At the heart of Our Town is a profound Christian eschatology, a theological perspective that playwright A. R. Gurney says pervaded all of Wilder’s mature work. In Our Town, this eschatology is brought to focus on human mortality. Death runs like a ribbon through Grover’s Corners. In the very first minutes of the play, the stage manager, speaking from the vantage point of the future, matter-of-factly informs us of the coming deaths of the first three characters we have met. As the play proceeds, we are told of a number of other, usually premature, deaths. When the stage manager introduces a local university professor to supply some historical details about Grover’s Corners, he advises him to be brief, saying, “Unfortunately our time is limited.” By the third act, which begins in the cemetery, we realize what he meant.
All of this death, so much of it unexpected and untimely, does not lead to unrelieved tragedy. To the contrary, Wilder sees the fleeting nature of life as one of the factors that render human life precious. Like sacramental bread and wine, human lives and relationships are earthly and perishable but also bearers of the sacred, the eternal.
So much the pity, then, that when Our Town was made into a Hollywood film in 1940, the third act was damaged. In the movie, Emily only dreams that she has died. She delivers her final speeches in a fever from her sickbed, then recovers and returns to her life in Grover’s Corners. This makes the film happier, more sentimental, something akin, Sherman observes, to the sunny “there’s no place like home” outlook of The Wizard of Oz.
“Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption,” said T. W. Adorno. In Our Town, the light of redemption shines on the fragility of human life, revealing hidden holiness. One significant way this happens is through the singing of the Congregational church choir, which Wilder employs as a kind of hometown Greek chorus. They sing three hymns, all with eschatological themes: “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” “Art Thou Weary, Art Thou Languid,” and “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.” The first is of particular importance. It is sung on three occasions in the play: at choir practice on the first day, at Emily and George’s wedding, and at Emily’s funeral. “I always liked that hymn,” one of the dead in the cemetery says. “I was hopin’ they’d sing a hymn.”
The third act usually provokes a cathartic response. What is the source of that power?
The hymn affirms the resonance between heaven and earth, between fleeting mortality and eternity, which is the central truth of Our Town. As the ordinary people of Grover’s Corners share their mutual woes and bear their mutual burdens, the choir reminds us that “the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.” As Eugene Peterson rendered the incarnational claim of John’s Gospel, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood”—and that blessed neighborhood is Grover’s Corners.
Read it all (emphasis mine in first sentence).