Honor Thy Father? It’s Complicated.

Many of us observed Father’s Day last Sunday, which prompted us to take a broad sweep through some canonical plays to see how fathers and fatherhood fare. The answer: not good. In fact, it’s so bad it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. So, let’s take a look at some of the Great Theater Works centered around father characters. Then we have a suggestion.

I. Greek and Roman

Well, there’s Oedipus, a play that sets the bar pretty low for father-son relationships. In this play, Sophocles, the famed dramatist, writes a queasy tale that starts with a father, Laius. According to a prophesy, Laius is going to be killed by his son, who will then marry Laius’ wife, the boy’s mother. Why would anyone believe this information? But, he does. So, when Laius’ son Oedipus is born, he orders a servant to kill the child. The servant can’t, Oedipus is raised in secrecy, and when he becomes a man, Oedipus is accosted by a rude traveler on a road, whom, in an altercation, he kills. That rude traveler is Laius, his dad, but Oedipus doesn’t know that. He marches on to Thebes and marries the queen, his mom, but he doesn’t know that, either. In fact, the only people who know what’s going on and witness this slow-motion train wreck are the audience. That’s what kind of sicko Sophocles was—we have to sit there with the Big Secret and watch this grody love triangle unfold. Woe is us. And you know what? None of this would have happened if Laius, the father, had made one or two other, more intelligent choices.

Atreus and Thyestes

Feast of Thyestés and Átreus (Václav Jindřich Nosecký, Michael Václav Halbax)

So, flubbing an attempt to kill your child and getting killed instead is pretty bad. But what about a father who unknowingly eats his two sons at a festival banquet? Yep, that happened. In Roman playwright Seneca’s gorefest Thyestes, two dads, who happen to be twin brothers, get tangled up in a father-son nightmare that makes Oedipus look about as dramatic as a public service announcement. Atreus, who is super evil and wants revenge on his twin brother, orders his sons to lure that brother, Thyestes, to Atreus’ house under false pretenses of reconciliation. There is to be a feast. Atreus then kills Thyestes’ sons, chops them up and serves them in a stew, which a drunken Thyestes noms on until the next dish is the two boys’ heads on a platter and the awful Atreus reveals the origin of the mystery meat. (Makes Quentin Tarantino look tame, right?)

Understandably, Atreus’ sons develop somewhat loose moral compasses and end up with their own tragic plays. One of those sons, Agamemnon, sacrifices (read: murders) his daughter for the gods and exacts an overall dismal attempt at setting a good example for his remaining alive children. However, they do love Agamemnon enough to avenge his death after he’s murdered (notably, by his wife and her lover), which we think proves the child’s bond to the father, however questionable he may be in his own decision-making abilities.

Which brings us to

II. Shakespeare

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Cordelia in the Court of King Lear (1873) by Sir John Gilbert.

Where to start, where to start. Look in any of the folios with dramas involving families, and you will find Shakespeare’s consistent typecasting of dads as either prideful punks or ghosts. Either way, these characters tend to care most about their honor and legacy, and the kids (and sometimes the wife) are plagued with ill-fitting assignments in duty fulfillment often involving murder. To save time, we’re looking only at King Lear and Romeo and Juliet, but you can have your own fun with Hamlet, the King Henry plays and The Tempest.

In Lear, the titular king decides to retire, divvying his kingdom among his three daughters. The catch? The spoils go to whoever displays the most love for him. Oh, the narcissism. Anyway, the one who won’t play along with his enormous ego game (naturally, his favorite daughter) gets disowned while the two remaining treacherous daughters conspire to murder Lear, who eventually dies of grief after his faithful but disowned daughter is hanged. In this play, the prideful punk becomes a ghost by the end, and we have another dad whose self-serving decisions ended up creating a chain of events that killed his children.

Ergo, Romeo and Juliet. The crux of the play rests in the bad blood between the patriarchal lines of Montague and Capulet. You know this story, so you can go with us to the quick summary of “more prideful dads, more dead kids.”

