The Dining Room Table
The Dining Room Table, the focal point in the formal dining room. It serves not only as the basic prop but also as the inanimate main character for the play’s eighteen vignettes analyzing “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant” (WASP) life in America in the twentieth century. The table is large, elegant, and deeply burnished, with armed chairs at either end, two armless chairs along each side, and several matching chairs against the walls of the room. The table sits on an elegant hardwood floor covered with a fine oriental rug. Into this archetypal dining room come almost sixty characters, their attitudes toward the table and the dining room helping to define the history of WASP America.
Father, the authoritarian head of an affluent 1930’s family. He is conceited, priggish, and sexist. He believes that government programs in the 1930’s are ruining the country by encouraging people not to work. At breakfast with his young son and daughter, Father reads the newspaper, gently chastises the maid, and instructs his children on fine points of grammar, table manners, and the proper way to address one’s mother. For him, the dining room is a central arena for exercising a highly ritualistic approach to life.
Architect, a professional consultant from the 1970’s who presents a remodeling plan to his client, a psychiatrist who has just bought the house. Efficient, businesslike, and decisive, the Architect does not see elegance in the dining room, only vast space that can be manipulated for more efficient use. Having grown up in a home with a formal dining room, the Architect is familiar with what the room stands for, but as a child he hated its formality.
Aunt Harriet, a woman near the age of sixty who is unaware that her nephew, Tony, an Amherst College student, is interviewing her for an anthropology project on the eating habits of the vanishing WASP culture of the northeastern United States. Steeped in the propriety and traditions of upper-middle-class elegance, Aunt Harriet is proud of the table setting she is displaying for Tony, who takes photographs for documentation. She comments on the delicacy and value of the crystal, silver, linen, and china, relating each item to the genealogy of the family, and then demonstrates the proper use of the finger bowls.
Jim, a father in his late sixties, emotionally distant from his thirty-year-old daughter Meg, who has separated from her husband. Jim ushers Meg into the dining room because it is a good place to talk, but then he tries to avoid Meg’s request to live with them.
Ruth, a hostess preparing the table for an elegant dinner party. Refined, sensitive, generous, and precise, Ruth describes her recurrent dream of a perfect dinner party in the formal dining room of the past, before her grandmother’s silver was stolen, before the movers broke the china, and before the finger bowls were misplaced.
Peggy, a mother setting the table for a children’s birthday party. She is strict in her discipline with the raucous children. Peggy is having an extramarital affair with Ted, the father of one of the children.
Grandfather, the family patriarch, eighty years old. Businesslike and thorough in his cross-examination, he receives his fourteen-year-old grandson in the dining room and gives him money for the boy’s education.
Paul, a former stockbroker, now a carpenter, in his middle thirties. He carefully examines the dining room table for the owner of the house and recommends repairs.
Sarah, a teenage girl in the 1970’s. In the dining room, she and her girlfriend sneak vodka and gin from the liquor cabinet and prepare to meet their boyfriends to smoke marijuana.