Our Town

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The Theater Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Theater Theme Icon
Community Theme Icon
The Everyday and the Ordinary Theme Icon
Marriage and the Family Theme Icon
Time, Change, and Continuity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Our Town, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Theater Theme Icon

One of the most striking features of Our Town is the way in which the play repeatedly breaks the so-called “fourth wall”, the imaginary division between the world of the stage and the audience that nearly all drama respects. This happens mostly through the character of the stage manager, but also through scenes in which characters like Professor Willard speak directly to the audience. The play also includes a scene in act one in which actors playing audience members participate in the play, entering into dialogue with the stage manager on-stage. In addition to all this, the play makes no attempt to create a realistic backdrop on the stage. The actors generally pantomime (pretend that they are interacting with things on-stage we cannot see) and there are hardly any props on the stage. The upper levels of the Webbs’ and Gibbs’ houses are represented simply by two ladders, which George and Emily climb up when they “go upstairs”. As these details of staging demonstrate, the play is not interested in pretending to be real. The fourth wall, props, and elaborate stage sets are all ways of encouraging the audience to pretend that what they are watching is real, and not an artistic representation of reality. By contrast, Wilder’s play emphasizes itself as artificial theater, laying bare the fact that theater is always an illusion, no matter how realistic.

This constant reminder that we are experiencing a fictional story rather than the true lives of the characters on the stage has several effects. First, the town of Grover’s Corners becomes less specific and more abstract. It can thus be seen somewhat symbolically or allegorically; it could represent any town, or all towns. Second, these features have an alienating effect on the audience. Unlike with other plays, we do not feel immersed in Grover’s Corners, but constantly feel as though we are outside the world of the play, looking in at lives that have already happened and are now just being recalled, re-presented. The position of the audience in Wilder’s play is eerily similar to that of Emily after she dies and goes back to relive a moment from her youth. Like her, the audience knows what will happen to most of the characters on-stage (thanks to the stage manager), which lends both a kind of sorrow and significance to the everyday activities we observe in the play. Finally, Wilder’s innovations blur the boundaries between the play and the real world. The stage manager refers to the town as if he is a resident, but he knows that the play is just a play. In act one, Mr. Webb speaks directly to the audience at one point, as if he knows he is in a play, but elsewhere he is fully immersed in the world of Grover’s Corners. When are these characters being those characters and when are they just actors? We cannot neatly distinguish the world of the play from the real world. Even the entrance of audience members into the theater is included in Wilder’s script, in the stage directions that begin the play. Is the audience actually part of the play? Is Our Town really ours, as well? Paradoxically, by exposing the illusions and artificiality of theater, Wilder brings theater closer to real life.

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The Theater ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Theater appears in each act of Our Town. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Theater Quotes in Our Town

Below you will find the important quotes in Our Town related to the theme of The Theater.
Act 1 Quotes

This play is called “Our Town.” It was written by Thornton Wilder; produced and directed by A. ... In it you will see Miss C. ...; Miss D. ...; Miss E. ...; and Mr. F. ...; Mr. G. ...; Mr. H. ...; and many others.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

With these opening lines, the Stage Manager immediately knocks down the "fourth wall" by addressing the audience directly: although we come to see that he is also embedded in the world of Grover's Corners as a character, here, he is introducing the play Our Town as a piece of fictional art, as something created rather than plainly real, and he references here not the characters in the play but the names of the director and actors who are performing it. (Although the actual director and actors in the play are not, of course, named "A." or "Miss D.", etc., thus adding an even a further playful layer to the idea of theater and what is and isn't "real.")

Furthermore, the ellipses that follow the names of each of the actor's names in this introduction suggest a sense of universality regarding the story that is to come: one gets the sense that any names can be inserted here; as much as the events of Our Town are unique experiences of the characters involved, they are also, on some level, shared human experiences.

The Stage Manager is, in fact, inviting us to identify with and insert ourselves into this narrative. It is, after all, our narrative. This explains perhaps why the play so often breaks the fourth wall -- there is no need for the fourth wall in a play that is asserting that the experiences relayed in fiction and art are no different than that of reality.  


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There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only does the set-up of the play's stage arrangements happen explicitly in front of audience members—in another act of breaking down the fourth wall—but the setup itself is purposefully minimal. With only a few furnishings to represent the Gibbs' and Webb's respective houses on an otherwise bare set, the actors must rely largely on pantomime.

In these lines, the Stage Manager acknowledges this minimalism in a way that suggests that any scenery whatsoever is nonessential, and the inclusion of these pieces is done as a favor to audiences who mistakenly "think they have to have scenery." On the one hand, the lack of scenery adds a layer of hyper-reality to the play. The bare stage creates intimacy between the audience and art, giving viewers the sense that there is nothing that defines our lives as distinct from lives unfolding on the stage. In other words, truth doesn't need a backdrop of extensive props and setting. Rather, it stands alone.

