The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As the play begins, Fanny and Gardner Church have sold their Boston town house and will move in a week to their much smaller cottage on Cape Cod. Their daughter Mags, whose arrival from New York they eagerly await, plans to paint their portrait and help them pack. When she arrives she tells them about her success as an artist. Although they express their delight, they do so with their mouths full of crackers, and they continue to be absorbed in eating crackers as Mags goes on about her success. Later Mags is dismissive when Fanny tells her how impossible Gardner is becoming in his mental wanderings. Scene 1 ends with Fanny and Gardner playfully practicing poses for their portrait by making silly faces.

In scene 2 Mags nails up a crimson tablecloth as a portrait backdrop, oblivious to her mother’s protests about the damage she is doing. Her parents clown by miming Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, and Mags complains they do not take her seriously. She talks about her first group show, at which her mother called attention to herself and disparaged her daughter’s paintings in front of an important art critic. While Mags relates this humorous story of her embarrassment and exasperation, her parents continue to amuse themselves by posing as Michelangelo’s sculpture Pietà, and his fresco The Creation of Adam.

Scene 3 ends on a grimmer note. Mags reminds her parents that at age nine she was banished from the dinner table for playing with her food. Oblivious to her mother’s requests to stop her account, she explains that, sent to her room with a tray, she would flush the food down the toilet and melt crayons on the radiator. Every week she would use her allowance to...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Howe’s single set has “three soaring arched windows,” suggestive of a church, with its air of authority and awe. By going home, Mags reenters that which was in her childhood a space of parental authority and awe (surely Howe chose her characters’ family name for its significance). The changing light pouring through the windows functions to transform what it touches: At play’s end, for instance, it should be “dreamy and dappled” as the Churches dance in a gentle moment out of time. The Chopin waltz heard when they dance also communicates that they are removed from everyday reality, just as the honking car horn symbolizes the flow of time to which they are being summoned back. Their furnishings, a mix of the tasteful and the odd, reflect their personalities. Fanny’s very clothing when the audience first see her echoes this mix as she sits wearing a worn bathrobe and a stylish hat. Mags, who has gone off to New York and become her own person, “wears wonderfully distinctive clothes and has very much her own look.”

The packing cartons on stage are another dramatic device. They are empty, then overflowing, then filled with clothing as well as household items, then fewer in number, and finally gone. They symbolize the passing of time as the Churches move toward their end. The gradual stripping of the house also accompanies “the psychological stripping bare of the characters,” as critic Christopher Bigsby has noted.


(The entire section is 401 words.)


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Barlow, Judith E. “The Art of Tina Howe.” In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Bigsby, Christopher. “Tina Howe.” In Contemporary American Playwrights. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Howe, Tina. Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays by Tina Howe. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1989.

Howe, Tina. “Tina Howe.” In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, edited by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Howe, Tina. “Tina Howe.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, edited by John L. DiGaetani. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Howe, Tina. “Tina Howe.” Interview by Judith E. Barlow. In Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights, edited by Philip C. Kolin and Colby H. Kullman. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.