Who exactly are the upper middle class WASPs?
And if you had to pick one thing to symbolize them, what would it be?
A.R. Gurney sets out to answer both of these questions with a play he penned in 1981 called The Dining Room. It’s an interesting script to read and an even more fascinating play to watch. Make no mistake though. This isn’t a play that is written for the audience. Not really. It’s a play written for the playwright. For the critics. And above all, it’s a play written for the actors.
The Dining Room is a play set in a single dining room. This is a real dining room, by the way, not just a room attached to the kitchen where the table is set up. This is the sort of room in which a long wood table is accompanied by a matching hutch, buffet, and beautifully carved chairs. It’s the type of room in which manners are of the utmost importance and the rules of behavior are as uncompromising as the crystal of the water glasses.
In some ways, the dining room table and chairs become a character in this play. Indeed, it is the only fixture that remains constant from scene to scene. While the play is written for six actors–three men and three women–there are 57 different characters who perform 17 scenes throughout the course of a “day.” Gurney opens his play with detailed stage directions describing the dining room. He says:
The play takes place in a dining room–or rather, many dining rooms. The same dining room furniture serves for all: a lovely burnished, shining dining room table; two chairs, with arms, at either end; two more, armless, along each side, several additional matching chairs, placed so as to define the walls of the room….A sense of 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.
Yet, to say the play is only about its title “character” would be deceptive. Gurney parades scene after scene before us not to give us warm fuzzy feelings about a room in a house. Rather, he is conducting an anthropological demonstration on what one of his characters describes as a “vanishing culture…the Wasps of Northeastern United States.” That character goes on to tell his increasingly ire-filled aunt “You can learn a lot about a culture from how it eats…Consider the finger bowls, for example. There you have an almost neurotic obsession with cleanliness, reflecting the guilt which comes with the last stages of capitalism.”
Of course, even that character is a parody of himself. Gurney isn’t passing judgement, he’s making us look and making us think. He wants us to see a slice of humanity and portrays it by giving six actors a challenge to revel in. In the space of 90 minutes the actors take on roles of stern parents, servants, senile adults, 5-year olds at a birthday party, teenagers sneaking alcohol, and professionals conducting business in a room fraught with memories. Often the actors have less than 30 seconds to switch from one character to another and the vignettes frequently overlap each other with one beginning as another ending.
It really is a play that defies easy description or categorization. But then, so do the people who make up the class he is writing “about.” In the diversity of the 57 characters, we see that calling someone a WASP may define his or her socio-economic class, but it fails to tell you anything about the individual.
Gurney is generous with the stage directions–almost too generous. Yet, generosity is probably necessary when the actor has but two pages from which to draw his or her character. It also helps the reader who is stuck with just the script and no actors or stage to bring it to life. Certainly this play has achieved the stature in modern dramaturgy that it is already part of many drama curriculums and many students will be reading it without the benefit of a performance.
For the non-student, though, this is a play I would recommend you see before you read. The script is the blueprint, the performance is where Gurney’s work attains its brilliance. I read the script this past summer in preparation for auditioning for a local production of it. Just a few weeks ago, I was able to watch it performed at Bath Community Theatre Guild and the script took on a much richer texture than was available in mere black ink on white pages. It dramatized for me in a new way why simply reading a script is to incompletely experience the art form. It is like reading the musical notes of a symphony without hearing the musicians play it. A skilled reader can appreciate the craftsmanship, but only in the proper medium can it truly be experienced.A
So yes, if you must, read this play. But if you have the opportunity, go see it. You’ll be treated to a wide range of humanity, an exploration of the traumas, joys, and tensions of a wide variety of people performed in a room that manages to symbolize all of them.