Our Town by Thornton Wilder
The question of Our Town is, what does it mean to live a good life? The answer to this question, according to the play, is that we can only figure out what a good life is from the perspective of our own mortality.
In my copy of the play, there’s a foreword by Donald Margulies. In it, he singles out a passage in the play in which Doc Gibbs speaks with a boy named Joe about the weather and various other boring topics. Margulies goes on,
“The prosaic turns suddenly wrenching when the Stage Manager casually fills us in on young Joe’s future, his scholarship to MIT, his graduating at the top of his class. ‘Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France. – All that education for nothing.’ How could anyone accuse Wilder of sentimentality when he, like life, is capable of such cruelty? In just a few eloquent sentences he captures both the capriciousness of life and the futility of war.”
I think Margulies is right that this is a very important passage, but I think he gets it backwards – Wilder really thinks that Joe is the only one in the play who lived a worthwhile life. So in fact, Wilder is much crueler than even Margulies thinks, but he’s cruel to all the people in Grover’s Corners. The futility and even absurdity of ordinary peoples’ lives is Wilder’s real target.
Let’s start with the theme of ‘France’ in the play. Joe dies in France. The next time we hear about France, Mrs. Gibbs is talking about a piece of furniture someone offered her $350 for. She says, “if I could get the Doctor to take the money and go away someplace on a real trip, I’d sell it like that. – Y’know, Myrtle, it’s been the dream of my life to see Paris, France.” She goes on to say that if she got, “a legacy – that’s the way I put it – I’d make him take me somewhere.” But Doc Gibbs doesn’t want to go to Europe.
Where does he spend all his vacations? Looking at old Civil War battlefields. There’s also a suggestion here that Mr. Webb spends a lot of time reading about Napoleon. Mrs. Gibbs also says 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.” Mrs. Webb makes a point that one time she made it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean – and Grover’s Corners is supposed to be in New Hampshire, so it’s not such a feat.
So on the one hand we have a young man who goes off to college, then fights and dies in a war in France. On the other hand, we have a woman who has always wanted to go to France, and has the money to do so (her LEGACY) but will die without doing so, and two men who refuse to go very far from home, but spend all their free time reading about Napoleon and the Civil War. According to what Mrs Gibbs says, it’s Joe who’s done the things that make life worthwhile, not her or her husband.
In the third act we find out that the legacy money was used not for a trip to Europe, but for a trough for pigs to drink from on Emily’s farm. And then, once the farm is all set up, Emily dies in childbirth.
Joe really did go to France, and he fought in a war instead of just reading about it. So was all that education for nothing?
The stage manager tells us that he’s married hundreds of couples and observed their lives. His conclusion? “Once in a thousand times it’s interesting.”
Most of the conversation in the town revolves around the weather. In answer to a question from the audience, “is there any culture or love of beauty in Grover’s Corners?” Doctor Gibb responds that people in the town like watching the sun come up, they like watching birds, they like to watch the seasons changing. They have a few books, and that’s about it. Mostly they’re concerned with things that come and go and that they just observe. They don’t MAKE anything and they don’t DO anything.
In contrast to the extreme passivity of the townspeople, the Stage Manager tells us about the founders of the town. We know about them from the monuments in the cemetery. They were pilgrims – “Strong minded people who come a long way to be independent.” They didn’t stay put and we’ll remember them.
Emily wants to “make speeches all [her] life.” She’s one of the brightest kids at the high school and read the class poem at graduation. In the end, she doesn’t make speeches all her life. She marries a boy who inherits a farm and decides not to go to college. In the end she did just what everyone else does. And then she dies in childbirth. We don’t know what’s written on her grave, but one of the dead asks another, “Do they choose their own verses much, Joe?” The other answers, “No…not usual.” A page later we hear about the church organist who clearly hates the town and is a heavy drinker – he killed himself, but he wrote his own epitaph. He rebelled as best he could and tried to live according to his own words, so to speak. In an angry outburst at the end of the play, the organist says, “That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance…to spend and waste time as though you had a million years.”
Emily goes back to see what life was like after she’s died, and concludes that everyone is just blind. It seems to me that she regrets her life. The feeling from the third act is an overwhelming regret that the living don’t know what it means to be alive. Living people don’t really look at each other and don’t understand. But is that true of everyone?
In the beginning of the third act, the Stage Manager says, “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 many people are always losing hold of it.”
It seems to me that Wilder’s real sympathy isn’t with the townspeople but with ‘the greatest people who ever lived.’ He must have aspired to be one of these himself. I think it would have been tough for him to present his real feelings directly, so he wrote a play that could easily be misunderstood as praising the boring lives of regular people. The play is often criticized because nothing really happens – and that’s sort of the point. Most of the time, nothing happens. It’s hard to really face mortality. It’s interesting that in the film adaptation they make the whole third act a dream – as if moviegoers couldn’t bear Emily really dying.
So the play is really about whether we live with a full realization of what it means that we will one day die. It may be pushing too far to notice that the names of the two main families, Webb and Gibbs both contain two Bs – which raises the question ‘to be or not to be?’