The Role of Death in "Our Town"

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The Role of Death in “Our Town”-
A Three-Act Play

by Thornton Wilder

Term Paper

INTRODUCTION TO LITERARY STUDIES II

Mag. Dr. phil. Maria-Theresia Holub

SS 2012

Submitted by

Vera Schuster
Table of Contents

1. Introductionpage 3

2. The Funeral in Act IIIpage 4, 5, 6

3. The Eternal “Something”page 7

4. Effect on the Audience page 8, 9

5. Conclusionpage 9

5. Referencespage 10

Introduction

With “Our Town” Thornton Wilder created a three-act play that was committed to the epic theatre and which was Wilder’s first major play and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for literature. The first time it was performed in 1938.

Wilder’s passionate plea in the play is to appreciate every moment of every day, for life is a fleeting thing. With troubles rapidly expanding in Europe and war becoming a looming reality, people were inundated with the negative aspects of life. To see Our Town was to escape from the negative and rejoice in the ordinary; it reaffirmed faith in the unchanging moral values of small town living. It was obviously the balm that audiences needed in the midst of a pessimistic and changing world.

The third and last act is dedicated to the essential understanding of the world in which the protagonist Emily opens up, from the perspective of the death, the real significance of her life. The death itself, which is displayed on stage, has nothing terrible, nothing gloomy . In the face of the dead, sitting there calm and relaxed on their chairs, the sadness of the living seems oddly inappropriate . Through this contrasting, Wilder’s Our Town suggests that only the dead are able to achieve an higher consciousness from which point the earthly life loses significance; they get slowly alienated from earth , they are the only ones who realize how precious life is. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to show which role death plays in Our Town, more precisely, what Wilder intends to teach the audience while showing them the life from the perspective of the death and how this happens.

The Funeral in Act III

Act III is slightly different from the earlier acts in method. In Act I and Act II, the Stage Manager supplied the background information, but in this section, minor characters give important descriptions. While Act I dealt with birth/daily rituals and Act II dealt with marriage/ love, the last one end with death, the funeral. So Wilder created a circle of life within this play but in consideration of my paper topic, in the following pages I will put my focus especially on Act III- the funeral.

In Act III Wilder deals with the question of the return of the dead to the earth. Emily is at her own funeral and talks with the dead people. She is still nervous and anxious as opposed to the dead, who show a high degree in composure and aloofness: “The dead sit in a quiet without stiffness, and in a patience without listlessness “ ,this states already a stage direction remark at the beginning. Mother Gibbs admonishes Emily :”Just wait and be patient”. Emily already starts to understand some things: “I never realized before how troubled and how..how in the dark persons are “. The not-being-able-to-see of the living ones has already become apparent to her , but she has not yet found the patience and distance to abdicate life at all, despite the warnings of the dead Mrs. Gibbs. She’s expecting human warmth and great earthly magnificence on a festive occasion. Thinking of a deep familiarity of exhilarating things might evoke the urgent desirable return to her early life. Her attention is still focused on those people back home and she decides to go back ,ignoring Mrs.Gibbs and all the other spirits who tell her that she...
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