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The 30 greatest American family dramas

American playwrights know how to keep it in the family

Since as far back as fifth-century B.C. Athens, playwrights have plucked the family tree for the fruits of comedy and tragedy. From Sophocles to Shakespeare, bloodlines equal plot lines. And while changing customs and technology have altered every aspect of our lives, the family remains a basic unit of society, source material for dramatists today, from Broadway shows to Off-Off experiments. To compile this ranked list, we had to narrow the category a bit, to American nonmusical works. It’s worth noting that a significant number of the titles—and many in the top ten—are by dead white males from the previous century. Either that means the genre had its heyday 70-odd years ago, or family dramas by women and playwrights of color will make their impact on the canon in the years to come. Some, iike Young Jean Lee and Katori Hall, already have. At any rate, everyone is welcome at the table.

Raised in Captivity

The overbearing matriarch is to family drama as bloodletting is to Jacobean tragedy: inevitable, if usually overdone. Still, no one creates toxic moms like Nicky Silver (now heading to Broadway with The Lyons). Silver’s archly absurd 1995 comedy begins with a description of a mother’s death by hurtling shower-massage attachment, and gets stranger (and sadder) from there. Imprisonment is the apt, operative metaphor for Silver’s portrayal of the Bliss family (in an ironic wink to Noël Coward) and several of the impish playwright’s archetypes are present and accounted for: chronically celibate brother; crazy, self-obsessed sister; and soul-eating mother.—DC

Lear

Young Jean Lee trampolines her devastating postdramatic construction off Shakespeare’s ultimate tragedy, King Lear, using the Elizabethan text to launch her own excruciating deconstruction of grief. Playful and biting, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia snipe at one another; sulky and competitive, Edgar and Edmund mope. Lee’s mean-girl courtiers suddenly give way, though, to women tortured by an inability to sufficiently love their parent, and the fourth wall tinkles into dust. By the strange third act—which quotes the Sesame Street gang explaining death to Big Bird—we realize that we’re in the presence of a playwright contemplating a father’s death and trying, rather desperately, to help us do the same.—HS

Crowtet

High priest of the postmodern language play Mac Wellman wrote his quartet A Murder of CrowsThe Hyacinth MacawThe Lesser Magoo and Second-Hand Smoke as a series of unpeeling layers (he called it the “exegesis of the spiritual state of the Onion”) around a certain emptiness—the family drama. In Wellman’s discombobulating darkness, we stumble across Susannah—prophet, daughter to a walking dead man and hater of war—who abandons her human family to live among the crows. His satire, one infinitely regressive and difficult to label, takes ornery delight in puncturing the nation of “the Rational Biped.”—HS

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Paul Zindel was a science teacher in his midtwenties when he wrote this tenderly morbid slice of Staten Island gothic, in which a deranged mother torments her two daughters and their unfortunate rabbit. Six years after the play’s 1964 premiere in Houston, it moved to New York and won a surprise Pulitzer Prize for its quirky mixture of hopelessness and adaptive optimism, and Zindel went on to a long and successful career as the author of idiosyncratic books for young adults.—AF

Topdog/Underdog

Suzan-Lori Parks took the frequently used metaphorical equivalency between family and America and turned it into this scarifying 2002 portrait of two African-American brothers named, portentously, Lincoln and Booth. An astringent burlesque of race, kinship and masculinity, Topdog/Underdog shows us America as a fairground jungle, a place where two black men—a kind of Cain and Abel enslaved by the almighty dollar—hustle three-card monte in a bid to finally realize some interest on their country’s half-hearted investment in Emancipation.—HS

The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures

No eardrums go unbeaten in the shouting matches of the Marcantonio family, a Brooklyn clan with deep labor-union roots, in Tony Kushner’s rich work of public-intellectual engagement, a play of profound disquiet whose overarching tone is nonetheless somber and elegiac. Grandly messy, this 2011 piece is an unconventional hybrid: a domestic drama (with nods to Miller, O’Neill and Chekhov) that is principally animated by a nuanced examination of the ways in which materialism inflects our daily lives.—AF

