The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922

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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 penultimate scene, Margery and a repairman examine the table and chairs for refurbishing and discover, much to Margery’s amazement, that the dining suite is not a priceless antique, as they had thought, but “just . . . American,” a “solid serviceable copy” of the original. The first act concludes with a poignant Thanksgiving dinner at midday. An elderly and senile woman, surrounded and serenaded by her three sons and daughters-in-law, repeatedly gets up from the table and, unable to recognize her family, tries to leave. The mother insists that she be allowed to go home and exits, and as the sons go after her, one of the women remarks with a shudder, “It could happen to us all.”

While the first act encompasses action from morning to middle afternoon, the second act, with similar jumps in time, picks up the action at late afternoon and brings it to a conclusion at late evening. In the first vignette of act 2, Sarah brings home her high school friend, and, unchaperoned, they sip soft drinks, vodka, and gin at the table while Sarah recounts her unpleasant meals with her family. In the next sketch, a young college boy returns home unannounced and learns of his mother’s affair with a family friend when he catches her, scantily clad in a robe, entertaining her lover in the dining room. Next an Amherst student, Tony, photographs his aunt proudly displaying her collection of crystal, silver, and place settings and demonstrating the proper use of finger bowls. When he then explains that all his fuss and interest is for an anthropology project involving “studying the eating habits of various vanishing cultures”—in particular, as he puts it, the WASPs of the Northeastern United States—his aunt furiously chases him out of the dining room with a pistol-handled knife. Jim, a sixty-year-old man, enters; after listening to Meg, his thirty-year-old daughter, confess to undergoing psychotherapy and to having numerous affairs which have adversely affected his grandchildren, he refuses to allow her to return to his home with her children so that she can get her bearings and start again.

Next Standish, a pompous, self-righteous father and husband, interrupts dinner with his wife and two children when he learns that his homosexual brother has been insulted at his club; he leaves the dinner table to rush to his brother’s aid and defend the family’s honor. An old man sits at the table with his middle-aged son to discuss his funeral arrangements, pointing out the exact particulars of the service and reception and verbally bequeathing him the dining room furniture. The act ends, as did act 1, with a dinner celebration. The table is splendidly set by the maid, who, as Gurney specifies, is to be the same maid from the breakfast scene but now quite old. Ruth, the hostess, alone onstage and lighting the table candles, talks to the audience about throwing an ideal dinner party like those in the old days—one which would now, because of the inflation of the 1980’s, be financially infeasible. Momentarily, the four dinner guests are escorted in by Ruth’s husband, who, once the group has been seated and has chatted for a bit, toasts the group as all raise their glasses in unison while the lights fade to black.

Dramatic Devices

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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 relative to his dramatic ideas; he can begin immediately to trace the rise and fall of a system of values, doing so adroitly through the flux of many scenes and characters.

Although episodic, the play does have a theatrically and symbolically effective chronology. The vignettes do not have specific time references, and the accretion of segments does not proceed chronologically (indeed, each sketch is not necessarily followed by one in the same year or even the same decade), but the action clearly spans one day, opening at early morning and closing at late evening. Gurney’s use of dramatic time symbolizes the beginning and end, or the rise and fall, of the culture which he dramatizes.

Gurney’s use of metaphors and symbols is further unified by the frame in which he suggests the action be staged. Describing the few naturalistic scenic elements, he writes: “A sense of the void surrounds the room. It might almost seem to be surrounded by a velvet-covered low-slung chain on brass stanchions, as if it were on display in some museum, many years from now.” The traditions and values examined in the play are, like the crystal and fingerbowls Tony photographs, American relics whose natural home will inevitably be a museum where they will stand on display as symbols and icons of our cultural history.

Places Discussed

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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.

Bibliography

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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.

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