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The Importance of Family in 20th Century Drama

Throughout the twentieth century the importance of the institution of the family has been an integral part in American drama. Drama has focused on such family conflicts such as drug addiction, marital problems, and coming to terms with past events. The authors’ diction and the mood of each particular piece of work accentuate these conflicts. The unique combination of familial conflict, language, and mood has produced great pieces of literature such as Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and Marsha Norman’s Third and Oak.

All three of these plays have one central issue at the heart of each, and that is family conflict. Although the main subject matter is a commonality in each work, their individual details set them apart from one another. In O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night the main crisis in the family is Mary’s morphine addiction and the Tyrone family’s denial of that addiction. Williams’s The Glass Menagerie focuses on Amanda Wingfield’s unwillingness to let go of the past, and Norman’s Third and Oak centers on Deedee’s marital problems and Alberta’s acceptance of her husband’s death.

Each play focuses on a different crisis for the families involved, and each one utilizes different diction to suit the crisis at hand. In O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night the Tyrone family is dealing with the morphine addiction of Mary Tyrone. O’Neill’s diction creates a mood of denial that mirrors the family’s refusal to see Mary’s relapse into drug use. No one in the family is able to fully admit to Mary’s problem until they are confronted with physical changes in Mary that are undeniable. The family’s tendency to deny Mary’s problem leads to another crisis that is prevalent throughout the play: blame.

The Tyrone’s deal with their deficiencies by blaming each other for what went wrong with them. Mary even blames her children for the loss of her youth when she says, “It wasn’t until after Edmund was born that I had a single grey hair. Then it began to turn white. ” (1311). O’Neill uses this ever-present blame to set off the family’s denial of their problems. As long as the Tyrones can continue to preoccupy themselves by blaming each other, then they do not have to admit to the looming crises at hand.

This type of denial pushes the family farther into their problems, and it soon becomes apparent that until the Tyrone’s face their deficiencies they will be caught in a never-ending cycle of misery. Williams also explores familial conflicts in The Glass Menagerie. In his play Williams focuses on the Wingfield family, but unlike O’Neill, he draws more attention to the individual members’ problems. With The Glass Menagerie Williams calls attention to the fact that if the individuals of a family are out of touch with each other and the world around them, then it is impossible to have a functioning family unit.

Amanda Wingfield and her two children Laura and Tom struggle with each other’s problems, but still do not seem to be resolving anything for anyone. Amanda wants her daughter to be more social, but she seems to be too stuck in her past to do anything to help Laura. Amanda also fails to realize that Laura’s social anxiety is partially her fault, and until she comes to that realization and begins to treat her daughter as a grown up Amanda will not be able to help her at all. Laura is confronted with feelings of inadequacy towards the social arena, and without realizing it reverts into her own little world that revolves around a glass menagerie.

Williams uses this menagerie to convey how fragile Laura has become through the years, and that the menagerie will eventually become an extension of Laura. Laura’s inferiority complex stems from Amanda’s continuous visits to the past. Amanda talks incessantly about her gentlemen callers in her youth mentioning that, “One Sunday afternoon in Blue Mountain — your mother received — seventeen- gentlemen callers! Why, sometimes there weren’t chairs enough to accommodate them all. ” (772). In this way Laura is constantly reminded of her short comings and her failures in her mother’s eyes.

It is clear by the end of the play that Laura will not get the support she needs from Amanda, because Amanda is not willing to give up the past to help her daughter. Norman also explores the role of familial deficiencies in Third and Oak, but approaches these problems in a different way. Norman presents crises from two different families from the eyes of a single member. Deedee is having marital problems, and Alberta is dealing with her husband’s death. At the beginning of the play neither woman wants to be helped in her plight, but as the play progresses the two end up helping each other come to terms with the truth.

Through their laundry mat talk Alberta and Deedee help each other admit to their problems, and pull each other out of a state of denial. Deedee helps Alberta realize that because her husband is dead it does not mean that she has to give up the things they did together, and that her life will go on if she will only accept Herb’s death and move on. Alberta helps Deedee out of the fog of denial about her husband’s affair. Deedee finally admits to herself that her husband is having an affair and says that she, “called the bowling alley and asked for him and the bartender said, This Patsy?

He’s on his way, honey. ‘ I hope he falls in the sewer. ” (1453). Although Alberta helps Deedee see her problems she is not willing to help her through them, and Deedee continues to suffer through her marriage. In A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie, and Third and Oak family crisis is the trunk that brings these separate branches together. The authors of these works deal with family deficiencies in different ways, and present their plays in different moods. All three plays incorporate denial as a major family problem, but each family is in denial about something different.

The Tyrone family is in denial about Mary’s morphine addiction, the Wingfield family is in denial about each others’ problems, and the families from Third and Oak are in denial about death and unfaithfulness. Despite the fact that most of these family members try to help each other the feat becomes impossible because they are all so involved with their own problems. This scenario is the trademark of twentieth century drama, and is the basis for most of the works written during this time.

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