Summary and Analysis
Act I: Part 3
The Stage Manager dismisses the two women and asks Professor Willard to interject some historic data. The professor begins as far back as prehistory with tedious, pedantic details and works his way forward. He misstates the population as 2,640 because he is unaware that Doctor Gibbs has delivered two babies. The Stage Manager then calls on Editor Webb to report the social and economic status of the town. Webb is momentarily delayed because he cut his hand while eating an apple. During Mr. Webb's account, he notes that Grover's Corners is composed of mostly lower-middle-class people who are eighty-six percent Republican and eighty-five percent Protestant. He concludes that life there must be satisfying because ninety percent of the young people settle in their hometown. When he finishes his comments, the Stage Manager asks if anyone in the audience wants to ask a question. One woman wants to know if there is much drinking. A belligerent man asks if there is any culture in the town. The editor tells them that there is not much drinking and that no one is much concerned about social injustice. Culture, he declares, is limited in Grover's Corners.
The Stage Manager's narrative then jumps forward to early afternoon, as Emily is coming home from school. George hurries to catch up with her. He suggests a communication system from her window to his so that Emily can help him with difficult algebra problems. He freely acknowledges that she is naturally bright. When they reach Emily's home, George leaves for the baseball field. Emily, while joining her mother in stringing beans, asks if her mother thinks Emily is pretty. Mrs. Webb assures Emily that she is pretty enough for normal purposes.
The Stage Manager returns and lists the items that will be enclosed in the cornerstone of the new bank. He intends to include a copy of the play as a message to people a thousand years hence of how residents grew up, married, lived, and died. In the distance, the Congregational Church choir sings "Blessed Be the Tie That Binds " Meanwhile, two ladders, representing the second stories of the two houses, are moved onstage. George and Emily mount the ladders. George calls to Emily for help with a math problem. She gives him some hints. She also points out how wonderful the moon is.
In the background, Simon Stimson, the choir director, asks how many people can sing at Fred Hersey's wedding. Back at the Gibbses, the doctor calls to George and describes how his mother had to chop firewood because George has been shirking his chores. The doctor promises to increase George's allowance to fifty cents a week because George is getting older. He implies that George must take on more responsibility by helping his mother. Mrs. Webb and Mrs. Gibbs return from choir practice. Mrs. Soames, who accompanies them, complains about Simon's drinking. Mrs. Gibbs explains that Dr. Ferguson is aware of Simon's dependency, yet keeps him on as organist. The rest of the congregation has little choice but to look the other way. Mrs. Gibbs returns home. Her husband complains that she is later than usual and accuses her of gossiping. She replies that Simon Stimson was very drunk at choir practice, and that she wonders how long Dr. Ferguson can continue to forgive him. Doc Gibbs, who indicates that he knows the inside details of Simon's problems, observes that some people are not made for small-town life.
At 9:30, Bill Warren, the town constable, comes by and greets Mr. Webb. He notes that Simon Stimson "is rolling around a little " Simon strolls unsteadily down the street; he passes both men without speaking. Mr. Webb asks Bill to help stop George from taking up smoking. The constable says goodnight and departs.
Mr. Webb notices Emily in the upstairs window. He tells her goodnight and goes into the house. Across the way, George Gibbs and his sister are looking out the window. Rebecca comments on the minister's unusual method of addressing a letter to Jane Crofut. Then the Stage Manager appears and announces, "That's the end of the First Act, friends. You can go and smoke now, those that smoke ".
The reader may be puzzled at Act I. In Our Town, each act must be interpreted in terms of the entire play. First, Wilder concerns himself with birth in the first act, marriage in the second act, and death in the final act. Thus, Act I opens with dawn, the birth of the day, as well as the birth of twins. In addition to human birth, Wilder reveals the beginning of a friendship which will develop into marriage. In the guise of the Stage Manager, the playwright becomes a kind of midwife: He delivers each of the main characters as literary creations and symbolic mirrors of the typical boy/girl relationship.
Furthermore, in terms of the whole play, Wilder presents a plea for the viewer to enjoy life to its fullest. In the last act, he notes that most people live their lives without appreciating the small, insignificant moments. These small things later become important when death takes them away. To present this theme, Wilder painstakingly introduces the audience to the seemingly mundane aspects of life. Therefore, the first act presents short scenes from life as entertainment and, more important, as lessons. These short scenes become especially important to the play as a whole. A review recalls what each scene contributes to the total effect:.
The first scene presents a paper boy and a milkman. One delivers nourishment for the mind and the other delivers food for the body.
Then, two families, like families everywhere, involve themselves in getting children ready for school. The third scene shows two mothers conversing. Their friendship represents the kind of support system that flourishes in a small-town environment.
The fourth scene reveals a boy and a girl returning from school. Their walk together suggests the "two-by-two" arrangement which evolves into love and marriage in Act II.
The fifth scene depicts a bright student helping a slower student. In this stereotyped vignette, the brighter student is the girl, who helps an athletic, baseball-minded boy. The sixth scene shows a father promising to raise his son's allowance but suggesting subtly that the boy help his mother more.
The seventh scene depicts choir practice at a Protestant church and the concern of choir members for the organist's alcoholic addiction. In almost every social setting, there are people who drink too much and about whom others gossip. The final scene shows these various people retiring for the night. One couple takes a walk to look at the moon. Another person is concerned that his son will take up smoking.
In each scene, the activities represent the normal, day-to-day life of average people. These are the events that comprise human life. They are the facets of living which people take for granted and perform by rote. The older we get, the more we realize the value of these moments — and how little we valued them at the time. After death, they are gone forever. Wilder emphasizes these seemingly insignificant details in order to reverse the usual conception of what is important. Thus, he concludes that it is not the momentous events but the trivialities that become meaningful. To stress the universality of these events, Wilder sets the stage with no scenery, thereby denying dramatic illusion. Because he forces the viewer to fill in the blanks left by the barren stage, each viewer creates an individualized and detailed mental picture. The words that the characters speak become more significant because they are the only source of imagery.
Because Wilder does not build anticipation of events that are to come, the viewer perceives no mysteries to be resolved. Even the matter of Simon Stimson's drinking creates little tension, since the matter is presented mundanely and without alarm. The experience of Act I, ending with a reminder that it is time for smokers to adjourn from the theater, breaks any illusion of traditional drama and reminds the audience that they are not viewing a typical play.
Behind Wilder's emphasis on a bare stage is a subtle understanding of how our minds work during a play. We can imagine any small town. Set on the individual mental stage conjured up in each viewer's mind, the significance of small glimpses of human interaction develops into a major assessment of what makes life worth living. Thus, the audience is left with small, realistic details of life in a small town — in any setting, in any time.