Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
The Eternal Time Keeper grants you this day to use as you will. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” asks, “How will you live it?”
Thornton Wilder’s timeless drama, “Our Town,” follows the lives of two families in a small New England town at the turn of the twentieth century as they weather changes wrought by time over a twelve-year period. Wilder wrote the play hoping that it would be “gradually felt by the audience to be an allegorical representation of all life.”
Our Town opened on Broadway in 1938 to wide critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the same year. Its continuous popularity has given rise to several revivals of the play, and one would be hard-pressed to find a school drama department or community theater that doesn’t include Our Town in their repertoire.
The initial stage directions set the tone for the entire play.
The arriving audience sees an empty stage in half-light. Wilder eschewed the normal set decorations so that Grover’s Corners could represent every person’s hometown. It’s not the town, or a town, but Our Town. The minimal set and characterizations allow the audience to fill in the blanks from their own experiences.
Presently, the Stage Manager, hat on and pipe in mouth, enters and places a table and three chairs on each side of the stage. These represent the neighboring Webb and Gibbs houses. Stage hands push out two arched trellises “for those who think they have to have scenery.” The Stage Manager, acting as master of ceremonies, points out the imaginary layout of the town for the audience. This brings the setting to life much more effectively than wood and canvas scenery could.
Some experts identify all the small-town people in the play as an ensemble of protagonists. But without a doubt the leading characters are young Emily Webb and George Gibbs whose lives we follow from teenage years through romance and marriage. And beyond that to the tragedy that destroys their hopes for a long and blissful life together on the farm.
Every good story must also have an antagonist to provide the conflict or obstacle the main character(s) must overcome to achieve their goals. Some hold that the role of the antagonist lies within the whole group of characters who casually go about their lives without appreciating the small things that make life worth living. Others identify Simon Stimson, the choir director and town drunk, as the bad guy. But Simon’s conflict lies between himself and his inner demons. Small town life and unspecified personal troubles prove to be too burdensome for Simon and he commits suicide.
It becomes clear as the play progresses through the stages of life that the real nemesis is time. Time marches irrepressibly on without regard for social status, family name, religion, or age, leaving in its wake youth, innocence, aspirations, and finally life itself.
“Time is a cruel thief to rob us of our former selves,” wrote author Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. Time changes everything in Grover’s Corners, as it does for you and me—for better or for worse.
The Stage Manager narrates the action throughout the play, introducing characters and drawing attention to the small details of everyday life in Grover’s Corners. With godlike omniscience, he discusses past, present and future events. He recites the date and elapsed years at the beginning of each act. As a train whistle blows in the distance, he pulls out his timepiece and announces the on-time arrival. “There! You can hear the 5:45 for Boston.”
The Stage Manager moves time forward and on two occasions backwards. When a visiting professor in Act One presents a scientific description of Grover’s Corners, the Stage Manager reminds him, “Unfortunately our time is limited,” a veiled statement of the plays theme and a foreshadowing of the climactic moment. He even serves as the time manager for the audience, concluding Act Two with, “That’s all the Second Act, folks. Ten minutes’ intermission.”
And so, the Stage Manager serves a dual role as narrator and transcendental keeper of the time—the Time Keeper.
Our Town explores the relationship between Emily Webb and George Gibbs as they grow up together as neighbors in the fictional village of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Their friendship blossoms into romance and culminates in marriage as they settle down on a farm George inherits from his uncle. Wilder names the three acts of Our Town: Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and Death. The three acts portray the universal human experiences of life, love, and death.
The climactic moment arrives when Emily dies in childbirth, but at her request, the Time Keeper gives her an opportunity to relive one day in her life. The truth she discovers compels Emily, and the audience, to rethink what it means to be alive.
For our purposes, we’ll primarily focus on Act Three—Death.
Act Two concludes with happiness in the air as George and Emily enter matrimonial bliss. A bright light thrown upon them underscores this shining moment in their lives. A wedding guest, Mrs. Soames, remarks, “I’m sure they’ll be happy. I always say: happiness, that’s the great thing! The important thing is to be happy.”
Stage directions call for the bride and groom to descend into the auditorium and run up the aisle joyously. Act Two ends and the Time Keeper gives the audience a ten-minute break.
