The concepts of marriage and family are recurrent themes throughout modern drama, and are often used as devices to convey social fears and conventions, and provide insight into the inner-most workings of human interaction at its most intimate. The manipulation and subversion of familial ideals can be used by dramatists as emotional leverage, an aspect with which the entire audience can relate, whilst also putting these themes to more divisive purposes as vehicles to convey social and political messages.
Although the breadth of modern drama is vast both in locality and social infrastructure the exploration of inter-familial relationships can be revelatory on a number of levels, reflecting (and often contradicting) both specific social principles and general codes of morality. We might consider for example Ibsen's use of the family and marriage in A Doll's House, which exemplifies and examines middle class society, its construct and its restrictions. The main female protagonists of the play demonstrates the lack of equality within the marital home: Nora of A Doll's House puts on a well practiced display as the dedicated housewife, but as the play unfolds, it becomes far more apparent that she has aspirations which transcend her role within the home and within the constraints of marriage. She has been considered a "tragical victim of masculine egotism", manipulated both by her father and husband, unable to interact with the world around her beyond that of the marital home.
Although Ibsen had not intended to write in support of the Women's Rights Movement, he reflected in his notes for A Doll's House that, "A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society, it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from a male point of view." It was perhaps this contemporary approach to gender roles and indeed marriage, addressing the social stigma of divorce, which provoked such a varied reaction amongst the critics of A Doll's House. Many considered the closing scenes of the play, as Nora speaks out of her decision to leave her husband and children to be outrageous and unrealistic by "violating the conventional," and this led to the rewriting of an ending which displayed Nora as a maternal figure, "Oh this is a sin against myself but I cannot leave them (her children)." The demand for such a contradictory ending to the play highlights the controversial nature of Ibsen's work; he uses inter-marital relationships as a device to explore a number of key social issues. In A Doll's House Ibsen contravenes standardised social etiquette of Norwegian society; through demonstration of the dominance of a masculine driven society Ibsen draws attention to the repression of women. Nora's departure from the family home signifies departure from the social norm and reflects a development in gender politics, while Ibsen's exploration of the concept of materialism through conjugal relationships, with Torvald regarding Nora as his, "most treasure possession...mine and mine alone" identifies not only the social necessity for a wife, but the degree of male dominance over women.
It has been further argued that the controversy of Nora's departure from the family home stems from the contradiction of the Capitalist idea of the 'nuclear family'; fragmentation of this 'nuclear family' undermines the principles and stability of the Capitalist society. If the basic principles of social and political regime are breached, this might act to disrupt society as a whole.
In a similar way, particularly in the work of American modern dramatists Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill, we see the deconstruction of the illusions of the American Dream, which featured so greatly in late 19th and 20th century America. The impact of commercialism on the family has been exploited to convey a commentary relating to wider society. "The car, the furniture, the wife, the children - everything has to be disposable. Because you see the main thing to day is - shopping. Miller focuses on the price people pay to conform to social conventions and the affect this conformity has on the family.
Miller's Death of A Salesman presents a stark and realistic depiction of a family struggling against the American dream for "prosperity and material wealth" and the psychological impacts of such a dream. Within the initial stage directions, Miller highlights the importance of the harsh contrast between reality and dream, "An air of dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality." It is this vivid and evocative contrast that provides such a prominent tragic aspect to the narrative; for Willy Loman the lead, patriarchal figure, his dreams are stunted and restricted by the unfortunate circumstance of his reality.
Within this context, Miller explores familial interactions, the expectations they have for each other and the disappointments that result, with particular focus on the relationship between the main protagonist, Willy Loman and his wife Linda. At the very start of the first act, we are told of Linda's "iron repression of her exceptions to Willy's behaviour," the "massive dreams" he has have become paramount and actually define their marriage, as have his "temper" and his "little cruelties." In the closing scene of the play Linda remarks, "we're free, we're free", and although this might refer to the lifting of the financial burden from Willy's life insurance, it might also be considered to refer to the pressure exerted on each of the members of the family by Willy's dreams, which with his death, die too.