However, in addition and in contrast to this hyper-reality, the lack of scenery also reassures the viewers that what they’re seeing is, on some level, still fictional. This is particularly true in the actors’ pantomiming: we are, after all, watching them pretend the contents of Grover’s Corners are tangible and real. The blurred sense of fiction and reality is a common thread throughout the play.  

Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there. Joe was awful bright—graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Goin’ to be a great engineer, Joe was. But the war broke out and he died in France.—All that education for nothing.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker), Joe Crowell
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

From the Stage Manager’s brief account, it is evident that the late Joe Crowell was both an anomaly and a hero to Grover’s Corners. In a town of ordinariness, sameness, and tradition, Joe’s intelligence distinguished him from the rest—he was, in short, remarkable, in the way that almost no other residents are perceived.

Despite Joe’s bright future as an engineer, the Stage Manager’s blunt explanation of his untimely death during the war suggests that, although glamorous at face value, being remarkable and distinguishing oneself from the pack is ultimately a futile pursuit.

We all arrive at the same end—death—and because we are all eventually equalized this way, our lifelong efforts to stand out or achieve something different from the norm (for example, all of Joe’s efforts to become educated) are all “for nothing.” To feel fulfilled, it may as well be more valuable for us to be ordinary, and moreover, content with our ordinariness, than to grasp beyond. 

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.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Time Capsule
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the play's most direct instances of breaking down the fourth wall, the Stage Manager declares he will put a copy of Our Town itself into the time capsule Grover's Corners is making, which is also set to contain newspapers and a copy of the Bible, among other things.

The time capsule is the product of the town's strong desire for continuity and preservation -- for its present to live on into the future -- and the Stage Manager justifies the choice to represent Grover's Corners with commonplace artifacts by critiquing the ancient civilizations of Babylon, Greece, and Rome: while all three of these ancient cities are unparalleled in fame and importance, our knowledge of how most of their population lived is scant and based entirely on inferences made from sources on other subjects. By including everyday artifacts, the Stage Manager insists upon the importance of the everyday and of the people who live everyday lives (as opposed to the idea that only the lives of the rich, famous, or powerful are worth preserving). 

However, his acknowledgement that the lives of the people he is documenting are in fact, elements of a play -- the play of Our Town -- blurs the line between fiction and reality. On the one hand, we might question if there's truth to what is being left behind for future generations if that "truth" is in a made-up play. On the other hand, the Stage Manager seems to be asserting that Art and Theater do contain deep truths, perhaps the deepest truths, in the way they can capture and present real feelings, real emotions, and real lives, even if those things are embodied in fictional characters.

Act 2 Quotes

The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

At the top of the Act II, the Stage Manager once again dissolves the fourth wall in a moment of bleak transparency with the audience: his outline of the play—from Daily Life, to Love and Marriage, to his dark, rhetorical hint that Death is slated to follow—effectively gives away the plot of the play and, arguably, peels back some of the narrative suspense.

Though the direct communication between the Stage Manager and audience highlights the fact that the play is fiction, his summary of the acts also intimates at reality. After all, our own lives might easily be summarized along the same, inevitable phases the Stage Manager is outlining here. In this sense, retaining narrative suspense or giving away the plot are moot points. Our own lives, despite being as finitely plotted as the characters of Grover’s Corners, are no less moving, devastating, or even surprising for all their innate predictability.

Act 3 Quotes

This time nine years have gone by, friends—summer 1913.
Gradual changes in Grover’s Corners. Horses are getting rarer.
Farmers coming into town in Fords.
Everybody locks their house doors at night. Ain’t been any burglars in town yet, but everybody’s heard about ’em.
You’d be surprised, though—on the whole, things don’t change much around here.

Related Characters: Stage Manager (speaker)
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In his preface to the final act of the play, the Stage Manager makes note of gradual but notable changes that have occurred in Grover's Corners. We can tell from observations like more automobiles—even among farmers—and fewer old-fashioned means of transportation, like horses, that this reflects the increasing urbanization of the small town. 

The other gradual and yet significant change can be seen with the town's changing behavior with security. As opposed to the previous feel of Grover's Corners as a town of no privacy, where everyone knows about everything about everyone, the locked doors betray a lack of openness, and the fear motivating this change—an unconfirmed fear of burglars—suggests that residents trust each other less these days, perhaps because they know less about one another. 

Though the Stage Manager concludes reflecting on how much has ultimately stayed the same in Grover's Corners, he understates the two seeds of change that are in fact, potentially drastic: urbanization and privacy.