By Thornton Wilder
Come and explore the quaint New
Hampshire town of Grover’s Corner, where
it can appear that little happens, but every
moment is filled with greatness. Celebrate
life and love in this cherished American
Thornton Niven Wilder was born on April 17, 1897 in Madison, Wisconsin.
His parents, Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Thornton Wilder, were
wealthy and conservative. They imparted to Thornton deep moral and
religious values. Thornton spent much of his childhood in Hong Kong, for
in 1906 his father was appointed America’s
Consulate General there. In Hong Kong, he
attended Chinese missionary schools and
received a good education. After high school
graduation, he attended Oberlin College for two
years and went on to graduate from Yale
University in 1920, where he received a degree
in classical literature with honors. While
pursuing an advanced degree at Princeton
University, Wilder taught at Lawrenceville School, where he remained on
staff from 1921 until 1928. He received his master’s degree in English in
1926 and then went on to study archeology at the American Academy in
Rome. During his student years, Wilder also began to write. He published
his first novel, The Cabala, in 1926. He also wrote a play entitled The
Trumpet Shall Sound.
After graduating from Princeton, Wilder’s literary
career began in earnest. He published The Bridge of
San Luis Rey in 1927; it became a landmark
American novel and brought Wilder popular success.
It also won him his first Pulitzer Prize. He then turned
his attention to drama and published The Angel that
Troubled the Waters in 1928. In 1930, he became a
faculty member at the University of Chicago. In the
same year, he also published his next novel, The
Woman of Andros, and dabbled in scriptwriting for
motion pictures. His next novel, Heaven's My Destination, was published
in 1935. Wilder then turned his full attention to drama, for which he is now
best remembered. He produced Our Town in 1938 and The Skin of Our
Teeth in 1942. He won another Pulitzer Prize for the two of them.
When the United States joined World War II, Wilder enlisted and served in
Europe. For his outstanding military efforts, he received the Legion of
Merit, the Bronze Star, and the Legion d’Honneur; he was also given
honorary membership in the Order of the British Empire for his wartime
contributions. After the war, Wilder returned to writing and teaching.
In 1948, Wilder published a novel, The Ides of March, about Julius
Caesar. Between 1950 and 1951, he delivered the Charles Eliot Norton
Lectures in poetry at Harvard. In 1952 he became the chief of the
American delegation to the UNESCO Conference of Arts in Venice, Italy. In
1954, he produced the play entitled The Matchmaker, followed by A Life in the Sun in 1955. In 1962, he retired to a small town in Arizona to nurse his frail health. He continued his writing career there and produced two
plays in 1964: The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Ages of Man. In
1968, he produced Eighth Day, for which he won a National Medal for
Literature. Wilder published his last novel, Theophilus North, in 1973. He
passed away in 1975 in Hamden, Connecticut, where he had been staying
with his sister, Isabel Wilder.
Besides winning several Pulitzer Prizes for Literature, Wilder received
many other accolades in his lifetime. In 1963, he received a Presidential
Medal. He was also conferred honorary degrees from New York
University, Yale University, Kenyon College, College of Wooster, Harvard
University, Northeastern University, Oberlin College, University of
Hampshire, and University of Zurich.
Notes from the Playwright
Every action which has ever taken place—every thought, every emotion--
has taken place only once, at one moment in time and place. “I love you,”
“I rejoice,” “I suffer,” have been said and felt many billions of times, and
never twice the same. Every person who has ever lived has lived an
unbroken succession of unique occasions. Yet the more one is aware of
this individuality in experience (innumerable! innumerable!) the more one
becomes attentive to what these disparate moments have in common, to
repetitive patterns. As an artist (or listener or beholder) which ‘truth” do
you prefer—that of the isolated occasion, or that which includes . . . the
innumerable? Which truth is more worth telling? . . . The theatre is
admirably fitted to tell both truths. It has one foot planted firmly in the
particular, since each actor before us (even when he wears a mask!) is
indubitably a living, breathing “one”; yet it [also] tends and strains to
exhibit a general truth since its relation to a specific “realistic” truth is
confused and undermined by the fact that it is an accumulation of untruths,
pretenses and fiction.
Our Town is not . . . a picture of life in a New Hampshire village; or a
speculation about the conditions of life after death . . . . It is an attempt to
find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life. . . . I
have set the village against the largest dimensions of time and place. The
recurrent words in this play are “hundreds,” “thousands,” and “millions.”
