Closer Readings Commentary

Revisit “Our Town”

“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.”

—Donald Margulies, (Foreword) Our Town.

The play

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town explores the evolving relationship between two young people, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, and traces the circle of their life together as they transition from neighbors to friends, then to lovers, and finally to marriage and parenthood. This simple story of a love affair dramatizes the particular events in a small New England town at the beginning of the twentieth century, yet it transcends that specific place and time, presenting the audience with a universal experience and posing eternal questions about the meaning of life and death, love and marriage.

From the very beginning Our Town developed into a favorite production in schools and in amateur and professional theatres around the world. Since its first performance at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey almost a century ago, on January 22, 1938, the play has enjoyed wide acclaim. Often referred to as a quintessential work of American theater, it earned Thornton Wilder the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes. Our Town continues to be an especially moving theatrical experience for audiences despite the most minimal of 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!

EDSITEment’s Dramatic and Theatrical Aspects in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: A Common Core Exemplar maintains that the power of this play emanates from this very simplicity. This lesson focuses on various theatrical elements, including the play's allusions to spectacle without distracting production details and its elegant characterization and character development. It also focuses on the essential human conflicts and contrasts that animate the stage.

The play’s flexibility allows for it to be frequently and creatively staged. Productions of Our Town continue to garner as many enthusiastic reviews today as its first production did. Critics originally noted Wilder’s choices of “a liberatingly severe aesthetic to map the topography of Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire,” and such qualities such as “a cosmic dimension, where joy and sorrow are equal modes from the vantage point of the stars.” A review of a recent performance executed by actors with hearing impairments expresses the play’s ability to “reach into the universal soul.”

Common Core Applications

Our Town appears on the CCSS list of exemplary texts for Grades 11 – College and Career Readiness (Appendix B.) The following applications from EDSITEment’s lesson ground the lesson activities in Anchor Standard: 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.

Activity 1 takes the unusual tact of having students explore the impact of Wilder’s stage directions through an analysis of the sights and sounds on the play’s moods. Using a Sights and Sounds graphic organizer, teachers can lead the whole class through a close reading of Act 1 before students divided into small groups move onto an independent analysis of the rest of the play. This application relates to 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.

Activity 2 tracks the main characteristics of key characters in the play including their physical and biographical elements and their beliefs, motivations, emotions, and behaviors, as well as their impact on the play. Using the Role Call graphic organizer, each group is assigned responsibility for different characters. This application relates to 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).

Creative writing activity

A culminating creative writing activity assesses students’ understanding by having them write additional scenes for the play using themes and moods consistent with Wilder’s dramatic elements. Students are expected to incorporate the theatrical aspects they have covered in their three group work lesson activities: allusions to spectacle (what the audience is asked to see and hear); characterization; and conflict development and resolution. In the spirit of the Common Core, they are also required to explain and defend their choices with evidence from the play. This assessment applies to 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. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3d. Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters.

It is important to encourage students to become active observers. This lesson helps to develop their understanding of a playwright’s subtle use of dramatic and theatrical devices to shape his drama. Engaging deeply and thoughtfully with a high quality literary text exemplar such as Our Town is a natural outgrowth of the Common Core State Standards’ drive to generate literate students in the 21st century.