As the audience enters the theater, the stage manager places some tables and chairs on an otherwise empty stage, as well as a bench. He addresses the audience, telling them that they are about to see a play called “Our Town” and names the director and actors of the particular production. He identifies the setting of the play as Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire on May 7, 1901.
From the beginning, the play breaks the “fourth wall” as the stage manager speaks to the audience directly. He is both a character within the play and outside the world of the play, as he sets up the chairs and tables on-stage, and is conscious of the fact that he is acting in a specific production of a written play.
The stage manager shows the audience the layout of the city on the stage—almost none of which is actually marked by props of any kind—including its several churches, town hall and post office (combined in one building), schools, grocery store, and drugstore. He points out Dr. Gibbs’ house and Mrs. Gibbs’ garden, as well as the house of Mr. Webb, the editor of Grover’s Corners’ local newspaper. He says that the town is nice, but unremarkable.
The stage manager introduces the audience to the “unremarkable” small-town community so central to the play. The play is interested in Grover’s Corners precisely because it is so ordinary. The lack of props or backdrops for the town emphasizes the fact that the play is not real.
The morning is just beginning, and Dr. Gibbs is returning to his house after helping a mother in the Polish neighborhood of town give birth to twins. Mrs. Gibbs walks into her kitchen and begins preparing breakfast. The stage manager tells the audience that Dr. Gibbs died in 1930, long after Mrs. Gibbs had died while visiting her daughter in Ohio. Her body was brought back to Grover’s Corners, where it is buried in a cemetery alongside many of her family members.
The stage manager’s revelation of the Gibbs’ deaths introduces an element of loss into this otherwise peaceful scene. This heightens the play’s sense of the inevitable passage of time: even as we see these characters for the first time, we know they are already gone. The fact that Mrs. Gibbs’ remains are brought back to Grover’s Corners demonstrates the importance of the community to her. Even in death, she doesn’t leave the town.
Mrs. Webb also begins to make breakfast in her own home. Outside, Joe Crowell walks down Main Street, delivering newspapers. Joe speaks with Dr. Gibbs, who asks if there is anything important in the newspaper. Joe replies that his schoolteacher is getting married. They talk about the weather before Joe leave to continue his newspaper route.
The biggest news that Joe has is that his teacher is getting married. This humorously drives home the point that not many extraordinary or newsworthy things happen in Grover’s Corners.
The stage manager tells the audience that Joe graduated high school at the top of his class and got a scholarship to MIT. He had plans to be a great engineer, but he died while fighting in the army during World War I.
As with the Gibbs’ deaths, the stage manger’s jumping ahead in time to tell us about Joe’s death lends a sadness to the sight of the young, innocent Joe on stage, whose time will soon be up.
The milkman Howie Newsome enters (with an invisible horse and cart), delivering milk to various houses. He talks to Dr. Gibbs and then delivers some milk to Mrs. Gibbs. Mrs. Gibbs calls for her kids to get up and come to breakfast, as does Mrs. Webb in her own house. Mrs. Gibbs gives Dr. Gibbs some coffee and food and encourages him to try to get some sleep, after being up all night with the birth of the twins.
The local milkman (much like the paperboy Joe) is a hallmark of small-town Americana. He knows all his customers personally in the tight-knit community of Grover’s Corners. Even as the stage manager explains the coming deaths of Joe and Mrs. Gibbs, the play also includes this birth of the twins. Like the deaths, the births are treated as unremarkable.
In their separate houses, Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb continue to call for their children to come to breakfast. Mrs. Gibbs tells Dr. Gibbs that their son George has not been helping with chores around the house lately. Mrs. Gibbs calls after her children again, who still have not come downstairs for breakfast. They finally enter: George (sixteen) and Rebecca (eleven). In the Webb household, Emily (sixteen) and Wally (eleven) come down to breakfast.
As the audience simultaneously sees the nearly identical breakfast scenes in the two households, the play shows its interest in representing the workings of the family unit, which functions similarly (and happily) in both the Webbs’ and Gibbs’ homes.
At breakfast in the two households, Mrs. Webb tells her children not to eat too quickly, while Mrs. Gibbs tells George she’ll speak to Dr. Gibbs about possibly raising his allowance. The kids finish breakfast and rush off to school. Mrs. Gibbs goes outside to feed her chickens and sees Mrs. Webb.
Again, we see two traditional families at work, with the mothers feeding, caring for, and worrying about their children. The breakfast scene is a perfectly ordinary event; similar mornings could have happened on any number of days in the characters’ lives, or in other character's lives.
Mrs. Gibbs tells Mrs. Webb that a secondhand furniture dealer from Boston came to her house and offered her $350 for her mother’s old dresser. She says that she would think about selling it if she knew that Dr. Gibbs would spend the money on a real vacation. She tells Mrs. Webb that she’s always wanted to see Paris.
This is the first hint of a character’s dissatisfaction with the ordinary, comfortable small-town existence of Grover’s Corners. Mrs. Gibbs’ desire to travel reveals how limited (and limiting) small-town communities can be.
