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.

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 given hints as to the intended time frame through references to related events, issues, and public figures. Nor is there any logical relationship between juxtaposed vignettes. They only interlock, like cinematic lap dissolves, with one minidrama beginning while another is still ending. At the openings and endings of vignettes, characters from two distinct vignettes are briefly on stage together but totally unaware of one another. The episodes are like distinct pearls strung on a delicate thread of a common ethos.

As notes to the play explain, The Dining Room is designed for an ensemble cast of six performers, with each actor playing several parts. The play therefore has greater continuity in performance than when read, for while characters do not reappear, the actors do. Furthermore, much of the play’s comic appeal is bolstered by the fact that performers must play parts ranging from exuberant, excited children at a birthday party to octogenarians who are losing touch with reality. Because the players are transparently actors mimicking characters, the whole is given an improvisational quality that helps keep the tone light even when such serious issues as marital infidelity and dying are broached. However, the wistful recollection of what many of the older characters consider to have been a better time and place also elicits real nostalgia in the audience. In chronicling the passing of old ways, Gurney evokes a sense of bittersweet respect that infuses his humor with warmth and wisdom.

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Critical Context