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...
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