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Unlike most of the 20th century plays, “Our Town” is an example of artistic works that violated the traditions of theater, primarily due to its simplicity in terms of themes and plot as well as the absence of complex characters. In particular, the play’s setting is short, with no aspects of suspense, anticipations, or expectations (Lumley 333). Nevertheless, an outstanding aspect of the play is humanism, an approach that has made the piece retain its popularity for decades after publication.
Derived from the Italian art, poetry, science, and literal movement that attempted to deviate from the traditions of religion and atheism, humanism is a system of thought that centers on humans, their values, worth, and capacities by rejecting the traditional religious beliefs (Lumley 333). It is concerned with human needs, welfare, and interest rather than supernatural aspects of human and natural life.
Humanism in “Our Town”
In his play “Our Town”, the renowned 20th-century American poet Thornton Wilder develops of humanism based on his ideas of the “inherent beauty and goodness of existence” and man’s inability to recognize or appreciate them (Lumley 334). To develop humanism in this play, Wilder structures act to reflect the stages of a person’s life. In this play, Act I, Act II, and Act III describe the human aspects of birth and daily life, love/marriage, and death respectively.
Although Wilder introduces the religious aspects in Grover’s Corner (such as the presence of catholic and protestant churches), it is worth noting that the section pays more attention to human values than their religious life. The ‘beauty of life’ is a humanistic theme reflected through the presence of gardens with beautiful flowers, such as those in the homesteads of the wives of Gibbs and Grover (Wilder 122).
Birth is also cited in the play, where it is portrayed as a humanistic aspect in the first Act. According to the Stage Manager, Dr. Gibbs is involved in providing nursing services to the population, which contributes to the continuation of the generation at Grover’s Corner. Rather than invoking the idea of creation, Wilder seems to describe the role of birth to the continuation of generations and the role that physicians play in conserving human values. In addition, the daily activities of the people in the small town are highlighted, with every person seemingly happy with his or her activities (Lumley 333). For example, Joe Junior, seen in the Crowell House, is happy to get up and deliver morning newspapers while Shorty Hawkins seems happy in his work at the railway station (Wilder 91).
Moreover, Wilder introduces some human activities that undermine humanism or human values. For example, the stage manager says “all that education for nothing” when referring to Joe, a young man who graduated at the top of his class, but died in the First World War before he could make good use of his education (Wilder 128).
In Act II, Wilder emphasizes the issues of love and marriage, reflecting their importance to human life, relations, and values. For example, the first scene in the Act begins when George, the son of Gibbs, marries Emily Webb. In a flashback, the stage manager introduces the audience to George and Emily’s love affair. He describes how the two individuals fell in love with each other before settling in marriage. In this case, Wilder wanted to show the importance of love and marriage. It is a humanistic aspect that shows that every person must pass through this particular stage.
In the last Act Wilder discusses the crucial stage of death and its position in society. Although people are not aware, Emily, the new person among the dead, converses with the other dead soul in the graves. The author wanted to show that death is a compulsory stage through which everybody must pass. It destroys human nature, yet it is a passage to another stage. The dead are able to reflect on their past life, which is not common in religious beliefs.
Lumley, Frederick. New Trends in 20th Century Drama: A Survey since Ibsen and Shaw. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
Wilder, Thornton. Our Town: A Play in Three Acts. New York: Coward McCann, 2008. Print.