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.
The Theater ThemeTracker
The Theater Quotes in Our Town
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.
There’s some scenery for those who think they have to have scenery.
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.
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.
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.