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Hymns and Music as Markers in Time and Part of Rituals

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In the forward to Our Town, Donald Margulies argues that Thornton Wilder’s play is still representative of the “microcosm of the human family, genus American” (Marguiles xvii). Margulies statement about the plausible modern application of Our Town is readily seen through the three acts with Wilder’s themes of ritual and time. The enduring notions of ritual and time are specifically addressed and enhanced by Wilder’s use of specific hymns and music in the three-act play. Our Town still pertains to the 21st century American family by capturing “the universal experience of being alive” and through Wilder’s themes of ritual and time via the hymns and music that appear throughout the duration of the play (Marguiles xvii).

Wilder depicts the American family accurately, complete with hypocrisies and errors along with the rituals of daily life. Our Town shows that family life is centered on rituals that denote time, such as breakfast, high school commencement, weddings, and church. These events and rites of passage ultimately provide a sense of comfort in their tradition, some rituals leaving more of a lasting imprint on the memories of participants than others. With the passing of time, the little things slip through the cracks, leaving only the large events as blatant monuments to the past. These life events and this general mindset still pertains to our modern culture, although breakfast may be skipped, weddings, graduations, and funerals still remain ritualistic and are considered marker for time, whether it be a beginning of a new phase of life, or the ending chapter of one lived.

Although there is certainly a small-town atmosphere surrounding the play, modern urban dwellers can still relate to the family life in Our Town, which provides all the comforts of home. Even in cities, people stick to their rituals, alarm clocks go off, read the paper or turn on the news in the morning, and strap on a watch to keep track of time. This ritual begins every morning, and time passes, and things are missed and realized later, just as it Our Town.

In order to progress his main themes of ritual and time, Wilder weaves music into the daily life of rituals and into the passing of time. Some of the music used is associated with rituals, such as Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, still a common staple in weddings. Music such as Wedding March, and Handel’s Largo, which is referenced in unity with high school commencement, not only marks time and is part of a rite of passage, but the music itself is a ritual denoting a certain moment for which it is used. As opposed to a singular moment of event represented by music, the hymn Blessed Be the Tie that Binds serves as a constant reminder to Emily of happy days and is used in all three acts, becoming a meter for which to gauge how time is passing.

Each time Blessed Be the Tie That Binds is used it serves a different purpose, but achieves the same effect of consistency, of time passing, and of ritual. The first time it is used is when the “choir…in the orchestra pit has begun singing ‘Blest Be the Tie That Binds’” which is the background music in the scene in which Emily and George are talking to each other from their windows (Wilder 34). The hymn is later used at Emily and George’s wedding and at Emily’s funeral, both of which are rituals and markers in time still relevant and accessible to modern readers. The use of a hymn to tie the three acts together provides an awareness of religion, or at least morals, upon which families both past and present base their lives. Blessed Be the Tie literally refers to relationship between man and God, and man and the church, which are “joined in heart” (Tabernacle 256). The text of the song itself regards community and “the fellow ship of kindred minds”, which fits in neatly with the past and present ideas of needing society, or some community-oriented support system (Tabernacle 26).

Wilder additionally uses the hymns Love Divine and Art Thou Weary to show tradition and the passage of time. Both hymns reference time as eternal and allude to some form of an afterlife explored in Love Divine , “Till in heaven we take our place”, and in Art Thou Weary, “not till heaven pass away” (Tabernacle 22, 245). These are the ideas that Wilder expands on in act three with the graveyard scene in which the epiphany of “they  the living don’t understand” is found (Wilder 111). Wilder’s choice of Art Thou Weary also shows ritual and time, as the hymns was originally from eighth century Greek translated in the nineteenth century (Tabernacle 245). This hymn, though old, has longevity, it holds meaning, and it strikes a chord with a populous. Much like Art Thou Weary, Our Town has a life of it’s own and thus creating a universal message which strikes a modern audience through the themes of ritual and time.

Although a century has passed from when the play was set and where society is now, Wilder’s underlying search for something more to life using the hymns to discuss and in essence represent the boundary less themes of ritual and time. Our Town is not our cities, but instead our towns are certainly found in our social groups, and the “microcosms of genus America” in which we interact  .

Works Cited

  1. Tabernacle Hymns, Vol. 4. Chicago: Tabernacle Publishing. 1955. “Art Thou Weary.” 245. “Best Be the Tie.” 256. “Love Divine.” 22.
  2. Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. New York: Perennial. 2003. Marguilies, Donald. “Forward.” i-xx.

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