Dr. Gibbs, however, has said that he doesn’t want to travel in Europe, because “it might make him discontented with Grover’s Corners.” Every two years he travels to Civil War battlefields and thinks “that’s enough treat for anybody.” Mrs. Webb encourages Mrs. Gibbs to keep dropping hints about Paris. Mrs. Gibbs comments that she thinks, “once in your life before you die you ought to see a country where they don’t talk in English.”
Mrs. Gibbs’ desire to travel abroad is never realized; she never explores outside her small-town life. That Dr. Gibbs can decide whether or not they will take a trip suggests that there is some inequality in their otherwise happy marriage.
The stage manager interrupts the women’s conversation and announces that he wants to give more information about Grover’s Corners. He invites Professor Willard, from the state university, to address the audience. Professor Willard gives some geological information about the land where the town is located, as well as the town’s population: 2642.
Just as the audience is starting to immerse themselves in the world of the play and willingly believe in the theater’s illusionary representation of a “real” day, the stage manager interrupts to emphasize that this is merely a staged play. Like the stage manager, Professor Willard is somehow a character in the play’s world who also realizes that he is in a play with an audience.
The stage manager then invites Mr. Webb onto the stage to give the “political and social report” on the town (since he is editor of the local newspaper). Mrs. Webb tells him that Mr. Webb will be there in a minute, as he just cut his hand in the kitchen. Mr. Webb does soon enter, and tells the audience about the demographics of the town, saying that it is a “very ordinary town.”
Now Mr. and Mrs. Webb also step outside the play, but are somehow still their characters. The border between the fictional world of the play and the real world is becoming unclear. Mr. Webb concludes, like the stage manager earlier, that Grover’s Corners is a typical, ordinary town.
The stage manager asks if anyone in the audience has any questions. A woman in the balcony of the theater, a man in the back of the auditorium, and a lady in a box in the theater ask questions. The woman asks if there is much drinking in the town (there is not), while the man asks whether people in the town are aware of “social injustice and industrial inequality.” Mr. Webb tells him that they are, but aren’t sure what to do about it. The lady asks if there is any culture in the town, and Mr. Webb replies that there is not much.
Not only do characters speak to the audience in Our Town, but audience members also speak to characters on the stage. Paradoxically, this emphasizes the fact that the Grover’s Corners depicted on-stage is not a real town, while also blurring the distinction between the play’s fictional world and the real world of the audience. Mr. Webb’s answers further characterize the town as ordinary and unexciting.
The stage manager says that they will now return to the play. It is early afternoon, kids have just gotten out of school, and Mr. Webb is mowing his lawn. George and Emily come back to their homes from school. George compliments Emily on an impressive speech she made in class. He tells her that his room’s window has a view directly onto her room and suggests they can “work out a kinda telegraph from [Emily’s] window to [his].” He asks if Emily could help him with his homework some time and she agrees to give him hints, but not the answers.
The stage manager’s interruptions allow the play to jump forward and backward in time, a feature the play will exploit more later in the play to examine the effects of time on Grover’s Corners and its residents. Emily and George are innocent and somewhat naïve. George’s plan to communicate with Emily through their windows is another detail suggesting an old small-town community.
George goes off to the baseball field, leaving Emily to speak with Mrs. Webb. Emily asks Mrs. Webb if she is good-looking and Mrs. Webb says she is “pretty enough for all normal purposes,” but dismisses the question as silly. The stage manager interrupts their conversation, telling them that he wants to offer the audience some more information about the town.
Emily is beginning to think about herself and others in romantic terms, but Mrs. Webb does not wish to discuss any such matters with her young daughter. This is an example of the ways that people fail to communicate with each other, or to fully grasp or even try to grasp the importance of what is being communicated. The stage manager’s interruption again exposes the fact that we are watching a fictional play.
The stage manager explains some recent developments in Grover’s Corners. A new bank is being built and they’ve decided to bury some objects in a time capsule in the building’s cornerstone to preserve for posterity. They are including a copy of the New York Times, the local newspaper, Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, and the U.S. Constitution. The stage manager reflects that we know practically nothing about the ordinary lives of ancient civilizations and decides to include a copy of Our Town with the other items, so that “people a thousand years from now’ll know a few simple facts about us.”
The stage manager’s thoughts on the importance of the ordinary form one of the central messages of the play, which carefully documents mundane, ordinary events and people. The play suggests, just as the stage manager does, that “a few simple facts” can do more to convey what life is actually like than knowledge of major historical events or headlines can. The time capsule itself shows citizens thinking about the passage of time, realizing that their lives will one day be long-gone relics of history.
As the stage manager finishes his speech, a choir partially off-stage has begun to sing a song called “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” This is the local church choir, directed by Simon Stimson. Meanwhile, Emily and George are “upstairs” in their respective rooms (symbolized on-stage by their being up in two ladders). From window to window, George asks Emily for some help on his homework.
