Rich Relations Summary
by David Henry Hwang

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Rich Relations Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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In the introduction to F.O.B., and Other Plays, Hwang describes a two-year hiatus from writing that proceeded Rich Relations and comments that the play reestablished his commitment to writing. It is about the possibility of resurrection, he asserts, and writing it resurrected his love for work. Elsewhere, he calls the play autobiographical, even though Rich Relations is the first play that Hwang wrote that has no specifically Asian roles. The characters are white because Hwang is testing whether literary segregation implies cultural limitation. As an American author, he believes that he should be able to make his characters whatever ethnicity he chooses.

The play opens with Hinson, a high-tech entrepreneur, showing his son Keith one of his new inventions, a phone hooked up to a television. Hinson calls it “a modern convenience,” but Keith calls the device “ridiculous.” Hinson uses the invention to telephone his brother-in-law, Fred, who says the connection makes Hinson sound as though he is at the bottom of a sewer. That kind of multiple and contradictory perspective, played for humor, abounds in this play of misunderstood dialogue and misinterpreted gesture. California materialism and Christian mysticism are constant themes that try to unify characters with some common ground, but both are ineffectual.

The characters talk at each other rather than to each other, play for humor the fact of their being related, and bumble into and out of potentially incendiary situations with naïve aplomb. The play’s conflict hinges on the attempt of Hinson’s sister, Barbara, to force her daughter Marilyn onto Keith as his wife, thinking that such a marriage will make Barbara wealthy. In fact, Keith has brought his girlfriend, Jill, home with him from an East Coast high school, where he coaches debate and where Jill is one of his students. The friendship between Jill and Hinson is sealed when Jill expresses interest in seeing Hinson’s spy pens. Purchased from Hong Kong, the pens not only do not communicate secret messages but also do not even write.

Because Barbara’s pleas to Keith fall on deaf ears, she uses a more drastic measure to communicate, perching on the edge of a high balcony railing in a mock suicide attempt. Jill, whose friendship with Barbara blossoms over a bag of cheese puffs, joins her on the balcony.

Sordid secrets are confessed, but they neither effectively illuminate the listeners, vindicate the speakers, nor move the plot forward in any convincing way. Keith and Hinson aggressively smash inventions and appliances as a symbol of failed energy and thwarted convenience. Marilyn utters the most critical speech of the play, a warning to listen to the “constant voice” that “lurks behind every move we make.” Alone, Hinson and Keith crouch, ears to the ground, trying to get past addictive technology by listening for that pure, small voice. As the curtain drops, however, there is no indication that they hear it.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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