How I Learned to Drive

Infidelity, addiction or physical abuse are your typical family-drama ingredients. But incest is a spice that only the best chefs can handle, from Oedipus Rex to Paula Vogel’s 1997 memory play. What’s freshly disquieting about How I Learned to Drive is how much humanity Vogel gives Peck, the uncle who exploits his well-endowed teen niece, L’il Bit. Peck is something of a kid himself—frisky and bumptious—a guy who talks to children honestly, sets boundaries and puts them at ease…before he tragically oversteps the line. Without preaching or demonizing her characters, Vogel skillfully navigates a gray zone between emotional need and sexual violation.—DC

The Lion in Winter

James Goldman’s clever 1966 work of historical fiction—in which the 12th-century monarch Henry II wrestles for control over his wife, three sons and two French guests—takes the power struggles and allegiance shifts of any unhappy family at Christmas and royally ups the stakes. The court setting and the waspish wit of Goldman’s dialogue (expertly delivered in the film version by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn) ensure that amid multiple betrayals and reversals of fortune, all of the enemies are arch.—AF

Fifth of July

Lanford Wilson returned again and again to the Talleys of Missouri, a family well-stocked with eccentricities and ripe for a seriocomic trilogy. In this gently redemptive 1978 installment, Wilson surrounded Ken, a disabled, gay Vietnam vet, with a host of nutty relations—all busy with manipulations, sudden revelations, the usual squawkings of hippies coming home to roost. On one level, the work burbles with the minor dramas among siblings and spouses; more broadly, its empathy tries to teach a whole country what to do when the fireworks of war (and even peace) are over.—HS

A View from the Bridge

In 1956, Arthur Miller’s wrenching Brooklyn drama converted the ordinary struggles of the proletariat into something like ancient tragedy. At first, A View from the Bridge’s events seem cramped and domestic, as respected longshoreman Eddie Carbone, destabilized by jealousy over his own niece, begins to bite viciously at his own immigrant kin. But in turning informant, as so many would in that age of HUAC, Eddie betrays the larger family of the working poor. In Miller’s 1949 essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” he had argued for a tragedy in this age for “we who are without kings.” Carbone would be his Oedipus.—HS

Picnic

Like his contemporary and sometime friend Tennessee Williams, William Inge was at his best when writing about women, as in this portrait of a Midwestern single mother and her two daughters—a beauty and a tomboy—whose lives are unsettled by a sexy young man. Although Picnic won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the playwright was unhappy with it; his revised version, Summer Brave, ran briefly on Broadway in 1975, two years after his suicide.—AF

Awake and Sing!

“Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust,” says the book of Isaiah, and when the Clifford Odets classic opened in 1935, that “dust” was the Depression-era Bronx. In Awake and Sing, Odets, the ultimate political poet, painted a naturalistic portrait of a struggling Jewish clan, and set the new taste for realistic social critique and any number of overbearing-mama plays. More important still was that other “family” at the play’s heart: Odets wrote it for his fellow Group Theatre members, and actors like Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner would set the style for American acting even unto the seventh generation.—HS

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Last seen on Broadway in an all-too-brief 2009 revival directed by David Cromer, Neil Simon’s 1983 memory play is a skillful blending of misery and whimsy, told from the perspective of wisecracking Eugene Morris, who regards his cash-strapped Jewish household as material for a brilliant future writing career. Eugene is an outsider and a chronicler of his Brooklyn clan and its discontents. There’s plenty of sentimental sepia in Simon’s portrait, but welcome flashes of lust and irreverence too. Call it Odets with titty jokes.—DC

The Marriage of Bette and Boo

Christopher Durang leaves no illusion standing in this rock-em-sock-em comedy about the guignol of modern familial affection—dead babies are tossed willy-nilly in the air, and the sacred cows of religion, mental illness and death go flying with them. Durang’s vicious farce, a look back by an embittered narrator at a terrible upbringing ringed ’round by a plague of selfish or mad adults, oscillates between bumptious hilarity and sudden, vertiginous pain. It’s indictment of parents—all parents, really—and despite a host of imitators, no play since has done so much to make simply having a family seem like the original sin.—HS

House of Blue Leaves

So much zaniness takes place in John Guare’s 1971 black comedy—wild stuff involving Pope Paul VI, a deaf Hollywood starlet, three nuns and a terrorist bombing—you would think the play was about anything but family. And yet the farce is firmly anchored in the marital unhappiness of amateur songwriter Artie Shaughnessy’s household. Deeply frustrated by having to care for his mentally unbalanced wife, Bananas, zookeeper Artie grows undeniably beastly and finds a mistress in Bunny Flingus (she tempts him with the promise of home cooking). Meanwhile, soldier-son Ronnie has gone AWOL (en route to Vietnam) and is hiding out in his own bedroom, building a bomb.—DC