Their relationship is complex and Miller seems to reflect women acting as supportive but powerless creatures; Willy and Linda's marriage is turbulent and deeply affected by Willy's wavering mental stability. The fragile tenderness in the interchanges between them conveys Linda's devotion and how she has shaped her life around his, which seems to be starkly contrasted against Willy's affair. The symbolic use of the stockings, which Willy gives to his mistress, "thanks for the stockings, I love a lot of stockings" rather than to his wife who cannot afford to buy new ones, "Linda goes into the kitchen and start to darn stockings" is representative of his infidelity deceit and the social imbalance of wealth. It also goes beyond this to indicate the corruption and fragmentation of the ideals that underpin the American Dream and with it Capitalist social stability. Willy's desire for a more lascivious and frivolous woman seems to subvert the standard American dream for a house, happy family and steady job and sees the impact of commercialism, altering people's want for disposability and excitement.
Miller considers that if "the struggle in Death of a Salesman were simply between father and son for recognition and forgiveness, it would diminish in importance." He suggests further to this that it "extends itself out of the family circle and into society" and encompasses "questions of societal status, social honour and recognition." In doing this, the theme of family is used as a microcosm to reflect upon a wider critique on social values, "Which expand its vision and lift it out of the merely particular toward the fate of the generality of men." (73f.).
In a similar way in All My Sons, Miller considers the universal or 'collective family' and we might consider Joe Keller's decision as the patriarchal figure, to order the shipment of faulty cylinders to the US military (in which his son was serving in the War) to highlight the idea of this 'collective family,' and the responsibility Keller had to those his decision affected. "Sure he was my son (Larry). But I think to him they were all my sons." As a key phrase within the play, Miller presents a family unit, which transcends marital and blood relations to incorporate the world as a whole and shows once again Miller considering the wider, social impact of human action and interaction. Chris' blunt statement of "once and for all you can know there's a universe of people outside and you're responsible for it" seems to have deeper connotations, which more pointedly address the audience. It is this understanding of All My Sons which critics such as Irving Jacobson attribute its success to, "the power to transform a relatively impersonal social world into a home that offered familial warmth."
O'Neill also touches upon the familial aspect of a community which revolves around Harry Hope's bar in The Iceman Cometh. Each of the characters has their own "pipe dreams", their unachievable aspirations and in a familial way they share and reflect upon these dreams; they represent a family of sorts, which is, although dysfunctional, supportive of each other. However, it is the contrast between these relationships and the relationship between Hickey (Theodore Hickman) and his wife Evelyn that provides particular insight into the psychological aspect of marriage. Hickey is torn between his love for his wife, "Why, I loved Evelyn better than anything in life!" and his bitterness and resentment towards her, "Well, you know what you can do with your pipe dream now, you damned bitch!" - her pipe dream being that Hickey would reform himself and become a better man. Although Evelyn is not physically present throughout the play, she is still used as a device by O'Neill to see into Hickey's character. She is seen through Hickey's eyes, and like Linda in Death of a Salesman, she represents the powerlessness of women in a male dominant society. The feminist critic, Judith Fetterley considers that, "to be universal, to be American - is to be not female ... America is female; to be American is male; and the quintessential American experience is betrayal by woman." It seems possible that although Hickey claims to murder his wife out of compassion, releasing her from his failings, "the only possible way to give her peace and free her from the misery of loving me," Hickey might also feel betrayed by his wife for the expectations that she had of him that he could not live up to, "that's what made me feel such a rotten skunk - her always forgiving me." It seems that Hickey could not stand the guilt of constantly disappointing her, and failing to reform himself and as such blamed Evelyn for making him feel this way.
Family, and also marriage are often recognised as important to society because they fulfill the "emotional and physical needs of the individual" however, as a number of modern dramatists have identified, often the emotional and physical needs of the individual outweigh the support of the family, and often the individual needs of different family members contradict and contravene each other. Ibsen relates an understanding that social conventions, particularly marital and familial conventions obstruct personal progress and indicate a level of inequality.
It has been considered that "the central theme of American Drama is, arguably, the American Family" and it seems that this theme is so effective because it relates so closely to the whole audience because, "there is no escape from the family... you are still intimately, inevitably, and entirely connected to who brought you into the world." The issues raised through manipulation of the theme of family and marriage highlight both socio-politically specific issues as well as perennial concerns within humanity relating to our understanding of society, and interaction with each other.
- Edmund Gosse, Northern Studies (London, Walter Scott, 1890)
- Errol Durbach, A Doll's House: Ibsen's myth of transformation p14
- The Price, (1968) act 1, Miller
- Judith Fetterley, The resisting reader: a feminist approach to American fiction
- Thaddeus Wakefield
- Extracts from an interview with Sam Sheppard by Matthew Roudane, 2000, for The Cambridge Companion to Sam Sheppard, CUP 2002, ed. Matthew Roudane