Then, the lights go down announcing intermission’s end. The audience sees ten or twelve ordinary chairs on the stage in subdued light. The chairs contain, among others, Mrs. Gibbs, Simon Stimson, and Mrs. Soames sitting in quiet repose in the Grover’s Corners cemetery. All having fallen victim to the old nemesis: time.
The Stage Manager/Time Keeper somberly announces, “This time nine years have gone by, friends—summer, 1913. Gradual changes in Grover’s Corners.”
He directs our attention to the stage—the cemetery—and reflects, “This is certainly an important part of Grover’s Corners. It’s on a hilltop—a windy hilltop—lots of sky, lots of clouds; often lots of sun and moon and stars.”
Then the Time Keeper waxes philosophical and ponders eternal things.
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings… There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
It’s significant that the Time Keeper doesn’t once pull out his watch during the entire cemetery scene. Here on the windy hilltop, time is no more. William Penn wisely said, “For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.”
The Time Keeper talks about the dead losing interest in the living and earthly things. “Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth… and the ambitions they had… and the pleasures they had… and the things they suffered… and the people they loved. They get weaned away from the earth.”
On the hill above the now bustling city, “the earth part of ‘em burns away… they slowly get indifferent to what’s goin’ on in Grover’s Corners.” But, for the newest resident of the hilltop cemetery, the weaning away doesn’t come easily.
A solemn funeral procession enters, all bearing black umbrellas. Among them one can vaguely see Dr. Gibbs, George, the Webbs and others. Four men carry a casket, invisible to the audience. They gather about a grave.
The dead talk among themselves. Mrs. Soames asks, “Who is it, Julia?” Julia Gibbs replies without raising her eyes, “My daughter-in-law, Emily Webb.”
Mrs. Webb reveals that Emily died in childbirth, which prompts Mrs. Soames to recollect, “I’d forgotten all about that. My, wasn’t life awful—.” Then, with a sigh, “and wonderful.” Simon Stimson, whose bitter remembrances have not burned away, disagrees.
Emily appears from among the umbrellas. She gazes wonderingly at the dead. After looking at the mourners for a moment, she sits down on the vacant chair beside Mrs. Gibbs. She addresses them all, quietly, smiling, “Hello.” A few emotionless responses. Then to Mrs. Gibbs, “Hello Mother Gibbs.” “Hello,” Mrs. Gibbs replies.
Emily’s eyes drift to the funeral company. “They’ll be gone soon, dear,” says Mrs. Gibbs. “Just rest yourself.” But Emily cannot rest herself. Dylan Thomas’s poetry captures the essence of Emily’s refusal to let go of the old life.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Against the advice of the others, Emily convinces the Time Keeper to allow her to live over one happy day from her former life. He warns that she will “not only live it; but you watch yourself living it.” Emily chooses her twelfth birthday. So, the Time Keeper transports her to February 11, 1899. A Tuesday.
The left side of the stage brightens and becomes Emily’s house as she remembers it. She watches radiantly as her mother, Mrs. Webb, calls the children down for breakfast. As the twelve-year-old Emily, she cries out, “Mama, I can’t find my blue hair ribbon anywhere.” “Just open your eyes, dear, that’s all. I laid it out for you special—on the dresser…” “Yes, yes,” Emily eagerly replies with her hand on her heart.
Emily hears her father approaching. “Papa,” she whispers. Mr. Webb, who’s been away on a trip, enters the house. He and Mrs. Webb talk about the trip and a birthday gift he has in his pocket. “Where’s my birthday girl?”
Mrs. Webb points out several gifts on the kitchen table. “Oh, Mama, you shouldn’t have.” The morning routine continues. “Birthday or no birthday,” Mrs. Webb admonishes, “I want you to eat your breakfast good and slow. I want you to grow up and be a good strong girl… Chew that bacon good and slow.”
On and on it goes. Emily, with mounting urgency, cries out, “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me… just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” But Mrs. Gibbs cannot hear the Emily from beyond the grave. Time rushes on and nothing changes.
Emily tells the Time Keeper she can’t go on. “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” She sobs. The brightly lit portion of the stage goes dark. Mama, Papa, all disappear.