We are starting to feel like a broken record, so we’re happy to jump to

III. 20th Century America

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Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick in the 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Two major father characters emerged in plays that continue to get lively productions years after year: Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These figures stand on either end of the dad spectrum, with cotton-magnate Big Daddy filling the overbearing paterfamilias role and traveling salesman Willy carrying the torch of fathers portrayed as ineffectual leaders psychologically desperate for success—theirs and for their children. Both fathers share an idealism built around a man’s success and the promise of what he can build and become, often to the detriment of other family members (so that much stayed the same from the Greco-Roman template).

The same goes for the repressed and oppressed character of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences, as his two sons struggle for his approval and love—which he can not give, thanks to his own painful back story involving murder, prison and the social captivity of black men. Troy also dies at the end, like Willy Loman, with a passel of unresolved family issues and a plague of emotional consequences from key bad decisions.

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Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, reprising his role from the 2010 Broadway revival, in the film adaptation of Fences.

In all three of these dramas, sons seek an acknowledgement of love from their fathers who cannot or will not give it. Frankly, it’s a sad and infuriating commentary on emotional ineptitude that paints a rather depressing picture. Eugene O’Neill somewhat breaks from tradition in Long Day’s Journey into Night with the father James Tyrone, who is an unpretentious former actor with seemingly typical father-son power struggles amid a family stricken with an opioid-addicted mother and a weakness for whiskey. In fairness, the bad parent in that play is the mom, and we could certainly do a replay of this blog after Mother’s Day looking at mother figures in drama, who enact their fair share of emotional dishonesty and murder to ruin their kids’ lives.

The standout play, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, has no father in the dramatis personae. He dies before the play starts, and it is his life insurance check that brings the financial windfall that can change the life of the Younger family. All of the events that unfold sprout from his last gift to them, and, although circumstances prevented him from giving them what they wanted in life, he may be able to help them achieve their dreams in death. Although that interpretation may sound positive, that’s kind of a tall order for one man. So, even though he’s never in the play, it is, to some degree, a play about a father’s responsibility to his family—questioning the impossible expectations placed on men in a competition-based patriarchal culture.

But what about dads outside of the heteronormative patriarchal culture of toxic masculinity, you ask? Well, that brings us to

IV. Fun Home

We can’t say too much here because Fun Home runs this season at The Straz as part of our Broadway series, but it reached such massive acclaim because it is a compelling story about a daughter’s unique interpretation of her life with her dad. We don’t want to spoil the ending, but if you’ve been paying attention to patterns in this blog on father characters, you can probably guess how this musical unfolds.

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From Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, from which the musical was adapted.

However, we can say this musical—based on illustrator Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name—examines a daughter’s relationship with her closeted father who runs a funeral home. This story depicts gay characters struggling in similar themes from the above list, which forces us to see what is universal in a writer’s struggle to understand herself/himself in the family context. It’s also really, really open in discussions about the daughter’s exploration of her own sexual identity and how that is reflected in her father’s struggle with his own sexual truths. So, that facet of the father is new and refreshing though it seems to circle the same drain of a dad’s inability to express himself emotionally.

V. Final Analysis and Suggestion (Said with Love)

So what is up with all this shade thrown at dads in drama? Are fathers really unbending tyrants of their own universe? Or, failing that, destined to chase the illusion of power and condemn their families to suffer their own shortcomings? Seems a rough assessment, though our cruise through these major works casts fathers in a rather unflattering light. (Daddy Warbucks somewhat excluded.)

As they say, the winners write the history books. Perhaps, in this case, the children write the manuscripts. What struck us in this broad review was how much the dramatic canon needs Good Dad, Solid Dad, Emotionally Grown Up Dad, and Dad with Admirable Character—all the multiple facets of fatherhood everyday dads represent. We were a little shocked and sad about the two-note roles recurring throughout our short sample for this blog though we can see, especially in the 20th century work, the resounding agreement of how important fathers’ words and deeds are to the development of a child’s identity. Let’s get some fresh interpretations on this important figure, shall we?

Admittedly, we passed over the comedies, mostly because it’s hard to find a famous stage comedy about a father, though we would be happy to hear if you know of one we overlooked. Got a thought about fathers in drama or an insight into a play or musical not mentioned in this blog? We want to hear about it. Leave us a comment below.