Donald Margulies Essay - Critical Essays


Like the contemporary playwrights he admires— Caryl Churchill, David Mamet, John Guare, Tom Stoppard, and Harold Pinter—Donald Margulies uses a wide variety of plot lines and imaginative, dramatic techniques with economy, insight, and an unerring ear for the rhythms of human speech. In writing his plays, Margulies takes snippets of human experience in many colors, sizes, shapes, and textures and places them like scraps of paper in a collage, adjacent to, over, under, and around each other, objectively, satirically, humorously, or ironically, sometimes to conceal, sometimes to reveal, and always to depict life and human behavior provocatively.

As a modern playwright, Margulies has his plays explore contemporary social issues such as divorce, art and commerce, alienation, betrayal, despair, and personal loss. As a Jewish American playwright, he also concerns his plays with the aftermath of the Holocaust, cultural assimilation, pressure for happy marriage and economic success, and characters who feel like outsiders. However, Margulies universalizes his characters’ lies, hypocrisies, yearnings, and confusion so that they transcend ethnic stereotypes, and he is writing about all people.

Although his early plays deal mostly with the complicated relationship between parent and child, Margulies’ body of work is most compelling because of his refusal to cheat audiences and readers by simplifying such enormously complex issues as the profound and contradictory dynamics of human motivation and interaction. Like classic playwright Anton Chekhov, Margulies touches the very essence of life and loss by boldly exploring shocking truths with humanism and humor.

The Loman Family Picnic

With sharp echoes of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and subtler ones of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr., pb. 1956), Sam Shepard’s True West (pr. 1980), and John Cheever’s short stories, The Loman Family Picnic is a scathing, surreal, somewhat autobiographical black comedy about a hopelessly dysfunctional and despairing middle-class Jewish family in 1960’s Brooklyn.

Parallels with Miller’s classic include desperately frustrated and unhappy Herbie, who is anxious to be appreciated at work, and his two lonely sons. The oldest, Stewie, is disgusted that the rabbi will not explain the meaning of the Scripture he must learn for his upcoming bar mitzvah, while the youngest, Mitchell, is exasperated that he receives citywide recognition for his artwork only to be ignored by his father. Another Miller parallel is a ghostly character that provokes a...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)