The play’s three acts focus on three different moments in time: one day during Emily and George’s childhood, their wedding, and Emily’s funeral. In addition, there is a long flash-back in act two and Emily revisits a moment from her childhood in act three. Moreover, the stage manager repeatedly tells the audience information about characters’ futures, revealing the tragic death of Joe Crowell, for example, while he is still a young boy on-stage. By jumping around in time, Wilder’s play is able to examine the passage of time from a variety of angles, more than if it simply followed characters’ lives in a strictly linear, chronological fashion. The stage manager’s thoughts on the town’s time capsule also offer an opportunity to think about time, as the stage manager imagines how the future will remember his own time. Much of the play reveals the sadness of the quick passing of time, which means growing up, leaving behind the innocence of childhood, getting older, approaching death, and dying, all more quickly than the characters ever expect. Even while Joe Crowell is still a young paperboy, we learn of his eventual death at war. Emily is a young woman in act one with a promising future, but she is leaving her childhood behind in act two to marry George, and she is already dead by the time act three begins.
The inevitable passage of time affects not only individual people, but also the town at large. As automobiles threaten to replace buggies, Mr. Morgan (played by the stage manager) laments the changes coming to Grover’s Corners: “I tell you, you’ve got to look both ways before you cross Main Street these days. Gets worse every year.” Similarly, in act one Mrs. Gibbs notices that people are beginning to lock their doors at night in Grover’s Corners and Dr. Gibbs regrets that “they’re all getting citified.” The passage of time, with its technological advances and the growth of small towns into larger cities, threatens to change and drastically alter the small town that the play’s characters value so much.
However, as much as things change, in many ways they also stay the same. In each act, the same milkman, Howie Newsome, makes his way around the town. The same routines and events continually repeat in the town. Children go to the school, a paperboy delivers the newspaper, citizens get married, and citizens pass away. Emily’s death during child-birth encapsulates this cyclical aspect of time. Her life comes to an end just as another begins. While individuals grow up too fast and pass away, the human cycles of life and death remain constant. This may be one reason why Wilder’s play takes such an interest in everyday, little matters. From a broad perspective, as time inevitably progresses along, important things—births, marriages, deaths—remain unaltered. But the little things are where people are unique, where one can see how one birth or one wedding is different from all the others. This is why the stage manager thinks Our Town is worth preserving for posterity in the town’s time capsule. In its exploration of the mundane specificities of individual lives, it allows us to reflect on how much the world changes and how much it stays the same.
Time, Change, and Continuity ThemeTracker
Time, Change, and Continuity Quotes in Our Town
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.
Here comes Howie Newsome delivering the milk. And there’s Si Cromwell delivering the papers like his brother before him.
Ma, I don’t want to grow old. Why’s everybody pushing me so?
And George over there, looking so ...! I hate him. I wish I were dead. Papa! Papa!
Emily! Emily! Now don’t get upset...
But, Papa,—I don’t want to get married....
Sh—sh—Emily. Everything’s all right.
Why can’t I stay for a while just as I am?
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.