August: Osage County

It could have ended up an overstuffed grab bag of dysfunctional tropes—pill-popping mother, suicidal father, miserable children, vicious grudges, infidelity, incest, insanity and a passel of vulgar, nosy relations—but Tracy Letts is too damn good a writer to lose control. His rollicking 2007 tragicomedy veered giddily from eloquent rage over the damage done by the misnamed Greatest Generation to hilarious screeds, one-liners and put-downs. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere will be hard to top in future revivals. Oklahoma turned out to be anything but OK.—DC

A Delicate Balance

Alcohol and vitriol lubricate the gears of Edward Albee’s ominous 1966 dramedy, in which the suburban home of an upper-crusty couple is invaded by a whinging adult daughter (escaping a fourth failed marriage) and a pair of close friends (fleeing an intangible sense of dread). The original production, with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, won the first of Albee’s three Pulitzers; Lincoln Center’s revival 30 years later earned plaudits for stars Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch. In the writer’s discomfiting family portrait, the nest seems to have always been a little empty.—AF

The Orphans' Home Cycle

Horton Foote’s three-part, nine-play magnum opus is actually a lifetime of work systematized into a cycle—adapting many decades’ worth of plays (some in condensed versions) and stage-adapted screenplays to trace the life of Horace Robedaux, buffeted by the rough winds of the 20th century. Foote’s trademark humanism suffuses the whole, a thing both very large (it includes the flu epidemic and World War I) and incredibly particular. Foote’s own father was the pattern for Robedaux, but in this critically beloved saga, it’s the playwright’s plainspoken empathy that sets the pattern for the rest of us.—HS

The Skin of Our Teeth

Humankind is the family in Thornton Wilder’s 1942 metatheatrical classic, last seen starring John Goodman and Kristen Johnston in Central Park in 1998. The play revolves around the Antrobus family, led by inventor George (he patents the wheel and the lever). The New Jersey–based clan survives the Ice Age, flood, wars and other calamities of biblical proportion. Wilder’s epic allegory—with his signature cosmic-meets-quotidian touches and talky Stage Manager—mixes domestic comedy with witty philosophical ruminations on the value and viability of our race.—DC

All My Sons

Arthur Miller’s 1947 moral drama, about a self-important industrialist whose factory produced defective wares during World War II, owes equal debts to Sophocles and Ibsen in its exploration of guilt, denial and responsibility. (One of the Keller family’s sons died in the war; the other must gradually accept the reality of his father’s misdeeds.) Miller’s first commercial success, the play retains its power to provoke us into clearer sight, as demonstrated by Simon McBurney’s beautiful 2008 Broadway revival, which starred John Lithgow as the munitions maker and Dianne Wiest as his denial-dwelling wife.—AF

Buried Child

Sam Shepard’s masterful 1978 symbolist-realist tale of a dysfunctional family is for many the playwright’s most confident expression of his mythic vision; it even won him the Pulitzer Prize. Certainly Buried Child’s title gives away the play’s darkest secret, but Shepard’s project was in atmosphere and lyricism, not plot. As such, this story of a young man’s reluctant return home to a “Norman Rockwell” house in Illinois (and his eventual reabsorption into the alcoholic, incestuous legacy that waits there) stands as the theater’s most persuasive evocation of spiritual starvation amid the corn husks.—HS

A Raisin in the Sun

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s harrowing drama about a black matriarch moving her family into a hostile white neighborhood knew whereof it spoke: Hansberry’s father had once fought a court case for the family home, and Hansberry herself was the first black female playwright to move onto the Great (all too) White Way. Raisin, though, isn’t just a landmark; it wielded the familiar motif of expansive dreams stifling in cramped living quarters with such force that five decades later, it can still be revived to bravura effect, or can prompt another playwright (Bruce Norris) to revisit the ostensible paradise of Clybourne Park.—HS

