Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Reading "Our Town," Part II

In my last column, I began an overview of how Thornton Wilder used language in his classic American play, Our Town. Teachers, you'll want to read that column before picking up here, which points out several more ways Wilder adeptly used words in his play. You'll be able to use these ideas in your classroom.

Words that Make Them Go Hmmm...: Pince-nez?

There are more than just adjectives in the Our Town word list I created for your use in your classroom. It features vocabulary words from the play. Besides adjectives, you'll also find words like pince-nez and phosphate there. This is because these terms are as foreign to today's students as... well, words that are actually foreign. Wilder didn't just choose the specific place of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, for his play; he also set it in a specific time, the turn of the 20th century. The further removed we are from 1901, the more and more difficult it is for our students to understand what the characters are talking about.

Don't skimp on discussing the specifics of the time with your students. It really empowers them to know what these words mean. Also, talk about the way Wilder uses changes in the town to show how time passes. In the first act, much is made of the fact that one woman in town is locking her front door, and horses are more common than cars. By the third act, in 1913, the Stage Manager tells us "Horses are getting rarer" and "Everybody locks their house doors now at night." This language, tied to character, roots the play in a time and place in a deeper way than any other exposition or description could.

Time to Discuss Time

You might want to help your students think about themes — or main ideas — in this play. I find theme to be a difficult concept for students to grasp, so I often encourage them to think about what gets mentioned frequently in a work of literature. It's a great idea to have your students count up the number of references to time passing and the universe in the play. Here are just a few: The Stage Manager says, in the first act, "The day's running down like a tired clock" and, in the second, "All that can happen in a thousand days." Emily says, in the first act that school "passes the time" and, in the third act, tells her mother, "Just for a moment now we're all here together...." The Stage Manager even keeps the audience on a schedule, such as telling them, at the end of the second act, "Ten minutes' intermission." Ask your students why Wilder is so careful to point out what time it is in the play and in the theatre where the play is being presented, when so often plays and movies fudge around on time (like 24, for example... more happens in one day in that series than has happened to me in my entire life!). Why was Wilder so obsessed with time?

You'll get some interesting answers, and I'm all for individual interpretation. But you may want to remind your class that Wilder pointed out that he uses the words hundreds, thousands, and millions frequently, to "set the village against the largest dimensions of time and space." This goes back to an idea I mentioned earlier, that he wanted to contrast the small, yet deeply important, events of our lives against the staggering backdrop of the heavens and eternity all around.

We Need Not Discuss Post-Post-Modernism, but a Few Terms Will Help

The last topic I want to consider with Our Town is the inherent theatricality in the play. Please, if you can, take your students to a production of this play (and, for that matter, any play you teach — theatre is to be watched, not read!). Another solution is to watch it on DVD or video, but be careful in the choices you make, as some productions do not follow Wilder's explicit staging instructions.

What were those instructions? Right at the beginning of the play, he lays it out: "No curtain. No scenery." Encourage your students to visualize an almost completely empty stage, with the actors miming almost all their actions. Just as Wilder rooted his play in a time and place, he cleverly uprooted it by taking away theatrical conventions (and, perhaps unknowingly, assured it would be produced for all time since a nonexistent set is a cheap set!) and left the audience something to do: to fill in all those blanks.

You can't get more theatrical than the character of the Stage Manager. I find that my students understand the play so much better when they are introduced to him before reading. I make sure they understand what a stage manager does in the theatre (manages all aspects of a theatrical production and is generally in charge once the play is up and running). I tell them that he's omniscient (it's on the word list!), kind of a like a narrator in a book, kind of like God. I point out how he knows things that humans cannot know (when people are going to die, for example) and, for Emily, acts a conduit between the world of the living and the world of the dead. I point out that he seems to control time. I make sure to tell them that he talks directly to the audience.

The Stage Manager is a wonderful character, one of my favorite in all of theatre (and the one that I most would want to play if I returned to my acting roots). Usually, by the end of the play, my students are won over by his dry humor, his gentle language and his compassion for the other, mortal characters in the play. Who does he represent? What was Wilder's purpose in creating the character? I find that I get wonderful essays answering this question when we finish reading the play.

Please Don't Ask for Moby Dick

And that brings us to the end of the first in a series of columns that will provide a closer look at how language is used in a work of literature. I hope that this two-part examination of Our Town has given you a few ideas for teaching it in your classroom, whether you're tackling it for the first or fifteenth time. Let me know what other novels, plays, short stories and poems you'd like to see examined in this column. I certainly know what I teach, but I'm interested to learn what works baffle you.

Since this is going up on the Visual Thesaurus website as school begins around the country, I can't help but think of the Stage Manager's last words to the audience before he leaves the stage: "You get a good rest, too." Here's hoping that all of us in the classrooms can find a moment or two to do just that this month!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

The first part of Shannon's look at how to teach "Our Town."
Debbie's advice for getting beyond traditional vocabulary instruction.
Turning rambunctious adolescents into great writers.