Act Two deals with love and courtship—with a focus on the deepening relationship of two characters, George and Emily. Again, Wilder builds upon the small moments. We get this touching flashback when Emily accuses George of growing too conceited—as George resolves to be better, and Emily apologies for calling him out, we begin to realize this mundane teenage confession is really a marriage proposal. There are so many small gestures surrounding the wedding that convince completely: the parents’ awkward dispensing of advice, the cold feet felt by both bridge and groom. It’s fairly conventional stuff, but that’s the sleight of hand—the play only works if the small moments feel completely real.
It’s by building this believable, mundane world, that Wilder can pull off a radical move in Act Three. Suddenly, we’re in the cemetery. It’s nine years later, and many of the characters we’ve come to know are dead. The cemetery functions like a town all on its own—the inhabitants gather and converse with one another, beyond the grave. Though they’re able to watch what the living do, they feel it’s too painful to do so; slowly, they learn to turn away from that world.
It’s a terrible, frightening thing to imagine your life from the perspective of the dead, but that’s what Wilder asks of us. And then we’re dealt this emotional blow: Emily, who we’ve seen grow up, fall in love, and get married, enters the cemetery—a fact the other dead greet with indifference. She died giving birth to her second child. Suddenly, the play’s innocence—it’s light and laughter—becomes cast in a completely different light.
What we don’t expect is how painful it will be for the dead to watch the living. And Emily, a new arrival who still clings to the life she had, learns the hard way. “How can I ever forget that life?” she says. “It’s all I know. It’s all I had.”
The other dead people, who have been in the cemetery longer, know it’s best to forget. But Emily insists on going back to relive a day from her past, even though all the ranks of dead citizens warn against it. Of course, she wants to choose a happy day—maybe the day she fell in love with George. But Mrs. Gibbs, Emily’s mother-in-law (killed by pneumonia) warns her that she shouldn’t choose something so special—it will be too intense.
Mrs. Gibbs: At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.
When Emily reluctantly goes back to watch her 12th birthday—a day she thinks will be commonplace enough—she’s shocked to find every moment suffused with great significance and a terrible sense of loss. The simple scene—her mother giving her presents, relatives paying their respects—is the kind of thing we watched, blithely, in the play’s first two acts; glimpsed from inside the cemetery, though, that everydayness has a kind of terrible power. Emily wants to savor every moment, because all of it’s gone for good. She becomes completely overwhelmed:
Emily: I can’t bear it. They’re so young and beautiful. Why did they ever have to get old? Mama, I’m here. I’m grown up. I love you all, everything. I can’t look at everything hard enough.
“I can’t look at everything hard enough”: the tragedy is that, while we’re alive, we don’t view our days in the knowledge that all things must pass. We don’t—we can’t—value our lives, our loved ones, with the urgent knowledge that they’ll one day be gone forever. Emily notices with despair that she and her mother barely look at one another, and she laments our self-possession, our distractedness, the million things that keep us from each other. “Oh Mama,” she cries, “just look at me one minute as though you really saw me! … Let’s look at one another.” But mother and daughter remain self-absorbed, each in a private sea of her own thoughts, and that moment of recognition, of connection, never comes. Eventually, Emily has to turn away.