Grab a young director or an upstart playwright and take them out for a drink, and you’re likely to hear some variation on the Rant Against Realism.
The rant goes something like this: Realism, as a genre, has ossified. It is now simply about upper-middle-class white (and/or Jewish) New Yorkers discovering dark family secrets while cracking the occasional joke that undermines the supposed seriousness of the dramatic material. And, for some reason, these realist plays are always set in living rooms! In fact, as soon as I walk into a theatre and see a couch onstage, I start to fall asleep! We must break the chains of realism! If only subscribers didn’t like it so much! Theatre should be theatrical, not a purveyor of expensive, second-rate television!
As one of the former insufferables who used to rant along these lines, I’ve been fascinated by the recent trend in what Time Out New York’s David Cote has called “dramaturgical normcore,” a trend in which “playwright-provocateurs are into…dressing square in the well-made, dysfunctional-domestic play.” The plays Cote is pointing to can broadly be grouped together as anti-realism: They are works that wear the trappings and mimic the gestures of those realistic, subscriber-friendly plays, particularly the Living-Room Play, for the purposes of subversion and critique.
Who’s heading up this normcore uprising? Its most visible adherents include Will Eno, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Young Jean Lee and Taylor Mac.
Yet for all of these writers’ insurrectionist impulses, the anti-realist plays they’re turning out may in fact hold within them a key to understanding why realism is such a durable, persistent stage genre after all.
In the current crop of anti-realist plays are Eno’s The Open House and Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, both mounted last season at New York City’s Signature Theater, and Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, a recent critical success at the Public Theater. Next season, Taylor Mac’s Hir will have its East Coast debut at Playwrights Horizons. All these plays simultaneously deploy and subvert various tropes of the genre: difficult fathers, family secrets, eccentric mothers, a compressed time scheme, money worries—and, well, white people.
They’re also all set in and around living rooms, the most common and persistent setting in contemporary American theatre.
While it can be frustrating to walk into a theatre and see yet another couch in front of yet another television three feet away from yet another cluttered bookshelf, the ubiquity of this setting isn’t hard to understand. After all, the living room’s history and linguistic roots intersect with American theatre’s primary concerns. “Living room” is simply the American term for the parlor, whose name derives from the French parler, to talk. It is figuratively, then, a space for talking. Parlors are also a middle-class (or, if you must, bourgeois) invention, much like the theatres that regularly reproduce them onstage.
Issues of class and, more specifically, privilege sit at the heart of Lee’s Straight White Men, perhaps the gentlest and slyest of the recent anti-realist plays. Unlike Lee’s other work, which is known for its structural tricks and metatheatrical gambits, Straight White Men is a straightforward naturalistic play about a widower and his three grown sons spending Christmas together, drinking too much and fighting.
The central question facing all four men is what to do about (or with) their privilege. Drew, the youngest brother, is a professor and critically acclaimed author of several deeply political novels who believes in the standard liberal approaches to having more: He donates money, engages politically with the world and speaks out about his beliefs. Jake, the middle brother, is a banker who thinks nothing short of full-scale revolution will change the world, and thus enjoys his privilege as much as possible as a way of helping the revolution come quicker (or so he says). Oldest brother Matt attempts a kind of monastic abnegation of his privilege. Despite his obvious intellect and aptitude, he works a low-paying, low-status job at a nonprofit and lives with their father, Ed, who is bewildered by all of this.
“We taught you to appreciate what you have,” Ed says. “Do some good with it. Not sit around talking about it for the sake of talking!”
Straight White Men entertains with family rituals like Christmas pajamas and a homemade adaptation of Monopoly called Privilege, and teases with never-revealed dark secrets. The biggest mystery—why Matt appears to have given up on ever achieving anything—is left resolutely unsolved. The closest we get is when Matt, speaking of his late mother, offers that “she would say there’s nothing you can do to erase the problem of your own existence. She would tell me not to despair, and to keep trying to find my own way.”
