Our Town is Thornton Wilder’s first full play. It is about a small town in New Hampshire called Grover’s Corners. With seemingly everyday matters, Wilder narrows down efficiently and beautifully to the meaning of life and death and love.
Every action which has ever taken place–every thought, every emotion–has taken place only once, at one moment in time and place. “I love you,” “I rejoice,” “I suffer,” have been said and felt many billions of times, and never twice the same. Every person who has ever lived has lived an unbroken succession of unique occasions. Yet the more one is aware of this individuality of experience (innumerable! innumerable!) the more one becomes attentive to what these disparate moments have in common to repetitive patterns. As an artist (or listener or beholder) which “truth” do you prefer–that of the isolated occasion, or that which includes and resumes the innumerable? Which truth is more worth telling? Every age differs in this. Is the Venus de Milo “one woman”? Is the play Macbeth the story of “one destiny”? The theatre is admirably fitted to tell both truths.
–Thornton Wilder, Preface to Three Plays (XXVIII-XXIX)
In this passage from his preface for Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Matchmaker, two themes stand out: The Particular vs. The General, and noticing the uniqueness of the every day.
The Particular vs. The General
STAGE MANAGER: Y’know–Babylon once had two million people in it, and all we know about ’em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts…and contracts for the sale of slaves. 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. And even in Greece and Rome, all we know about the real life of the people is what we can piece together out of the joking poems and the comedies they wrote for the theatre back then.
So I’m going to have a copy of this play put in the cornerstone and the people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us–more than the Treaty of Versailles and the Lindbergh flight.
See what I mean?
So–people a thousand years from now–this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning o the twentieth century.–This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying. (p. 35)
REBECCA: I never told you about that letter Jane Crofut got from her minister when she was sick. He wrote Jane a letter and on the envelope the address was like this: It said: Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.
GEORGE: What’s funny about that?
REBECCA: But listen, it’s not finished: the United States of America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God–that’s what it said on the envelope. (p. 48)
STAGE MANAGER: Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being. (p. 90)
These scenes are examples of when Wilder, through his characters, attempts to show us the patterns of our unique occasions. While each moment of our lives is peculiar to us, to that specific moment, it reaches to a general, a universal pattern, or better yet an archetype. There are people, males, Christians, adolescents, readers, English majors, etc…
Noticing the Unique Occasion
EMILY: Live people don’t understand, do they?
MRS. GIBBS: No, dear–not very much. (p. 98)
EMILY: Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it–don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let us look at one another. (p. 109)
EMILY: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.
I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back–up the hill–to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?– every, every minute? (p. 110)
EMILY: No…I should have listened to you. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.
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. (p. 111)
EMILY: They don’t understand, do they?
MRS. GIBBS: No, dear. They don’t understand. (p. 113)
Those who are alive never notice life while living. We never notice all that surrounds us. This following excerpt is from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
Oh what are my grief and my trouble, if I am able to be happy? You know, I don’t understand how it’s possible to pass by a tree and not be happy to see it. To talk with a man and not be happy that you love him!… there are so many things at every step that are so beautiful, that even the most confused person finds beautiful. Look at a child, look at God’s sunrise, look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that are looking at you and love you… (p. 553)
This play goes among my favorite works.
With novels, these have stood out: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
With plays, these have stood out: Othello by Shakespeare and Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
With short stories and novellas, these have stood out: The Fall by Albert Camus, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne, A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
With poetry, these have stood out: In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Reluctance by Robert Frost, The Pulley by George Herbert, The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot, and Inferno by Dante.
With works of non-fiction, theology, and Christian living, these have stood out: Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner, Confessions by St. Augustine, An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, and Good News for Anxious Christians by Philip Cary.