Our Town is a simple yet powerful production with inspiring scenes and dialogue that prompt audiences and readers to think about small town life in the early 1900s. Interestingly, Wilder deviates from traditional play elements by making the narrator the stage manager of a theater putting on the play; thus, Wilder creates a metatheatrical play within a play. It is important to discuss why Wilder would write a play in this manner and how this style affects the audience.

In teaching this play, it is also helpful to provide historical context. During the Great Depression, amidst the rising tensions in Europe shortly before World War II, Wilder aimed to address not the hidden secrets and hypocrisy of small towns, but the humanity that exists amid virtue and vice. In a time of fear and uncertainty, Wilder's focus on the overall stability and constancy of life uplifted audiences and caused his play to become an American classic.

As with any play, students will gain a fuller experience of the work if roles are divided and read by the class. Our Town is a very minimalist production with no set and few props, which makes it easy to read aloud or even perform in the classroom. By acting out the play instead of just reading the text, students will be more interested in and excited about the work.

Summary

The 1938 three-act play tells the story of a family within a small town in the early 1900s. The play is told as if the theater is partially the setting, with a stage manager as the narrator. He introduces characters and scenes, acts as some characters, and asks questions of the audience. There are also no props used in Our Town, which makes it an extremely unique play and one which was ahead of its time. The play follows a family in a small town before urbanization, with milkmen and tons of gossip, over a full lifetime of birth, love, and death.

Objectives for Teaching Our Town

  • Discuss the theme of people overlooking the beauty of life because they are caught up in routine.
  • Evaluate how Wilder shows that all people, past and present, share a common humanity.
  • Discuss how and why the set in this play departs from the traditional box set.
  • Explain how Wilder's characters are universal figures who serve to represent human nature in general.
  • Consider to what extent and why this play might be read as an allegory.
  • Identify and analyze the significance of the motif of time and how the passage of time is indicated.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allegory
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Juxtaposition
  • Magical Realism
  • Metatheatre
  • Setting
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Transcience of Time — Everyone within the play is strongly influenced by time, even the narrator, the stage manager, who loses track of time in some moments. The play's first act especially focuses on the importance of daily routines in small town lives, and its last act focuses on the quick passage of life into death.
  • Visions of America — The play's setting is placed right at the turn of the century in America. It highlights the importance of small-town regularities, such as soda shops, delivered milk, and strongly divided parental roles.
  • Marriage —  Love and marriage are given high importance and much dialogue within the play. Marriage is not only the biggest moment of the characters' lives, but what shapes the rest of their journey.

Related Works

Theme of Transcience of Time

 

Themes of Visions of America

 

Themes of Marriage

Key Facts

  • Length: 208 pages
  • Publication Date: 1938
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Awards

  • Pulitzer Prize (1938)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival (1989)
  • Tony Award for Best Revival (1989)

Movies

Two movie versions exist for Our Town. The first was released in 1940 and was nominated for six Oscar awards. This 1940 film is fairly true to the play, with two significant differences: Scenery is used, and the events of the third act are revealed to be a dream from which Emily awakens. The second movie was a PBS Picture released in 2003 that was nominated for one Primetime Emmy award. Both movies are available on DVD.

Your students will love:

  • The beautifully written and impactful dialogue
  • The narrator's different parts and how he speaks directly to the audience

Students may have problems with:

  • Keeping track of all the characters
  • Huge lapses in time over the three acts
  • The small town vernacular

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