While the play eschews deconstructionist gestures—even its “Postmodern Dance Break” has a naturalistic justification—Straight White Men is still framed in a way that invites the audience to view both the characters and its form through an anthropological lens. The stage directions prescribe a preshow mix of “loud hip-hop with nasty lyrics by female rappers,” followed by an announcement made by a “trans or gender non-conforming STAGEHAND-IN-CHARGE” who is “preferably a person of color,” explaining to the audience that “the actors will stay in character and pretend not to see you.”
The prologue works to alienate the audience from their assumptions about how theatre works; it aims to “create a sense that the show is being controlled by people who are not straight white men.” Straight White Men looks at both the living-room play and the audience it is typically made for, from the inside and the outside at once—just as Lee herself stands both outside and within the resident theatre landscape, critiquing, reinventing and participating all at once.
The play’s most remarkable quality, despite its distancing effects, is the vein of compassion that runs through it—a compassion that is very much a hallmark of traditional realism. These straight, white, privileged men may have the classiest set of problems a bunch of guys can have, but their pain is taken as seriously as the formal tropes Lee explores, ultimately suggesting that being a straight white man of means can be a burden, too, if one is awake to the inequities of the world.
Far less compassionate—deliberately so—is Eno’s The Open House, his bracing attempt to suffocate the living–room play by sucking out all of its oxygen. The Open House’s core insight is that many popular, contemporary, realistic plays rely on characters whose essential reprehensibility is cut with just enough charm to remain, as TV studio executives might say, “relatable.” Eno instead refuses to weave any charm into the character of Father, a man whose constant degrading of all those around him is excruciating.
Father rules the first half of the play with an iron fist and an acid tongue, and the oppressiveness of his constant verbal abuse spreads to the very space itself. He insists on keeping the shades drawn despite the brightly shining sun outside, and the living room itself feels stilted and passé. Within this hermetic box, no sustained human interaction is possible, and no conversation can fully come to life. Instead, the dialogue dead-ends into silence again and again before looping back around to the family dog, who has gone missing. Everyone loved the dog, it seems, and Uncle—none of the family members have actual names—hints that the family may be to blame. “She did get nervous though,” he says, “with the peeing and the shaking.”
Father is nothing if not self-aware about the predicament this family—and the audience—find themselves in so long as he remains onstage. Just when you start to feel that the play might become literally unbearable, the family members exit one by one, only to reenter as other characters. First Daughter departs, then returns as a realtor named Anna, on hand to show the house. Soon the other family members exit and reenter as potential homebuyers and their contractor, looking over the house to see if it can be remodeled to their satisfaction. Father, who remains, keeps up the verbal assaults, but his attempts at cruelty don’t work on these newcomers. They ignore his insults and patronize him, until he has a heart attack and must be wheeled away to the hospital.
The Open House’s title is, as is the case with many of Eno’s titles, a pun. In this case, it’s a triple-decker. Not only do we see an “open house,” in the real-estate sense; the play takes place, as do countless others, in a house missing its fourth wall—it is “open” to the audience. Finally, we also see the psychic space of the house open up as the family members leave and reenter, while flowers bloom all over the house over the course of its final half hour. The play subtly suggests that redemption for the family is impossible: All they can do is abandon ship and hope the next group will do better.
As sunlight shines through the window on those blooming flowers and everyone’s newer and brighter costumes, the house comes to feel like a metaphor for the very dramatic conventions Eno takes on in the play. Much as it suggests that this family is beyond redemption, The Open House suggests that the dramatic form that so often gives voice to the American family’s struggles and triumphs is in need of serious renovation.
As in all his work, the greatest convention of the living–room play Eno attacks is clear, discernible meaning. Just when you think you have the play figured out and can guess what will happen next, it becomes something different. Again and again, The Open House creeps right up to the edge of an epiphany before scurrying somewhere else.
If Straight White Men remains firmly in the living room and The Open House seeks to remake it by stripping off its wallpaper, Taylor Mac’s Hir sits somewhere between these two impulses. Mac says he found himself seduced by the living-room play and its characters, despite his efforts to break out of it: “What I was trying to do was write a eulogy for the kitchen-sink drama, as a metaphor for the old world orders that aren’t working anymore….The play just kept wanting to just actually be in the genre that it’s written in.”
