Unitarian Church, Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was built in 1825 based on a handbook design published by architect Asher Benjamin (1773–1845) and is referenced in Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The unencumbered stage encourages the truth operative in everyone. The less seen, the more heard. The eye is the enemy of the ear in real drama.—Thornton Wilder
For almost a century, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town has provided audiences with an exceptionally moving theatrical experience despite its minimal sets and only a handful of props—indeed, the play begins with the Stage Manager on an empty stage, dragging a few chairs and tables into their places while the theater audience is still taking their seats. The power of this play emanates from its simplicity: allusions to spectacle (what the audience sees and hears) without distracting production; elegant characterization and character development; and essential human conflicts and contrasts that animate the stage.
The activities in this lesson require students to be active observers, sensitive to the playwright’s subtle use of these dramatic and theatrical devices to shape his drama. Students will focus on the sights and sounds of the play to discover their impact on mood and theme; they will scrutinize Wilder’s character development to understand the many individual dramas that constitute the overarching drama; and they will investigate conflicts and contrasts whose resolutions or lack thereof have made the play meaningful to so many readers and audiences.
How did playwright Thornton Wilder use certain dramatic and theatrical devices to affect meaning in the play Our Town?
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3. Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.
Our Town is often referred to as the quintessential work of American theater. In 1938 it earned Thornton Wilder the second of his three Pulitzers and his first for drama. Donald Margulies attests to its worldwide impact. “Indeed the play's success across cultural borders around the world attests to its being something much greater than an American play: it is a play that captures the universal experience of being alive.”
The play dramatizes the life of a small "ordinary" town in New England at the beginning of the twentieth century. Peterborough, New Hampshire, is believed to be the model for the play. The fictional Grover’s Corners was conceived when Thornton Wilder was in residence at the nearby MacDowell Colony artists' retreat in June 1937. The name for the fictional setting appears to have been lifted from Peterborough's Grove Street.
Frequently and creatively staged, Our Town garners as much heartfelt appreciation and as many enthusiastic reviews today as it did when first produced. Critics note Wilder’s choice of “a liberatingly severe aesthetic to map the topography of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire;” such qualities as “a cosmic dimension, where joy and sorrow are equal modes from the vantage point of the stars;” and, as per a review of a performance executed by actors with hearing impairment, a “reach into the universal soul.” The play’s earnest but unsentimental admonition that we value life in all its minutiae continues to resound with audiences, production after production, decade after decade.
Students should have read the play in its entirety before you begin work on this project. They will reread aloud passages from the play as they complete the activities.
Have students explore the impact of Wilder’s stage directions for sights and sounds on the play’s moods and themes.
Read Act 1 aloud as a whole group and then divide students into small groups of three. Using the Sights and Sounds graphic organizer, ask students to track—from the playwright’s stage directions, what the Stage Manager tells us, and what any other characters evoke—all that we are asked to see and hear (not including dialogue), either literally or figuratively, or directly or indirectly, in Act 1.
Bring the groups back together to hear their conclusions, and then ask students to return to their graphic organizers (independently or with their groups) to flesh them out with any details or observations they can add from class discussion.
Allow students time in their small groups to read a little more of the play aloud. Then ask them to begin (independently) the graphic organizer’s row for Act 2 and hand them in for your review. Your goal is to see students making connections between spectacle and mood and theme. (As your study of the play continues, students should return to the graphic organizer for the rest of Act 2 and Act 3. You can allow time in class or assign as homework.)
Have students explore Wilder’s depiction and development of key characters and their impact on the play.
Begin by asking students if they have anything they want to add or modify from the preceding class discussion. Address specifically whether they see the same moods and themes developing and/or new ones. Next, ask students to return to their small groups to complete columns 2 and 3 (physical and biographical elements and beliefs, motivations, emotions, and behaviors) of the Role Call graphic organizer, to begin to track the main characters’ characteristics. Assign groups responsibility for different characters.
Bring groups back together to report on their assigned characters. First ask them to share the details they find most compelling. Then extend discussion by asking for the following, all based on the essential attributes they have identified in columns 2 and 3:
During discussion, students should be filling in their graphic organizers with the data the other groups offer. They should also be encouraged to suggest additions to one another’s lists. Be sure to give students time after discussion to write out their thoughts in column 4.
Ask students to summarize in 1–2 paragraphs, and with quoted text, what themes they see the content in columns 3 and 4 initiating or extending. (As above, students should return to this graphic organizer for each act of the play. You can allow time in class or assign as homework.)
Have students explore Wilder’s choices regarding the development and resolution of dramatic conflicts that shape the play’s dramatic arc.
Begin by asking for any additions or modifications to the preceding class discussion. Then return students to their groups to work with columns 1 and 2 in the Then Comes Trouble graphic organizer in order to explore the nature of the play’s conflicts. Students should address the conflicts involving both the main and secondary characters. Draw their attention to the possibility of internal and external conflicts and remind them to detail how the different conflicts evolve throughout the play and to quote text to support their assertions.
Come back together to share. Urge specificity in the ensuing discussion by asking students to show where in the play they first sense trouble and then unravel as much as they can about the nature of that trouble from the language, the context, elements of characterization, and any sights and sounds. With what outside of themselves are characters in conflict? If with another character, how are the characters different or around what do they overtly disagree? If the struggle is internal, what does it specifically involve? Conduct a synthesizing discussion with these prompts:
Again, be sure to give students time to return to their graphic organizers to write down their thoughts in column 3 (for all three acts).
Ask students to summarize in 1–2 paragraphs two of the play’s conflicts, quoting from the text—including from the stage directions if they can—to elaborate on the conflicts’ subtleties.
Have students write additional scenes for anywhere in Wilder’s play, incorporating allusions to spectacle (i.e., to what the audience is asked to see and hear), characterization, and conflict development or resolution—consistent with the play’s use of those dramatic elements, themes, and moods. Ask them to explicate and defend their choices through textually supported comparison with existing scenes in the play.
1. Is Our Town a tragedy? There has been an ongoing debate since two scholars, Arthur Ballet and George Stephens, formally argued this question in the late 1950s. In 1956, Ballet described Our Town as “the great American drama.” He compared the Stage Manager to a Greek chorus and cited death acting as “the fear-agent employed as catharsis.” Ballet’s argument concludes with his own definition of tragedy: “Tragedy, in its finest sense … should point the way to a higher level of understanding of man as a creature revolving in the cosmos.”
In his response, Stephens questioned Ballet’s assertion that Our Town be classified as a tragedy. Stephens did not think this play would fit within the standards of Aristotelian (Greek) tragedy and dubbed it “gentle nostalgia or, to put it another way, sentimental romanticism.”
Conduct a class debate in which students take one side or the other: Our Town as American Tragedy; Our Town as American Nostalgia. An alternative would have them write a persuasive essay taking a stand on this topic.
Students may want to read the primary source articles from these two scholars, which explain their views on this question. (Note: the resources cited below are available from subscription-based sources.)
2. For a deeper-level discussion on this theme, have students research criteria for a Greek tragedy. Tap a secondary source to disseminate the characteristics of tragedy put forward in Aristotle’s Poetics (classical terms used by Aristotle to define tragedy include catharsis, hamartia, and ethos.) Have students build this knowledge into their debate or persuasive essays.
3 class periods