Emily laments, “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.” Then Emily breaks into the play’s climatic soliloquy.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
Emily asks the Time Keeper if any human beings ever realize life while they live it. He replies, “No.” Then adds, “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.” Emily expresses her readiness to go back.
After light conversation among the dead, and a visit by George to Emily’s grave, Emily asks, “Mother Gibbs…They don’t understand, do they?” “No, dear. They don’t understand.”
The Stage Manager now discharges his most solemn duty as keeper of the time. He slowly draws a dark curtain across the scene, separating the eternal from the temporal. To underscore our return to the realm of time, a clock faintly strikes the hour. It’s night.
The Time Keeper scrutinizes life carrying on as usual in the town. He looks at the sky and remarks, “There are the stars—doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky.” No life up there, though, he observes. “Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.”
The Time Keeper pulls out his watch and winds it. Time presses on and life continues. “Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners. You get a good rest, too. Good night.”
Does the death of Emily mean that time, as an antagonist, wins in the end? No. Not in Our Town. Not in your town, either. It happens in literature. It happens in life. Sometimes what the antagonist means for our hurt works out for our good.
Everyone knows the story of Joseph, and how his brothers sell him into slavery intending to rid themselves of their father’s favorite son. How does that turn out? Through a series of remarkable providences, Joseph gains the favor of the Egyptian Pharaoh and rises to power over the whole land.
Later when he crosses paths with his brothers, he’s not at all angry as they expected. He surprises them by revealing, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
Standing on a hill looking at the graves in the Grover’s Corners cemetery, the Stage Manager observes, “We all know that something is eternal… There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
When time does its worst and conducts its victim through death’s door, its seeming victory yields its ultimate defeat. For it has but ushered another soul across the threshold into the eternal life where time and death can never touch them again. “Death,” as Paul the Apostle said, “is swallowed up in victory.” Then, mocking death, Paul further writes in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56:
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?
Time, with all its devices that seem to work against us—pain, suffering, disappointment, disease, old age—renders itself impotent as an antagonist the moment it inflicts death on its intended victims. The irony of all ironies. Time, that seems to work against humanity at every turn, at last becomes an unexpected friend. The turning of the antagonist.
That was the Creator’s design from the beginning. Time is, and ever shall be, but an instrument in the hand of God to do His bidding. The true Time Keeper is God and He makes time ultimately work for us, not against us. David understood this and confessed, “My times are in your hand” (Psalm 31:15).
Emily’s observation about time applies to all. “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” And If we, like Emily, returned from beyond the grave to a day in our life, nothing would change. The Psalmist spoke for humanity when he said our “days are like a passing shadow.”
Moses lived 120 years, but even at that he confesses that life is like grass that flourishes in the morning and withers in the evening (Psalm 90:6). “We finish our years like a sigh,” he says, then we are “soon cut off, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:9, 10 NKJV).
So, what are we to do? Throw our hands up in despair and bemoan the brevity of life?
The Scriptures teach an alternative method of coping with time. Rather than allowing time to manage us, we can learn to manage time.
Emily’s lament, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another,” is only partially true. Time does go fast, and we don’t look at one another, at least not in the sense Emily means. But it’s not true that “we don’t have time.” We do.
Imagine that you, like Emily, have returned to this very hour from beyond the grave. You’re here. You have this day, this moment. Time will rob you of it soon enough, but right now this hour is yours to do with as you please. How will you use it?
Moses has it right. His simple prayer holds the key.
Teach us to number our days carefully
so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts. (Psalm 90:12 HCSB)
Numbering our days doesn’t mean calculating their sum total. Life is not a math exercise. When Moses asks the eternal Time Keeper to help us number our days, he doesn’t imply counting them but making them count. Teach us, Lord, to appreciate them. Value them. Use them wisely. In this way, time becomes a friend, not an enemy. The turning of the antagonist.
The Psalmist writes, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it,” (Psalm 118:24). Imagine. A day made especially for you. That’s reason enough to live joyfully and thankfully even on the darkest of days.
This is the day you have. It may be the only day. Unlike Emily who couldn’t change anything as she relived her twelfth birthday, you have right now power over the hour. This time is yours. It’s your gift from God. Make it count. That’s the way, Moses said, we develop wisdom in our hearts.