The result of this tension is a play about an Afghanistan war vet named Isaac Connor, who returns to his childhood home with a meth addiction and a serious case of PTSD, only to find out that everything in his family has changed. His sister Maxine is now his brother Max, and demands to be called by new pronouns. His father has suffered a serious stroke and is now being taken care of by Paige, his mother, who uses his father’s enfeeblement to exact revenge on him for years of abuse. Together, the family tries and spectacularly fails to forge a new path forward.
Hir’s genius lies in its approach to the notion of boundaries. The boundaries of gender are a metaphor for the boundaries of the living-room play, which are in turn a metaphor for the boundaries we all maintain to remain functional in this world. The metaphors also work in reverse, so that when the characters speak of exploding gender, they’re also speaking of exploding genre.
Hir is also quite salient about the costs and complications of change. Paige’s total disruption of the family’s lives—she has stopped cleaning, cooking or taking Max to school—has serious negative repercussions. Of course, Isaac’s desire to resist change at all costs is no solution either, and leads him to replicate his father’s abuse, repeating the very behavior he enlisted in the army to avoid.
The word “experiment” keeps popping up (20 times in all) in different forms, and with different meanings. Isaac justifies his drug addiction as “experimentation,” which his mother playfully mocks, subtly shifting his meaning by saying, “Now you can actually major in Experimenting. At the University. With a minor in Weighing Your Options.”
Max later rejects experimentation in a lament that could double as a eulogy for experimental theatre when he (or “ze,” like “hir” a gender-neutral pronoun recommended by the script) says, “People used to experiment to figure things out but now they’ve turned experimenting into a craft.” Just before the end of the play, Max makes virtually the same observation about hir own gender.
Max’s vexation could double for the play’s own frustration at its inability to collapse the dramatic form of the living-room play. This in turn suggests a reason for the realist living-room play’s stubborn durability. It isn’t just that theatres are conservative or that subscribers love them. It’s that from the start naturalism has produced plays that rebelled against its strictures. Anti-realism has, it turns out, always been with us—today’s playwrights are continuing a tradition, not overturning one.
Eric Bentley spotted the seeds of the anti-realist tradition in The Playwright as Thinker, in which he finds that Ibsen’s “modern” realist work actually contains the romanticism of his earlier plays, cleverly disguised. “The paradox of Ibsen’s realistic tragedy,” Bentley writes, “is that it depends so much on nonrealistic elements for its success.” Ibsen was not alone—The Cherry Orchard, for example, takes the idea of “naturalism” in dialogue to such an extreme degree that Chekhov’s play feels experimental when first encountered. We can see this idea of hyper-realism pushed to its limits through the latter 20th century and beyond, from the early work of Lanford Wilson to recent works by Annie Baker.
It could be argued, likewise, that The Open House plays in the same sandbox as Harold Pinter, a contemporary and friend of John Osborne (author of Look Back in Anger, a pioneering kitchen-sink drama). Take away Straight White Men’s framing devices, in fact, and the work has a kinship to plays like Jessica Goldberg’s Get What You Need, perhaps the most underappreciated play of the 2000s. Hir, played in a style, as its notes suggest, of “Absurd Realism…[with] a heightened but realistic point of view,” has clear antecedents in early Christopher Durang and in Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls.
Realism and its iconoclastic fraternal twin, in short, have coexisted from the start. If their sibling dynamics are fraught, they’re also an essential part of what makes American theatre distinctly American. It’s impossible to know what the future will bring, but it’s clear that realism and its loyal opposition will be with us for a long time to come, arguing, just like their characters, on a living-room set in a darkened theatre.
Isaac Butler writes frequently for this magazine.
A just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. If you are able, please join us in this mission by making a donation. As we reckon with the impact of COVID-19, the theatre field needs committed and nuanced journalism. Free and unlimited access to AmericanTheatre.org is one way that we and our publisher, Theatre Communications Group, are eliminating barriers to crucial resources during this crisis. When you support American Theatre and TCG, you support these emergency resources and our long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!