Mirror, Mirror: The American Family in the Twentieth Century

S ince the post-World-War-I revitalization of the American theater, playwrights have continually held up the proverbial mirror to our lives in plays that dramatize the hopes and conflicts of our culture. During that time, few aspects of our social and political lives have captured the imagination of American playwrights and audiences as fully as family life and family relationships. Many of our most-admired and most frequently staged plays explore the meaning of the American experience and the perils and promises of the American dream primarily through that lens. The six dramas that comprise this series examine family relationships from different historical, regional, ethnic, and cultural perspectives, focusing on how individuals and generations have defined the American dream and made the search for it their own. In doing so, they encourage us to understand and weigh issues and experiences that have molded our personal and national cultures for the past seventy-five to eighty years.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) has remained at the center of American drama since it first appeared, by virtue of its immediate and continuing popularity, the many awards it has received, and its author’s claim that the play is a “modern tragedy.” Miller’s then highly experimental stage environment captures Willy Loman’s dreams, past and present, and reveals their effects not only on Willy’s future, but also on the futures of his wife and sons. In examining the differences between honesty and dishonesty, glitter and substance, appearance and reality, the play focuses as much on family values as on social values and the business ethic.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) was Tennessee Williams’s personal favorite among the more than sixty plays he wrote. He described it as “[coming] closest to being both a work of art and a work of craft.” The play depicts the bitter tensions that result from a family’s struggle for control of a plantation, a struggle that centers on the intense efforts of Maggie, the cat of the title, to reclaim her husband from alcoholism and sexual indifference and the efforts of her husband’s father, Big Daddy, to see his son produce an appropriate heir. Chief, perhaps, among Williams’s thematic concerns is the issue of “mendacity,” the public and private results of the willful perpetuation of illusions.

Set in the 1950s in a working-class Chicago neighborhood, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) depicts the struggles of an African-American family to realize their dreams in the face of overwhelming social and economic obstacles. The issues that test this family, from within and without, are both specific to the play’s time and timeless. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play by a black woman produced on Broadway; its author was the first black woman to win the New York Drama Circle’s Award.

Edward Albee’s darkly satirical Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf startled theater audiences out of their comfortable 1950s’ notions about the American dream and American society when it appeared in 1962. Set in the context of an all-night drinking bout in the home of a middle-aged college professor and his wife, the play dramatizes the subtle ways in which family members are estranged from each other and questions the substitution of artificial for real values in contemporary society. It is, in Albee’s own words, “a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen.”

Buried Child (1979) is one of a loosely connected trilogy of plays by Sam Shepard, often called the “family trilogy.” Although different in style from the other two plays, Curse of the Starving Class and True West, Buried Child shares with them a characteristically unsentimental view of the American family, whose evident qualities are rootlessness, emotionlessness, and the capacity for violence. The play begins in a deceptively realistic world and moves increasingly into the surrealistic and mythic realms, exploring several of Shepard’s central themes, including family discord, the nature of individual identity, and the myth of the Old West.

Set in a black tenement in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, August Wilson’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Fences (1985) is a powerful slice of life portrait of a black family trying to survive together and to make sense of their lives and future in a world set up to treat them unfairly. At the center of the play is the agonizing struggle between Troy, a former baseball player in the Negro leagues, now a garbage collector, and his son, Cory, to determine the son’s future. The strong feelings of pride and independence on both sides and the characters’ mutual misperceptions of each other make the play a powerful study of human relationships that reaches far beyond issues of white oppression.

Resource Guide and General History of American Drama Online

Resource Guide: American Plays and Playwrights

PAL: Perspectives on American Literature:  American Drama

Drama Reviews and Criticism--Sources

Retired Discussion Series

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