Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Family Drama: American Plays about Families


Families are often fulcrums for drama. This course investigates how talented United States playwrights in the 20th and 21st centuries have used family dynamics to create masterpieces of American drama and how emerging playwrights have responded to these dramatic “parents.” Issues of traumaincluding the death of children, incest, and racial violencewill be analyzed in relationship to the strong and positive aspects of familial bonds. Class, race, and sexuality will be important touchstones. But the class as a whole will be devoted to analyzing how “inheritance” works as something to embrace and something to resist in both the history of American drama and in families broadly.

The first part of the quarter will be devoted to reading and discussing together plays by Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Sam Shepherd, and Lorraine Hansberry, all of whom have secured a place in the canon of American drama. The second part of the class will examine some emerging playwrights who are often writing directly in response to the canonical writers. For example, the first act of Bruce Norris’ 2010 play, Clybourne Park, takes place one hour after the ending of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Raisin in the Sun. Similarly, David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly(1988) is partially motivated by Puccini’s classical opera Madama Buttlerfly (1904). Thus, we will think about issues of “dramatic inheritance” in relation to family inheritance. When and why is it important to honor one’s elders and when is it important to reject or resist or refuse their legacy?

While we will concentrate on plays here, I have a deep interest in adaptation so I welcome students who may be interested in films made from these plays or the different production histories that emerge if we consider these plays as open score for performances of various kinds. 

Two short papers will be required (about 2-4 pages) and a final comparative essay (7-9 pages). Additionally, each student will be asked to give a short talk in class. Final essay can be scholarly or creative.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Peggy Phelan

Peggy Phelan

"I am the Ann O’Day Maples Professor of Theater & Performance Studies and of English. I love art and am especially interested in performance. I am interested in all aspects of adoption today and love to hear new stories about it. I also read widely (although I only trust myelf to teach texts whose primary language is English) and believe that interdiciplinary thinking is the future of all thought. So please don't worry if you don't feel you are 'literary' enough for this course. Everyone has a story and we will read across genre and also look at video and blogs and youtube platforms.

"As the Denning Family Director of the Stanford Arts Institute, I support and prioritize interdisciplinary arts curricula and research. I am the author of Unmarked: the politics of performance (Routledge, 1993); Mourning Sex: performing public memories (Routledge, 1997); and editor and contributor to Live Art in Los Angeles (Routledge, 2012). I am also a co-editor of Acting Out: Feminist Performances (University of Michigan Press, 1993), The Ends of Performance (New York University Press, 1997) and Contact Warhol Photography Without End (MIT Press, 2018)."