My favorite story about fathers and sons comes from Edward Albee in The American Dream. Mommy and Daddy as the two main characters in this play from The Theatre of the Absurd are called, adopt a child who is a twin. The take their ‘bumble’ of joy home and soon find out that they don’t like him very much and begin to dismember him: Here is a brief exchange between Grandma and Mrs. Barker, the former head of the adoption agency:
GRANDMA: It turned out that the bumble of joy only had eyes for its Daddy.
MRS. BARKER: For its Daddy! Why any self-respecting woman would have gouged those eyes right out of its head.
GRANDMA: Well, she did. That’s exactly what she did. But then it kept its nose up in the air.
MRS. BARKER: Ufgghh! How disgusting!
GRANDMA: That’s what they thought. But then, it began to develop an interest in its you-know-what.
MRS. BARKER: In its you-know-what! Well, I hope they cut its hands off at the wrists!.
GRANDMA: Well, yes, they did that eventually. But first they cut off its you-know-what
Mommy and Daddy continue the mutilation with the bumble of joy’s tongue, fingers, and toes. Finally, the scene ends with Grandma summing up:
GRANDMA: As it got bigger, they found out all sorts of terrible things about it, like: it didn’t have a head on its shoulders, it had no guts, it was spineless, its feet were made of clay…just dreadful things….For the last straw it finally up and died; and you can imagine how that made them feel, their having paid for it, and all. So, they called up the lady who sold them the bumble in the first place and told her to come right over to their apartment. They wanted satisfaction; they wanted their money back. That’s what they wanted.
Albee one ups himself when the creates an imaginary son for George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. In that play, George murders the imaginary son, and his demise is even more devastating than if he had been real. The son, whom we learn has been with George and Martha until his teenage years, was the focal point of their lives and the only reason they stayed together. George must ‘murder’ him because it is time, finally, to face the truth about the son and themselves.
The son was a wonderful creation. While George and Martha cannot agree on the color of his eyes, they disagree over more important issues. George says that Martha indecently fondled him in the bathtub while Martha says she did nothing of the kind. George accuses his wife of smothering the boy with needy affection, and she retorts that he was the only thing she ever loved.
The son is so realistically created, and the interaction between the boy and his parents are as complex, twisted, and emotionally demanding as that between George and Martha. The murder, while clean and efficient compared to the slow death to which the son of Mommy and Daddy is subjected, is still a murder.
The son of Agnes and Tobias in A Delicate Balance simply dies – no drama or grand guignol – but his presence is felt throughout the play in which Agnes is trying to hold together a dysfunctional family.
I am not sure what all this means about Albee’s childhood and whether he had any decent Fathers’ Days, but his families have a lot cooking. Speaking of which, one of my favorite plays of Shakespeare is Titus Andronicus where the title character kills the sons of the wicked Goth Queen Tamora, chops them up, and bakes them in a pie which he serves to her, informing her only after she has savored her children, what exactly she ate. Titus had good reason to seek this particular revenge on Tamora because she instructed her sons to rape his daughter, Lavinia, and then to chop off her hands and cut out her tongue so that she could not identify the guilty parties; but still, of the many revenges concocted in literature, this one really takes the cake (pie)
There are many sons in Shakespeare’s plays who come to no good. Hamlet, of course, is incestuously in love with his mother who is, according to Hamlet equally incestuously in love with his uncle. As everyone knows, all die in a bloodbath at the end of the play because, among other things, Hamlet could not resolve this thing with his mother.
Coriolanus is a mighty general, politician, and leader; and through him Shakespeare teaches us many lessons in governance, such as: ‘Be sure to flatter those who will vote for you. They may be fickle, sniveling low-life plebeians, but still, they are your constituents’. Or ‘Beware of politicians. They are always plotting to get you out of the way and gain power, and they may do this in the most duplicitous ways’. The most important, however, is ‘Don’t listen to your mother’. Coriolanus’ mother is a real smothering harridan, and he is tied to her apron strings. Even so noble and macho a warrior as the great Coriolanus has a weak spot for Mom. He listens to her, and of course is killed to her benefit, for she gains in power in Rome.
King John was one of three sons of Henry II. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, encouraged the three sons to fight amongst themselves for succession to the throne, but she favored King John, in many ways the weakest and least able to rule, but there is no telling a mother’s heart. When he did become king, she ruled him just like she did when he was little. She was the true ruler of England when Henry died, the power behind John’s throne. Once again, a harridan wife and mother.
Henry VI ascended the throne when he was nine months old, and he was under the ‘guidance’ of Gloucester, the Protector, who was caught up in the internecine conflicts of the War of the Roses. Poor Henry never had a chance, and remained a sensitive baby until he was murdered by bloody Richard III in the Tower.
Constance in a power struggle with King John allies herself with the King of France who supports her in her demand for the right to the throne of her son, Arthur. Constance is one of Shakespeare’s most determined women and does everything in her considerable power to move him up the ladder. The poor boy is so oppressively mothered that he ‘falls off a wall’, thus ending his mother’s dreams. He probably found that death was the only way out of this mother-son relationship.
Henry VIII was obsessed with having a son, as we all know, and went through six wives to succeed. Many heads were lopped off – including that of Anne Boleyn, mother to Elizabeth I – and Henry was as brutal as Richard III without the evil streak. Henry really thought he was helping the Empire to survive.
Cleopatra had sons by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and they were her aces in the hole for consolidating her Empire and eventual accession to Empress of Rome. Who knows what their lives were like with this histrionic plotter as a mother.
Tennessee Williams’ father loomed large in all his plays. Laura and Tom’s father, the husband of Amanda, left the family a long time ago, but his photograph is ever-present on the mantle. Williams said that because of his own father was always drunk or absent, he never knew him, and he wrestled with his scattered and often harsh memories of him. Finally in Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he felt he created the positive character of a father that he had always wanted.
Of course there is Tennessee Williams' unforgettable character of Mrs. Venable, mother of Sebastian for whom she pimps on her incestuous trips with him to Europe, then accuses his female companion of doing the same thing. Sebastian is eaten alive by the Italian urchins he was propositioning, his companion saw it, and Mrs. Venable wants her committed and lobotomized to shut her up. Williams was no stranger to Gothic twists and turns and low melodrama.
I like Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, a play that could never be confused with that of another playwright. A moral and ethical crisis is at the heart of the play, and a very different approach to it by the two sons. The Price is about two sons who see their invalid father in two very distinct ways, one feeling that he, the father, needs support; the other feeling that he is a con man; and that his brother has fallen for the charade because he needs the father more than the father needs him.
Eugene O’Neill’s early plays, Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra are strange to read since O’Neill was a prize-winning playwright for his later works. In Desire, Ephraim Cabot has three sons, all of whom hate him, and the play depicts the deterioration and mayhem that follow. Mourning, as an updated Greek tragedy, features murder, adultery, incestuous love and revenge, and even a group of townspeople who function as a kind of Greek chorus. It is a bloody melodrama, and the sons do not do well.
These are just the plays I have been reading lately, and the theme of sons hit me today, Fathers’ Day. There are hundreds of other plays dealing with fathers and mothers and sons, and they usually end badly for all. Shakespeare was never a fan of love or families, and neither were most of these other playwrights. Oh well, it’s all made up anyway.