Critical Essays Structure and Technique of Our Town


In Our Town, Thornton Wilder sets himself apart from Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, and other playwrights of the American theater of his time by his innovations. He uses the typical three-act division as the basic structure of his play, but from this point on, he varies from tradition. He employs a structure which illuminates a theme of timelessness and which allows him to present a generalized view of small-town life in America.

He structures each act around a central idea. Act I is called "Daily Life " Interjecting himself as spokesman, the Stage Manager steps out on the stage and narrates simple facts about the town. Then, the milkman and paper boy make their rounds. The two families which are the focus of the drama get their children off to school. Later, two of the children return home from school. These short, pictorial scenes are dramatic moments intended to render a nostalgic picture of everyday activities. Between the scenes, the Stage Manager interprets for the audience. Wilder's technique is clearer in the second act where the stage manager explains what is happening in the wedding scene. In his words: "There are a lot of things to be said about a wedding; there are a lot of thoughts that go on during a wedding. . We can't get them all into one wedding, naturally, and especially not into a wedding at Grover's Corners " To increase his appeal, Wilder intimates that this is a universal wedding. He does so by choosing predictable aspects of any American wedding. In similar fashion throughout the play, Wilder presents the common and recurrent aspects of life.

The focus of the play then develops from "Daily Life" in the first act to "Love and Marriage" in the second act and "Death" in the last act. This final act shifts the setting from the streets of Grover's Corners to the cemetery on the hill outside town. Thus, Wilder presents a unified whole — human life summed up in three acts, all of which flow along in a perfectly normal pattern. Wilder reveals a bare stage featuring no scenery and few props. This minimalist technique, which he pioneered with Our Town, makes everyday objects represent larger structures: A counter becomes the drug store, and a trellis symbolizes a whole house and garden. His purpose in reducing the scope of his staging is to emphasize ordinary things and to restore importance to life's trivia. By activating the audience's imagination, he stimulates them to conjure up for themselves the larger objects and themes that he is suggesting.

This technique of saying more with less has other purposes. First, by having no definite scenery, the play transcends Grover's Corners and becomes universal. It can be reproduced on almost any stage in any country. Even in a foreign land, the audience can visualize local towns. Also, Wilder is interested in presenting a true picture of life. To do so, he breaks with realism and demands that members of the audience supply their own up-to-the-minute mental realism to flesh out sets and staging.