If you’re one of the 400 lucky followers of @newplayrobot, you’ve been treated to some of the funniest theatrical criticism of the decade in the form of an obscure novelty twitter account. @newplayrobot’s handle speaks for itself; it is a robot that generates “play ideas of the moment,” the kind that artistic directors “love.” For anyone who has found themselves slogging through self-important drafts in a playwriting class or through famous people’s manuscripts as part of a literary internship, @newplayrobot’s mocking attitude towards the stubborn cliches of American drama are incredibly cathartic. Here are a few:
“Home for Easter Susan spends weekend with alcoholic mother/estranged sister. Secrets revealed. Speech featuring ‘but I stayed!’ Title: Her”
“Play: After being disbarred, Sue is forced to confront how she neglected her family. Sitting and talking. Secrets revealed. Title: Side Bar”
“New play idea: Urban couple returns to country roots after inheriting family home. House is character. Secrets revealed. Title: Good Bones.”
It should be noted that though @newplayrobot skewered several genres—it hasn’t tweeted in about a year—every single tweet incorporated “secrets revealed” at some point.
The shared understanding and sense of collective exhaustion that makes @newplayrobot so funny to me is at the heart of the problem many people have with the genre of the “family play,” a term that—over the past several years—has become more and more pejorative.
I once argued with a former boss of mine over this very issue—she had asked me to cover a new manuscript a playwright had sent her. My assessment was that stuck to tired tropes and ended up being a “family play,” in quotes. She took offense to my characterization of a play’s genre as one of its negative attributes, citing many wonderful, classic family plays in its defense. I couldn’t write it off just because it was a “family play.”
I would agree to a certain extent. Personally, I would hate it if someone wrote off, say, a science-fiction film because of its genre. I would probably feel that displayed a short-sightedness and lack of genuine understanding. But I do maintain that when a genre becomes overwhelmed by its own cliches and a new entry into that genre fails to offer any variations on what we’ve already seen, and, indeed, does not even seem to recognize the existence of a genre’s cliches at all, that’s a lazy choice. Genre becomes a negative qualifier. (Think of the way we now react to the term “biopic.” Did you roll your eyes? I did.)
My problem with the family play is that we, the audience, have gotten ahead of it. The same can be said of other genres as well, but the effect of the family play has been specifically dulled. What was innovative is now old-hat. What was once heralded as ultra-real has now, in many cases, to quote experimental playwright Tina Satter, become “deeply fake.”
There are a million family plays and a million more plays that incorporate elements of a family drama. Someone returns home after a lengthy absence. There is unspoken emotional abuse somewhere in the past. There is infidelity. Someone is dying; the air must be cleared. Neighbors and visitors enter just in time to break the tension. Destruction of property. Each sibling is very noticeably different and representative. Plot-altering news is delivered via one-sided telephone call, discovered letters, or overheard conversation. Well-timed suicide. Stuff like that. To be fair, these things are all over literature and film, too. The problem is that the stubborn realism of many family plays forces the action to be confined within a single location (a living room, a dining room), crushing every element and incident into one unrealistic space. The play becomes inherently overstuffed with secrets that need to be revealed. What @newplayrobot reduces to a disparaging “house is character” is really an overall sense of self importance that permeates these plays. Finally, someone has been brave enough to expose the American family as not-really-that-healthy-in-the-first-place.
Which is a little harsh. Of the many plays brought up by my erstwhile boss, you have much of the Arthur Miller canon; A View from the Bridge, All My Sons, and Death of a Salesman. You have Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, who additionally based many of their family plays on aspects of their own family. A Raisin in the Sun, Neil Simon, Fences, Crimes of the Heart, ’night Mother, Dancing at Lughnasa, Robert Schenkkan’s “Kentucky Cycle,” The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Sam Shepard’s “Family Trilogy,” Rabbit Hole—all qualify. Sticks and Bones and The Skin of Our Teeth even offer quasi-parodies of the genre.
But no discussion of the family play would be complete without its arguable progenitor, Chekhov’s Three Sisters; a tragicomic, often melodramatic look at the lives of the Prozorov sisters (and one brother), which gave us the first modern take on the family play’s themes of sibling tension, wasted lives, absent fathers, and homecoming. (It was also, interestingly, the only one of Chekhov’s major plays that he himself explicitly classified as a drama). Nor can you now discuss the family play without mentioning one featuring three not-so-different sisters and their mother that would debut 107 years after Chekhov prevented the Prozorovs from shipping back to Moscow.
It’s been ten years now since Tracy Letts (who adapted/translated Three Sisters in 2009) premiered his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning opus August: Osage County at Steppenwolf in Chicago. The broadway transfer scooped up much of the original cast and soon you had a play receiving the most unanimous praise since Angels in America.