and evening, revealing the characters' relationships and challenges. The audience discovers that Emily and George like each other, and are both straining to grow up in their own way.

Act II: Love and Marriage

Three years have passed, and George and Emily prepare to wed. The day is filled with stress. Howie Newsome is delivering milk in the pouring rain while Si Crowell, younger brother of Joe, laments how George's baseball talents will be squandered. George pays an awkward visit to his soon-to-be in-laws. Here, the Stage Manager interrupts the scene and takes the audience back a year, to the end of Emily and George's junior year. Emily confronts George about his pride, and over an ice cream soda, they discuss the future and they confess their love for each other. George decides not to go to college, as he had planned, but to work and eventually take over his uncle's farm. In the present, George and Emily say that they are not ready to marry—George to his mother, Emily to her father—but they both calm down and happily go through with the wedding.

Act III: Death and Eternity

Nine years have passed. The Stage Manager, in a lengthy monologue, discusses eternity, focusing attention on the cemetery outside of town and the people who have died since the wedding, including Mrs. Gibbs (pneumonia, while traveling), Wally Webb (burst appendix, while camping), Mrs. Soames, and Simon Stimson (suicide by hanging). Town undertaker Joe Stoddard is introduced, as is a young man named Sam Craig who has returned to Grover's Corners for his cousin's funeral. That cousin is Emily, who died giving birth to her and George's second child. Once the funeral ends, Emily emerges to join the dead. Mrs. Gibbs urges her to forget her life, warning her that being able to see but not interact with her family, all the while knowing what will happen in the future, will cause her too much pain. Ignoring the warnings of Simon, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Gibbs, Emily returns to Earth to relive one day, her 12th birthday. She joyfully watches her parents and some of the people of her childhood for the first time in years, but her joy quickly turns to pain as she realizes how little people appreciate the simple joys of life. The memory proves too painful for her and she realizes that every moment of life should be treasured. When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone truly understands the value of life while they live it, he responds, "No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some." Emily returns to her grave next to Mrs. Gibbs and watches impassively as George kneels weeping over her. The Stage Manager concludes the play and wishes the audience a good night.


Secondary characters


Wilder began making notes for the play while he was teaching and lecturing in Chicago in the 1930s. [3] A constant traveler, he wrote it everywhere he went. [4] In June 1937, he stayed in the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, one of the many locations where he worked on the play. It is believed Wilder drafted the entire third act during a visit to Zürich in September 1937, in one day, after a long evening walk in the rain with a friend, author Samuel Morris Steward. [5]


The play is set in the actual theatre where the play is being performed, but the year is always May 7, 1901. The Stage Manager of the May 7, 1901 production introduces the play-within-the-play which is set in the fictional community of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. The Stage Manager gives the coordinates of Grover's Corners as 42°40′ north latitude and 70°37′ west longitude (those coordinates are actually in Massachusetts, about a thousand feet off the coast of Rockport), and at the beginning of Act III he mentions several real New Hampshire landmarks in the vicinity: Mt. Monadnock and the towns of Jaffrey, Jaffrey Center, Peterborough, and Dublin.


Wilder was dissatisfied with the theatre of his time: "I felt that something had gone wrong. . .I began to feel that the theatre was not only inadequate, it was evasive." [6] His response was to use a metatheatrical style. Our Town's narrator, the Stage Manager, is completely aware of his relationship with the audience, leaving him free to break the fourth wall and address them directly.

According to the script, the play is to be performed with little scenery, no set and minimal props. Wilder's reasoning was, ". . .I tried to restore significance to the small details of life by removing the scenery. The spectator through lending his imagination to the action restages it inside his own head. In its healthiest ages the theatre has always exhibited the least scenery." [7]

The characters mime the objects with which they interact. Their surroundings are created only with chairs, tables, staircases, and ladders. For example, the scene in which Emily helps George with his evening homework, conversing through upstairs windows, is performed with the two actors standing atop separate ladders to represent their neighboring houses. Wilder once said: "Our claim, our hope, our despair are in the mind—not in things, not in 'scenery.' " [8]

Wilder called Our Town his favorite out of all his works, but complained that it was rarely done right, insisting that it "should be performed without sentimentality or ponderousness--simply, dryly, and sincerely."[ citation needed ]

Production history

Frank Craven, Martha Scott and John Craven in the original Broadway production of Our Town (1938) Craven-Scott-Craven-Our-Town.jpg
Frank Craven, Martha Scott and John Craven in the original Broadway production of Our Town (1938)

Our Town was first performed at McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey on January 22, 1938.

It next opened at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, on January 25, 1938.

The New York City debut of Our Town was on February 4, 1938 at Henry Miller's Theatre and later moved to the Morosco Theatre, where it ran until November 19, 1938; this production was produced and directed by Jed Harris. [9] Wilder received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 for the work. [10] The Jed Harris production of Our Town was revived at New York City Center on January 10, 1944, running for 24 performances until January 29, with Montgomery Clift as George and Martha Scott as Emily. [11]

In 1946, the Soviet Union prevented a production of Our Town in the Russian sector of occupied Berlin "on the grounds that the drama is too depressing and could inspire a German suicide wave". [12]

A production at New York City's Lincoln Center opened on December 4, 1988 after 27 previews and ran for 136 performances until April 2, 1989; the cast included Spalding Gray as "Stage Manager", Frances Conroy as "Mrs. Gibbs", Penelope Ann Miller as "Emily" and Eric Stoltz as "George". [13] The production was videotaped for broadcast on PBS (see "Adaptations" below).

In 2003, Paul Newman, marking his final stage performance, acted in the role of "Stage Manager" with Jayne Atkinson as "Mrs. Gibbs" and Jane Curtin as "Mrs. Webb" in a production staged at New York City's Booth Theatre. It opened on December 4, 2002 after three previews and ran until January 26, 2003. [14] The production was videotaped for broadcast on Showtime and later on PBS (see "Adaptations" below). [15]

An award-winning revival of Our Town opened at the Barrow Street Theatre, in New York City, on February 26, 2009. The production was directed by David Cromer, who also performed the role of Stage Manager for much of the show's run. Upon closing, the production had played four preview and 644 regular performances, making it the longest-running production of the play in its history. In addition to Cromer, other notable actors who performed in the role of Stage Manager included Helen Hunt, Michael McKean, Jason Butler Harner, Stephen Kunken and Michael Shannon. [16]

In 2017, Tony Award-winning Deaf West Theater, a Los Angeles-based theater company, co-produced with the Pasadena Playhouse a production of Our Town performed in American Sign Language and spoken English. [17]



Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager in the 1977 television adaptation. Hal Holbrook Our Town 1977.jpg
Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager in the 1977 television adaptation.

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Further reading