Emily’s joys and griefs, her algebra lessons and her birthday presents--
what are they when we consider all the billions of girls who have lived,
who are living and who will live? Each individual’s assertion to an
absolute reality can only be inner, very inner. . . . Our claim, our hope, our
despair are in the mind—not in things, not in “scenery.” Molière said that
for the theatre all he needed was a platform and a passion or two. The
climax of this play needs only five square feet and the passion to know
what life means to us.
-- Thornton Wilder, 1957
From the “Preface” to Three Plays
published by Harper and Row
Our Town, which came to be heralded as a Poetic Chronicle of Life and
Death, was Wilder’s first major play and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for
literature. The first performance of the play took place at the McCarter
Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, on January 22, 1938; it then moved on
to play in Boston and New York, where it met with tremendous success.
Audiences felt that there was something very human and universal about
Grover’s Corners; everyone could identify with someone in this small town.
Wilder’s passionate plea in the play is to appreciate every
moment of every day, for life is a fleeting thing. With troubles
rapidly expanding in Europe and war becoming a looming
reality, people were inundated with the negative aspects of life.
To see Our Town was to escape from the negative and rejoice
in the ordinary; it reaffirmed faith in the unchanging moral
values of small town living. It was obviously the balm that audiences
needed in the midst of a pessimistic and changing world.
Act I, "Daily Life" creates the picture of ordinary people engrossed in their
daily routine against the backdrop of Grover’s Corners, a small New
Hampshire Town. The Stage Manager describes the setting and
introduces the audience to the Webbs and Gibbs, the families that are the
main characters of the play. After the introduction, Howie Newsome, the
milkman, and Joe Crowell Jr., the paperboy, arrive on their daily errands.
Doctor Gibbs comes on stage; he is returning from Polish town, where he
has delivered twins to Mrs. Goruslawski.
Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb are busy getting their children ready. After they
depart for school, the mothers visit with each other. The day then passes
in ordinary activity. When school is out, Emily and George walk towards
home together. Emily agrees to help him with his homework. As the couple
moves off stage, the Stage Manager returns and gives some additional
background information about the town. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs are
then seen returning from choir rehearsal at the church; they gossip about
Simon Stimson, the church organist who drinks too much. As the people of
Grover’s Corners prepare for bed, Constable Warren patrols the town.
The Stage Manager enters to announce the end of Act I.
Act II opens with a monologue from the Stage
Manager. He informs the audience that the play
is moving forward three years in time; he also
tells that the act is titled “Love and Marriage.”
Emily and George, who have been sweethearts
for many years, are engaged; their families are
eagerly preparing for the wedding. Mrs. Gibbs is
worried about her son, but her husband tries to
allay her fears. George goes to Emily’s house but is prohibited from
entering by his future mother-in-law; she claims that it is bad luck for the
groom to see the bride on the day of the wedding.
The Stage Manager comes forward to reveal how Emily and George
became a couple. One day on the way home from school, Emily upbraids
him for being so into baseball that he neglects his family and friends.
George readily admits that he has allowed baseball to become more
important than many things, but not more important than she. Emily is
overwhelmed at his admission, and before long they profess their love for
another other. The Stage Manager then announces that he is to play the
role of a minister for the wedding. He goes on to philosophize about
Before the wedding, Mrs. Webb is sad, for she feels like she is losing her
daughter; she is also worried because she feels Emily is ignorant about
the facts of life. During the ceremony, George and Emily are obviously
nervous, but they manage to both say, “I do.” Mrs. Soames, a guest at the
wedding, continuously gushes about this being the loveliest wedding she
has ever attended.
At the opening of the third act, entitled “Death,” nine years have passed.
The setting is a cemetery, and many of the characters seen previously in
the play are among the dead, who now roam the stage as spirits. Emily is
among them; she has just passed away during the birth of her second
child and was been tearfully laid to rest by her family and friends. As a
newcomer to the spirit world, she is uneasy and restless. She expresses
her strong desire to go to earth again and relive her past -- at least for a
single day. The other spirits try to dissuade her, but she persists. When
she is allowed to choose one day to revisit, Emily picks her twelfth
Emily’s return to earth disillusions her; she is amazed to realize that human
beings do not appreciate life; they seem to take everything for granted.
Unable to endure the agony of the truth, Emily sadly returns to her grave
before the end of the day. When her husband visits her grave that night to
shed tears of grief, Emily realizes that George, like all humans, does not
understand the truth about death – or life. The play ends with the Stage
Manager appearing for the final time to bid farewell to the audience.
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