Our Town is a three act play by Thornton Wilder which is, perhaps, the most frequently produced play by an American playwright. The play is set in the fictional community of Grover's Corners, modeled after several New Hampshire towns in the Mount Monadnock region: Jaffrey, Peterborough, Dublin, and others. Using meta-theatrical devices, the play is set in a 1930's theater. Through the actions of the Stage Manager, the town of Grover's Corners is created for the audience and scenes from its history between the years of 1901 and 1913 play out. Wilder, in his 30s, lived in MacDowell Colony in Peterborough in June, 1937, one of many locations where Wilder worked on the play. The third act was drafted entirely in one day during a visit to Zurich in September 1937 after a long evening walk in the rain with a friend. The eventual product was banned in the Soviet Union in 1947, together with The Skin of Our Teeth, for making family life "too attractive." Our Town is a story of character development that details the interactions between citizens of an everyday town in the early 20th century through their everyday lives (particularly the lives of George Gibbs, a doctor's son, and Emily Webb, the daughter of a newspaper editor). Our Town was first performed at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey on January 22, 1938. It next opened at the Wilbur Theater in Boston, Massachusetts on January 25, 1938. Its New York City debut was on February 4, 1938 at Henry Miller's Theatre, and later moved to the Morosco Theatre. The play was produced and directed by Jed Harris. Wilder received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1938 for the work.
Wilder's use of archetypes and stereotypes appeal to average families and make this play a "timeless classic." Beginning with the routine and tiny necessities of daily life, the audience is exposed to the intimate and habitual life of a real American family. The last two acts gradually represent deeper aspects of life using George Gibbs and Emily Webb, whose unspoken mutual affection as children blossoms into love, marriage and death. Act 2 celebrates the wedding of George and Emily. The characters analyze the need for human companionship while questioning the institution of marriage. The last-minute apprehension Emily and George feel about their marriage represents a universal theme of young people wanting to grow up quickly while still craving childhood's relative certainty and security.
Our Town's strong grasp on its audience lasts through the finale of the play, when the ghost of Emily Webb travels back in time to her 12th birthday. Through this, Wilder conveys the meaning and significance of the little things in life. The theme of daily life and routine is once again brought back into the play. The author's concept of pursuing life is also brought up with Mrs. Gibbs's desire to visit France. Later in the play she obtains the money necessary to go, but she instead leaves the money to George and his wife; implying that either she, like Emily, did not appreciate life to its fullest, or instead that she came to enjoy the simple pleasures enough that she didn't need France. The magnitude of small town America, with its slow-moving culture and relaxed atmosphere, is revealed. Because these life lessons are relevant even to today's fast-paced culture, the timelessness of Our Town is underscored.
Our Town also attempts to encapsulate the New England town of the early twentieth century, with its ongoing industrialization and immigration, alluded to in the mentions of "Pole Town." The Stage Manager also stresses the famous line "This is the way we were."
Emily finds that she is able to relive moments in her life and, against the advice of Mrs. Gibbs and with the help of the Stage Manager, decides to relive a day in her life. Mrs. Gibbs advises Emily that if she is to pick a day to relive, she should pick one that is insignificant; the reasoning behind this suggestion is that not only will Emily relive the day, she will also observe the day with the knowledge of the future. Emily decides to revisit her twelfth birthday. She is initially overwhelmed with joy but quickly succumbs to tears when she realizes how much she took for granted when she was alive and how quickly life speeds by. She says "We don't even have time, remarking that life was full of ignorance and blindness. Mrs. Gibbs reassures Emily that Simon's bitter view "ain't the whole truth and [he] knows it." Stars are mentioned as a metaphor of life and how it is always changing, always evolving. Here Wilder addresses life's ongoing cycle: the so-called circle of life. While looking at the whole picture, the dead understand how minuscule human life is, especially when comparing it with the millions of years it takes for the light of stars to travel to earth. The play drives home its moral when George Gibbs approaches Emily’s grave and collapses in tears. Emily, watching this, is saddened and amazed at how the living "don't understand." The play closes with the Stage Manager making a few comments about how tomorrow is a new day--the implication being that we, the audience, the living, should live every minute.
In the 1940 film version, for which Wilder wrote the screenplay and was given complete script control, Wilder agreed to a happier ending in which Emily dreams her death, but does not actually die. Music for the film was written by Aaron Copland.