The 30 greatest American family dramas

American playwrights know how to keep it in the family.

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  • Photograph: Martha Swope

    PICNIC

  • Photograph: Paul Kolnik

    AWAKE AND SING!

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES

Photograph: Martha Swope

PICNIC

20. 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

19. 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

18. 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

17. 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

16. THE 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


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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?