Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692

The Dining Room resembles some of A. R. Gurney’s other plays, like the earlier Scenes from American Life (1970), in that it develops as a series of interlocking vignettes or minidramas that only loosely relate to one another. The individual scenes are all built around the play’s central stage property, the large dining room table that dominates the set and plays a role in the lives of the characters who use it.

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There are fifty-seven distinct characters in the two-act comedy, none of them central. All appear only once, except Annie, a servant, who appears near the beginning of the play and at the end. The characters are not related to anyone outside their own vignette, but most share a common heritage and culture: They are upper-middle-class WASPs living someplace in the northeastern United States sometime between the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the early 1980’s.

The play clearly shows that their way of life is changing. In fact, a major theme of The Dining Room, developed through generational contrasts, is that the WASP version of American culture has become outmoded and, to the younger generation, increasingly irrelevant. The central, archetypal symbol of that culture is the dining room and the large dining table, reminders of a day when families sat down together for long formal dinners, during which children, seen but not heard, learned about their heritage, against which, to some degree, they all finally rebel.

In some of the vignettes, the generational gulf seems deep and permanent, as in the second-act episode with Tony and Aunt Harriet. To Tony, the WASPs of the northeastern United States are “a vanishing culture,” like the Cree Indians of Saskatchewan and the Kikuyus of Northern Kenya, and he, one of its scions, is determined to learn about it from studying the eating habits of the culture, as if it were a long-extinct society with only fossilized artifacts remaining to bear witness to its identity. That suggestion outrages Aunt Harriet, who threatens to drive to Amherst and castrate Tony’s anthropology professor with one of her pistol-handled butter knives.

Although Gurney’s intent is to evoke laughter, his humor is gentle and sympathetic. His characters are mostly decent people, even when they cling to reactionary beliefs and biases or commit immoral acts. Standish’s sense of honor seems a bit ludicrous, for example, but it is honor nevertheless. Nick’s grandfather, in another vignette, airs his grumpy intolerances, but in the end he proves kind and generous, almost despite himself. Clearly, in Gurney’s world, most of the characters at least try to do the right thing.

Gurney’s comic collage is not constructed in a chronological order. Events are only occasionally...

(The entire section contains 692 words.)

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Critical Context