The 30 greatest American family dramas
American playwrights know how to keep it in the family.
Fri Mar 23 2012
Photograph: Carol Rosegg
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?
5. 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
4. 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
3. 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
2. 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
1. 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