"It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another....
Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? --
every, every minute."
- Explain to students that Our Town takes place in a small New Hampshire town around the turn of the 20th century. Have students brainstorm what they imagine daily life was like in such a town. Who might have lived there? What were their values and customs? You may want to begin with a list of topics such as climate, transportation, institutions (school, church), occupations, population, stores, etc.
- Have students think about their own hometown. How would they categorize it: small, medium, or large? Is it urban, suburban, rural? What are its other characteristics? What do students like best about their hometown? What do they like least? As a class, compile a list. Ask students whether they think they will remain in their hometown after they graduate from high school and/or college.
- Some might consider Our Town an "old-fashioned" play, yet it's never really gone out of style. As a class, brainstorm a list of other plays or films that students think are "timeless" and have them explain why. Write the list on the board to review after seeing the film.
- Tell students that Our Town features some dramatic elements that were considered unorthodox in 1938, when the play was written, such as using a character called the Stage Manager, who speaks directly to the audience. As they view the film, ask students to look for other features that they think might have been unusual at that time.
- As they watch, have students take notes about the Stage Manager: What is his role in the film? What tone does he set? You may want to extend this activity by asking students to choose one of the six other main characters (Dr. Gibbs, Mrs. Gibbs, Mr. Webb, Mrs. Webb, George, Emily) and follow their progress as they watch the play. What happens to each of these characters during the film?
Wakefield Reads...Our Town
- Use the list about small towns that students developed before viewing. Add what students have learned about Grover's Corners. Ask, would you like to live in Grover's Corners? Why or why not? Why do they think Wilder set his play in this particular town? Would the play work as well in a big city or a suburb? Why or why not?
- Have students compare their own town or neighborhood to Grover's Corners. How are the two alike or different? Use a Venn diagram or other graphic organizer to illustrate the students' list of similarities and differences. You may want to extend this activity to link Our Town to other works that take place in small towns, such as My Antonia, Pleasantville, The Majestic, Smallville, and Dawson's Creek. (For more suggestions see Resources.) In addition to comparing the works, consider how the small-town setting is important to the work.
- Have students examine some of the characters' regrets and complaints: Mrs. Gibbs laments never having been to Paris; the Stage Manager regrets Joe Crowell's death in World War I ("All that education for nothing"); Simon Stimson is an unhappy alcoholic. Why did Wilder include these sentiments? Does it make the play realistic or just gloomy?
- Examine the three questions asked by the "audience" members, about drinking, social injustice, and culture. What's the purpose of these interruptions? Do they add or detract from the play? If you were updating the play, would these questions change? If so, how?
- Ask students to refer to the notes they made about the Stage Manager. What did they observe about him? Sometimes he's in charge of the action, telling the other characters what to do. But often he reacts to events like they do and is seemingly not in control. Ask, Who do you think the Stage Manager is? Is he realistic? Human? Divine? You may want to replay or reread some of his monologues so that students can support their answers with incidents or lines from the film.
- Emily's lament in Act III is often quoted as symbolizing the meaning of the play: "It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another....Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? -- every, every minute." Ask students, What do you think Emily means? Does she capture the essence of the play? If not, what is the play's message? Have students consider the seemingly contradictory statements Emily makes in Act II ("The moonlight's so terrible," and soon after, "The moonlight's so wonderful.") and Mrs. Soames's words in Act III, "My, wasn't life awful -- and wonderful." How do these seemingly contradictory statements express or enhance the meaning of the play?
- Thornton Wilder's stage directions are simple: "No curtain. No scenery. The audience, arriving, sees an empty stage in half-light." Ask students what they think of the set, props, and costumes in the film. Does the bareness of the staging add or detract from the play? How? Why do they think Wilder wrote the play this way?
- When Our Town was revived in 2002, Donald H. Wolfe wrote in The New York Times, "Thornton Wilder's play [Our Town] may have more to say to a contemporary audience than it did when it opened in 1938." What do you think he meant? In the same article, Paul Newman commented that the play was "appropriate in these times." Considering recent world events, do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
In 2002 the town of Wakefield, Massachusetts, chose Our Town as its first title in a citywide reading initiative. As had been done in Seattle, Chicago, and elsewhere, everyone in town was encouraged to read the same book. Reference librarian Leanne Ellis explains that Our Town was ideal because, "We thought the play's simple themes of love, family, and being present in each moment of our lives would be embraced by the community."
In addition to an old-fashioned ice cream social and sing-along to kick off the campaign, the library offered book discussions, created banners, buttons, and bookmarks, and hosted an informal reading of excerpts by patrons. The library director, Sharon Gilley, invited the high school English department to participate. The library gave each member of the 11th grade a copy of Our Town and many of the English teachers opted to assign and teach the play. A major event was a book discussion group -- including several high school juniors -- that was televised on a local cable station. The campaign was a resounding success.
When planning your Our Town curriculum, you may want to check with the local public library to see if they would be interested in developing a similar campaign. See pbs.org/masterpiece/learningresources for more information about "Wakefield Reads...Our Town."
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