The hymn’s title hints at the importance of the binding connections that hold the community of Grover’s Corners together, such as the ties between neighbors like Emily and George or between members of the church choir who practice together,
Simon Stimson tells the choir that they will be singing at an upcoming wedding and will use the same music they did for the last wedding they sang at. Dr. Gibbs calls George downstairs and asks him what he wants to do once he graduates from high school. George tells him he plans to work on his uncle’s farm.
Here the hymn and the idea of the "ties that bind" are associated with marriages, the joining together of two people. That the choir uses the same music for all its weddings shows the continuity of the town. A wedding in Grover’s Corners might look and sound the same as one from years earlier, or later. George has no ambitions to leave the community of Grover’s Corners after graduating.
Dr. Gibbs asks if George will be willing to do all the chores and work around the farm, since he has not been doing chores at home. He tells him that Mrs. Gibbs had to chop wood because he hadn’t done it, even though she already spends so much of her time cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry. He scolds George for treating Mrs. Gibbs “like she’s some hired girl we keep around the house.” Nonetheless, he tells George he has agreed to raise his allowance by twenty-five cents per week. George apologizes and thanks him.
While Dr. Gibbs scolds George for treating his mother like hired help, the specter of this idea of the mother and wife as a servant looms behind the traditional family structure that Our Town presents. Dr. Gibbs, after all, also expects his wife to keep the house clean and running and never fulfills her desire to travel abroad. Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are happy with their lives, but as we see them continually working tirelessly around their homes, it is worth considering whether their traditional roles as wives are oppressive.
George goes back upstairs as Mrs. Gibbs, Mrs. Webb, and Mrs. Soames come on-stage, returning from choir practice. Mrs. Soames gossips with them about Simon Stimson, who is an alcoholic (and was drunk at their practice this evening). Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb encourage her to mind her own business and not notice Stimson’s drunkenness. They go their separate ways and Mrs. Gibbs arrives outside her house.
In a small-town community like Grover’s Corners, gossip is common, as everyone knows each other, and often knows their faults, like Stimson’s drinking problem. At the same time, they overlook the issue, which might be seen as kindness but could also be seen as avoiding issues of significance.
Dr. Gibbs is upset that Mrs. Gibbs is arriving home so late (though she tells him it isn’t any later than usual) and comments on her stopping “to gossip with a lot of hens.” She tells him not to be grouchy and explains that she and the other wives were talking about Simon Stimson, who has not been doing well recently. Dr. Gibbs laments Stimson’s alcoholism but says “there’s nothing we can do but just leave it alone.”
Dr. Gibbs’ scolding of Mrs. Gibbs again hints at some inequality in their marriage, as he likes to have some control over when she is away from the house. His attitude toward Stimson is a feature of the small town community in which everyone knows each other yet tries to mind their own business.
Mrs. Gibbs says that she is worried about her husband and wants him to make plans to take a break from work. Dr. Gibbs refuses to talk about this and goes inside.
Again, Dr. Gibbs seems to have exclusive control over whether they will take a long vacation. He perhaps doesn’t realize that he is keeping his wife from realizing a long-standing dream of travel beyond the confines of small-town America. It is significant that in a play that stresses the importance of everyday domestic life, Dr. Gibbs focuses on work rather than family.
Once they are inside, Mrs. Gibbs mentions that people in Grover’s Corners have begun to lock their doors at night. Dr. Gibbs says that those people are, unfortunately, “getting citified.” Upstairs, George and Rebecca are talking in his room. The stage manager tells the audience that it is 9:30 PM and most of the lights in town are out. Constable Warren, a policeman, and Mr. Webb meet as they walk along Main Street. Simon Stimson walks by, drunk. Constable Warren worries about Stimson, before walking off.
The Gibbs’ quaint worries about “citification” both characterize the small-town life they cherish and show that this lifestyle is passing away, as time moves on and the town grows and becomes more modern. The local policeman walking down main street and the majority of citizens going to sleep by 9:30pm are more features of this small-town life that is slowly disappearing in 20th century America. So is the cop who knows the town drunk well enough to worry about him rather than arrest him.
Mr. Webb notices that someone is up on the second floor of his house and asks who’s there. It is Emily, who says she can’t sleep, because the moonlight is so bright. Mr. Webb asks if anything is troubling her and she says no. He walks into his house, whistling “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.”
The repeated motif of the hymn again stresses the connectedness of Grover’s Corners as a tight-knit community. Emily’s lack of serious troubles shows that the first act has followed its characters on an ordinary, basically trouble-free day. At the same time, the moon with its phases is a symbol of both change and continuity, and the fact that it is keeping Emily up suggests how her own life will be affected by both change and continuity.
Upstairs in the Gibbs home, Rebecca tells George about a letter her friend received with the address, “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover’s Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” The stage manager announces that the first act of the play is now over.
The address on the letter situates the tiny town of Grover’s Corners within the entirety of the universe, emphasizing that the town is a tiny, apparently insignificant part of the whole world. But to the people who live within the community (and to the play), this insignificant town is of real importance. The address also could be applied to nearly anyone, which therefore emphasizes both individual smallness but also commonality. The stage manager’s announcement of the end of the act again deflates the illusion of realism in the play.