The Little Foxes

Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Bancroft, Stockard Channing and Elizabeth Marvel are among the many great actors who have played the scheming Regina Hubbard Giddens—a woman maneuvering to fend for herself within a financial boy’s club—in Lillian Hellman’s vicious 1939 dissection of dependence and deliberate cruelty in 1900 Alabama. So compelling was the internecine intrigue of Regina and her brothers that Hellman returned to them in 1946 for a prequel, Another Part of the Forest, that digs up the roots of their rotten family tree.—AF

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Tennessee Williams’s steamy 1955 drama casts a knowing eye on greed, lust and decay on a Mississippi plantation whose swaggering patriarch (known to all as Big Daddy) is in the final stages of cancer. Out of a mixture of sympathy, Southern manners and self-interest, no one tells him the truth—except his son Brick, an alcoholic wreck determined to release the ugly secrets that the family has kept bottled up. Few scenes in Williams are as wrenching as the Act II showdown in which Brick smashes through the “mendacity” that has walled him from his father for years.—AF

Fences

You could say that every August Wilson play is about the same family: African-Americans, bonded through the crime of slavery. But this 1983 Pulitzer Prize winner is somewhat unusual in Wilson’s ten-play “century cycle,” in that it does focus on a family. Troy Maxson is a big-talking trash collector in 1950s Pittsburgh who waxes nostalgic over his failed dreams in major-league baseball, even as he bullies his college-age son and cheats on his loyal wife. Troy is not a hero or even a great father, but he’s a proud man who wants to take another swing at life.—DC

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Edward Albee was adopted and hated his surrogate parents; this fact colors virtually everything he wrote. In his off-kilter world, parents are fake, children are imaginary, and home life is rife with existential unease. His 1963 stunner, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, doesn’t technically follow a family: It’s about two married couples who spend a long, boozy night seducing, humiliating and using each other as human shields. What makes it a great family play is the way that the younger couple, Nick and Honey, function both as younger versions of their embittered hosts, George and Martha, but also, implicitly, as their children. And of course, the play famously includes numerous references to George and Martha’s unseen and fictitious son, whose life and death are lovingly recounted in a game George calls Bringing Up Baby. George and Martha are the saddest family of all: the barren couple with the ghostly, absent child.—DC

Our Town

Thornton Wilder’s huge-framed 1938 portrait of small-town life centers on the neighboring Gibbs and Webb clans, whose eldest children’s lives intertwine through love, marriage and premature death. But even as Our Town traces these major journeys, its emphasis is on seemingly minor events, such as a mother and daughter cutting green beans or a father chastising his self-absorbed son. In its climax—rendered with aching verisimilitude in David Cromer’s gorgeous 2009 revival—a dead woman revisits a day from her childhood, only to retreat to her grave in horror at what she didn’t appreciate when she was alive: the richness packed into every moment of sensation and interaction with other people. Rather than building drama from exceptional domestic conflict, Our Town maps a spiritual cosmology into everyday home life.—AF

The Glass Menagerie

“The play is memory,” Tom Wingfield tells us early in Tennessee Williams’s 1945 breakthrough, and it must have been a painful memory for him to re-create. Today, we know that Tom’s sister, the mentally and physically crippled Laura, was based on Williams’s institutionalized sister, Rose. Tom, Laura and their domineering mother, the original steel magnolia, Amanda Wingfield, have been uprooted and abandoned by a man “who fell in love with long distances.” In Amanda’s struggle to maintain Southern dignity in the face of near poverty, she alienates the dissolute Tom and smothers sweet but doomed Laura. Alternating between Tom’s lyrical direct address and exquisitely sad but loving scenes of home life, the play builds to a terrible climax in which some are saved and some are lost. Jim, a handsome “gentleman caller,” gives Laura a brief taste of what independence might be like. But Tom must grab freedom for himself.—DC

Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller’s suicidally disappointed Willy Loman may be at the bottom of the business-world totem pole, but he never fails on Broadway. Miller’s small-tragedy masterpiece earned a Best Play Tony for its 1949 debut, and its 1984 and 1999 incarnations were both named Best Revival. (The latest version, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy, is poised to continue the streak.) What makes Willy’s plight so poignant, perhaps, is that his free-floating anxiety is grounded not only in his own groggy awakening from the American Dream but in his failures as a family man: The doomed self-inflation he imparts to his two sons, the refusal to see them as they really are, and the marital infidelity whose discovery prompts one of them to crash and burn in disgust. Though he scrapes for a living wage, Willy ultimately yearns to be paid in attention.—AF

