The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Dining Room is a two-act play consisting of eighteen overlapping and unrelated vignettes, all staged in an elegant dining room. It traces, through the course of a day’s activities in the lives of various families, the struggles and conflicts within upper-middle-class American homes from the Depression to the 1980’s. The first act, composed of eleven vignettes, begins at early morning with a realtor showing the room to a prospective buyer. From this brief sketch the action segues quickly to the entrance of Arthur and Sally, adult brother and sister, who have inherited their mother’s house and, despite the fact that neither needs the dining room furniture, quarrel angrily over its possession. They exit, their conflict unresolved, as a wealthy father comes down to breakfast with his two children and lectures them about proper table manners and the current economic constraints others have to endure during the Depression. Next enters Ellie, a graduate student with typewriter and papers, who is stealthily working on her final term paper when her husband unexpectedly returns and reprimands her for “systematically mutilating the dining room table” by banging on the typewriter. Unable to concentrate, Ellie angrily leaves as a teenage girl enters and argues with her mother for trying to manipulate her into attending dancing school rather than, as the child prefers, going to the theater with her favorite aunt. After a brief sketch showing a young boy disturbed that his maid (and surrogate mother) is leaving to start a family of her own, an architect and his psychiatrist client enter and begin plans to remodel the dining room into an office and reception area. The young architect, who painfully recalls childhood memories of agonizing meals in a similar dining room, decides that “it’s time to get rid of this room” and, with considerable excitement and pantomime, describes ripping down walls and gutting the room. A birthday party follows, and as four children playfully eat cake and ice cream, the hostess, Peggy, stands aside with her best friend’s husband and plans their secret escape. As the children exit to play party games, a curmudge only grandfather is joined for lunch by one of his many grandchildren, who has come to borrow money. In...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Because Gurney’s concern is less with depicting the conflicts of a single protagonist than with exploring the texture of a way of life over an extended time period, his dramaturgical method demands chronological fluidity and various characters; thus he relies exclusively on episodic techniques. First, the play is centered on a message; dramatic unity is secured not by causal action or by character development but by the thematic thread that runs through each episode. Second, because of the required vignettes and the singular importance of thematic intent over character, Gurney perforce employs easily recognized character types, such as the crusty old grandfather or the rebellious teenager, who immediately communicate basic stereotypical traits which in turn quickly symbolize specific reactions and relationships to his metaphoric dramatic space, the dining room. Moreover, for these character types, Gurney draws exclusively from the WASP society, because its members have traditionally symbolized the stereotypical American family and its culture. These dramaturgical shorthand techniques work forcefully and succinctly because of Gurney’s most powerful theatrical device: the use of locale as a character as well as the source of conflict (psychological, cultural, social, or ideological) for the disparate characters. This dramaturgical economy enables Gurney to waste no time either developing characters or explaining the historical and traditional American values...

(The entire section is 435 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Dining room

Dining room. Formal dining room in an upper-class or upper-middle-class home in an unspecific place in the United States. Although the play’s eighteen scenes involve eighteen different sets of characters conversing in eighteen different houses, A. R. Gurney’s stage directions call for one set of dining-room furniture—a table, some chairs, and a sideboard—to shape the room for all of the scenes. The room, therefore, has symbolic value beyond mere setting: It demonstrates that although the groups of characters are individual, they are also bound together through a commonality. Whatever the small or large dramas of their lives, they are all a part of a larger culture, bound by the same conventions and rules, and sitting at a common table.

From the opening scene, Gurney points out that the people who inhabit these dining rooms are part of a culture on the wane. The client and the agent both admire the dining room, but the client realizes that he will never use it. In the second scene, Sally and Arthur both long for their mother’s dining-room set as a symbol of their cherished past. The third scene shows a father trying to raise his children to be the sort of people who eat in dining rooms, and the fourth shows a woman who has returned to school against her husband’s wishes. She has dared to use his mother’s dining-room table to type on. For these characters and for many others, the dining room itself represents the pull of tradition and family against the new demands of modern life.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bennetts, Leslie. “Theatre,” in The New York Times. May 30, 1982, pp. 4-5.

Gilman, Richard. “A Review of The Dining Room and The Middle Ages.” The Nation 236 (April 30, 1983): 552-553. Identifies Gurney as “the poet laureate of middle-consciousness” and discusses The Dining Room as a typical work.

Gurney, A. R., Jr. “Pushing the Walls of Dramatic Form.” The New York Times, July 27, 1986, pp. B1, B6. Gurney provides analysis of his own work, his methods of coping with restrictions on artistic freedom, and his new themes and experimentation in structure.

Levett, Karl. “A. R. Gurney, Jr., American Original.” Drama 147 (Autumn, 1983): 6-7. A good survey of Gurney’s work up to and including The Dining Room, which is identified as the play that “consolidated Gurney’s reputation.” Also identifies influences on Gurney using some of the playwright’s own observations.

Simon, John. “Malle de Guare.” New York 15 (March 8, 1982): 81-82. Argues that the play is derived from Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner (1931) and discusses its “trickiness,” its use of ingenious structural devices.

Weales, Gerald. “American Theatre Watch, 1981-1982.” Georgia Review 36 (Fall, 1982): 517-526. Places The Dining Room in a group of ethnic-conscious plays successfully produced in commercial theater over two Broadway seasons.