EMILY: "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"
STAGE MANAGER: "No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.”
― Thornton Wilder, Our Town
"Our Town is one of the toughest, saddest plays ever written."
-- Edward Albee
A lot of people who should know better think that Our Town is hokey -- that's probably because they saw it in a high school production. It's actually knife-in-the-guts brutal. Consider this review from the New York Times:
"We ought to weep at Emily’s famous line not because she finds earth wonderful, but because she was unable to find it so during her close-minded life in her close-minded town — which is, of course, our town. Wilder makes a profound statement about the limits of human understanding here, one that requires delicacy and a little steel to convey."
If you have never seen the play, the synopsis below might be helpful before you watch the two clips.
Act III: Death and Eternity
The Stage Manager opens the act with a lengthy monologue emphasizing eternity, and introduces us to the cemetery outside of town and the characters who died in the nine years since Act Two: Mrs Gibbs (pneumonia, while traveling), Wally Webb (burst appendix, while camping), Mrs Soames, and Simon Stimson (suicide by hanging), among others. We meet the undertaker, Joe Stoddard, and a young man Sam Craig who has returned home for his cousin's funeral. We learn that his cousin is Emily, who died giving birth to her and George's second child. The funeral ends and Emily emerges to join the dead. Then Mrs. Gibbs tells her that they must wait and forget the life that came before, but Emily refuses. Despite the warnings of Simon, Mrs. Soames, and Mrs. Gibbs, Emily decides to return to Earth to re-live just one day, her 12th birthday. She finally finds it too painful, and realizes just how much life should be valued, "every, every minute." Poignantly, she asks the Stage Manager whether anyone realizes life while they live it, and is told, "No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some." She then returns to her grave, beside Mrs. Gibbs, watching impassively as George kneels weeping at her graveside. The Stage Manager concludes the play, reflecting on the probable lack of life beyond Earth, and wishes the audience a good night.
Click on the photo to watch the devastating performance by Penelope Ann Miller. [You can also find it on Youtube under [Our Town Act 3, part 1, Penelope Ann Miller monologue"] (That's Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager and the mom from Six Feet Under as Mother Gibbs.)
"Take me back up the hill to my grave."
If you think you can take more, click the next photo.
Our Town Act 3, part 2, Penelope Ann Miller monologue, the famous lines are between 1:36-1:50, but watch from the beginning
“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 in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
-stage manager, "OUR TOWN”