Book Review, Vol 29 no. 1

Kitchen Sink Realisms

Kitchen Sink Realisms: Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre. By Dorothy Chansky. Theatre History and Culture Series. Series editor Heather Nathans. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2015; Pp. 620.

In 1996, John Guare summed up the aesthetic battle in American theatre as “the war against the kitchen sink.” Although the phrase “kitchen sink drama,” in a British theatrical context, signifies a postwar turn toward gritty social realism, in American theatre, this same phrase carries with it vaguely derogatory connotations. The dominance of realism and the thematic emphasis on family in American drama has been pointed out often and emphatically. And while feminist scholars have ably deconstructed realism for its associations with a masculinist representational system, what has been consistently overlooked is the very labor signified by the kitchen sink. As Dorothy Chansky brilliantly demonstrates in Kitchen Sink Realisms, that infamous sink and the domestic labor for which it acts as a metonym have been used as theatrical material throughout the twentieth century, and its continued relevance – as both dramatic theme and stage action – suggests its enduring importance as a topic of social debate. Moreover, realism, Chansky reminds us, is itself a variable and varied form (hence the realisms in her title), shaped by (and shaping) specific socio-economic pressures. Chansky’s impeccably researched and engagingly written study examines theatrical representations of domestic work in twentieth century American drama, contributing an invaluable perspective to sociological questions surrounding feminized labor and theatrical debates regarding realism.

Chansky is broadly concerned with reevaluating how the modern American theatre has negotiated the enduring question: Who is responsible for cleaning, cooking, and running the home? This question was posed differently in the 1920 than it was in the 1980s. However, Chansky underlines the structural issue that makes this a particularly persistent debate: “While the representations changed […] the central issue has not: American society offers no practical and affordable way for most adults to combine gainful employment with child rearing and housekeeping” (60). Indeed. Chansky states her goal thusly: “My project here is to examine the multiple ways in which a too-often belittled but perennially popular realm of American theatre can be fruitfully and seriously reassessed” (77).

Organized chronologically into seven chapters and an Introduction, the book covers the timespan between 1918 and 2005, the end of World War I and the dawn of the digital era. While the study overall has a chronological structure, Chansky productively complements that linearity by linking the plays thematically as well. Each chapter provides incisive close readings, as well as thick descriptions of the surrounding conditions of production and reception, incorporating relevant and often fascinating historical materials that give the plays a vivid context. Bringing some plays out of obscurity, Chansky points to their popularity in the original context, and their significance as forums for public debates around “woman’s work.” These debates were especially lively, not surprisingly, during periods when women were either gaining employment in greater numbers or marrying in fewer (such as the 1920s and 30s and the 1980s). As Chansky points out, “Domestic labor had not always been portrayed in American drama as a potential trap. Nor had it been something to avoid onstage and hand off to invisible help” (80). Domestic labor, in fact, was staged as pure spectacle in James A. Herne’s hit of 1893, Shore Acres, in which a full act was “devoted to the preparation and consuming of an anniversary dinner” (80).

Chansky’s focus on food, cleaning, and domestic labor sheds new light on changing gender roles over the past century, as well as on issues relating to social class, immigration, ethnic identity, and assimilation in the US. In Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cooke’s Tickless Time (1918), for example, Annie, a first generation Irish servant (played in the original production by Edna St. Vincent Millay), accommodates the WASP couple she works for by adapting “ethnic” meals, like spaghetti, for a “modern” middle-class American palette (94). Incorporating data about the number and national origin of immigrant servants in this period adds a rich sociological understanding of this and other plays. Chansky astutely situates references to food and the people who prepare it, instructing contemporary readers about the meaning of these references to early twentieth century audiences. The author also sharpens how we might think about these audiences in the early years of legitimate American theatre. She writes, “theatregoers who read criticism by critics understanding themselves as specialists became, in turn, a cohort who saw theatregoing and drama as salutary and important, even when scripts or genres might suggest otherwise” (84-85).

While each chapter offers crucial insights and intelligent reinterpretations, it is the last two chapters, “Prisoners of Total Blame, 1963-1990” and “The Clean House, or Change” that make this study seem especially urgent. The penultimate chapter covers feminism’s second wave and its aftermath in the Reagan era, when debates around family values and women’s new role in the public sphere were hotly contested. Adding to ongoing discussions of canonical plays such as Sam Shepard’s True West (1980) and Marsha Norman’s ‘night Mother (1984), Chansky reframes them from the standpoint of the domestic spaces and laborers depicted in these plays. Pointing out that critics often ignore or are baffled by the Mom character in True West, who enters after the brothers’ climatic fight (and into the decimated kitchen that results), unaffected by the disaster she comes home to find, Chansky succinctly summarizes her appearance on the scene: “While the brothers remain deadlocked in a stranglehold as the lights go down, Mom has shown that she is able to leave, come back, and leave again, as if in some kind of existentially realist fort da maneuver” (455). Sharp (re)readings such as these abound in Kitchen Sink Realisms.

The final chapter outlines five post-Nannygate cultural phenomena that shaped American cultural attitudes toward domestic life and plays that dealt with it: the economic prosperity of the Clinton years; the rise in immigrants from Asia and Latin America; a decline in the two-parent family; a “no-turning-back presence of women of all classes in the workforces”; and lastly, a consumerism retooled “as a form of self-improvement or activism” (486-87). From within this context, Chansky looks at three works produced in 2003: Joan Holden’s Nickel and Dimed, a Brechtian play inspired by journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé of working class poverty; Lisa Loomer’s Living Out, which looks at the relationship between a privileged yuppie mother and her Latina nanny; and Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s through-composed musical set in 1963, Caroline, or Change (2003), which Chansky pithily describes as a work that “portrays tension within a maid/mistress household, the difference between the households of the two, and how historic distance can deflect assessment of present-day problems” (504). Chansky concludes her study with Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House (2005), a play focusing on the relationship between an upper-class white woman and her Brazilian maid, Ana, who is depressed and refuses to clean. This perceptive comedy brings kitchen sink realisms, as a genre, into an age of globalization. While the second-wave feminist struggle for the right to participate equally in the public sphere has largely been achieved, this seismic shift has resulted in a need for imported domestic care. What was once a local division of labor among the predominately white middle classes has now become global division of labor between a developed world in need of domestic laborers and developing world in need of better economic opportunities and living conditions.

So just what does a kitchen sink signify onstage? How does it communicate gender, class, ethnicity, and Americanness? And how do these codes of social identity relate to broader public debates around the value of domestic work, the changing demands of the marketplace, and the erosion of “the good life”? The answers to these questions vary vastly, it turns out, depending on the historical context. Whereas in the early twentieth century, a clean kitchen with a live-in servant cooking the meals signified middle class-ness, in the late twentieth century, it might suggest a global division of feminized labor.

Chansky’s nuanced, rigorously contextualized readings of both canonical and non-canonical plays provide a rich resource not only for theatre scholars, but also for Americanists interested in adding to their understanding of the social texture of the twentieth century. This immensely satisfying study will be of great value to those working in theatre history, feminist theory and theatre, and American studies, and is equally suitable for upper class undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars. Impressive in both its historical scope and interpretive depth, Kitchen Sink Realisms is an important contribution to scholarship in American drama.

Joanna Mansbridge
Bilkent University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 29, Number 1 (Fall 2016/Winter 2017)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2017 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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