Long Day's Journey Into Night

According to Eugene O’Neill’s wife, during the composition of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1940–42), he would emerge from his study “gaunt and sometimes weeping. His eyes would be all red and he looked ten years older than when he went in.” O’Neill was not alone in that writing room; he was pleading and wrestling with the angry ghosts of his own family, fiercely immortalized in the Tyrone clan. Here is the classic O’Neill household: a stingy, self-dramatizing father and two quarreling sons, all drunks, locked in bitter rivalry; a dope-fiend mother bound for a relapse. One emotionally brutalizing day, from morning till midnight, they fight, joke, turn on each other and feebly grope toward reconciliation, until the horrifying final tableau. The genius of this lengthy, bruising masterwork (last seen on Broadway in Robert Falls’s knockout 2004 revival) is the way that O’Neill equates addiction with blood bonds. Whether it’s morphine or a parent’s approval, you go to your grave craving it.—DC

Comments

12 comments
James M
James M

I agree with the top end of your list, for the most part. But why people continue to revere Thornton Wilder as a playwright completely befuddles me. His dramaturgy is flawed, his sense of rounded characterisation the dramatic equivalent of tone deaf; he didn't even write that many plays. He is basically a novelist, his use of the narrator akin to the omniscient voice in fiction. His two plays, mentioned here, focus on highlights,  they do not feature neatly-structured scenes. Tennessee Williams commented that Wilder had never had a conjugal relationship, and I think this is reflected in his rather  bloodless portrayal of family life. This is equally apparent in his screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt.


On the other hand, the inclusion of Buried Child is delightful. Sticks and Bones might substitute for Topdog/Underdog; but the list puts the classics in the right order, I think. Well, no, I think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is more substantial in every way than is The Glass Menagerie.

NewKeith16
NewKeith16

Great list. but there is one great play missing: Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE!!! I don't know why you didn't include it.

Rebecca
Rebecca

Surprised not to see Next to Normal on this list.

Adam Feldman
Adam Feldman

Thanks for the comment, Francis. But I think your count is slightly off: I see three African-American families (Fences, Raisin, Topdog) plus one by an Asian-American playwright that was originally cast as African-American (Lear). What Asian or Latino or Native American plays would you propose we had included in lieu of the ones on this list?

Francis Jue
Francis Jue

30 family plays. 28 white families. 2 African American families. Absolutely no representation of Asians, Latinos, Native Americans. Rather than this list, I'd love TimeOut to write an article about diverse playwrights.

Don Fleming
Don Fleming

For the most part they are all about dysfunctional families so what are we saying with this when we call them the greatest "Family" plays? - - - - I actually agree with the choices but we are glorifying conflict and pain. And where is "The Royal Family" or "You Can't Take It With You" , "Ah Wilderness?' - - Oh well Many will scream at me.

David Cote
David Cote

Hi Howard: Thanks! Yes, as I note in the introduction to the list we were aware that many of top 10 are older works. I think it may be that genre might have had its heyday in the last century... but who knows what the next 50 years will bring?

Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger
Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger

Cool list- I have seen about half and read about 2/3 ---Thanks, you just gave me some summer reading to help me paint myself a bigger picture ... :)

 Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman

A well-reasoned list. It is interesting, however, that of your “Top 10,” the most recent is some 25 years old. Does this indicate a change in focus by playwrights, or that no recent plays measure up to the standards you set?

alfred
alfred

A GREAT LIST, BUT YOU NEGLECT EARLIER TREASURES, SUCH AS O'NEILL'S TOO OFTED UNDERRATED AH WILDERNESS, SIDNEY HOWARD'S THE SILVER CORD, I REMEMBER MAMA, AND ELMER RICE'S STREET SCENE, NOT TO MENTIO SUCH MUSICALS AS HIGH BUTTON SHOES.

John Branch
John Branch

I'm going to read through the list as soon as I have time--since it's not all on a single page--but my first reaction is that family dramas have largely defined American theater and that this has been, still is, a big handicap. Three of my favorite British dramas from recent years, chosen from memory at random, are Patrick Marber's Closer, Michael Frayn's Democracy, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Why doesn't American drama try more often to do the kind of things those plays do?