Kitchen Sink Realisms: Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre

Kitchen Sink Realisms: Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre

by Dorothy Chansky

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From 1918’s Tickless Time through Waiting for Lefty, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Raisin in the Sun, and The Prisoner of Second Avenue to 2005’s The Clean House, domestic labor has figured largely on American stages. No dramatic genre has done more than the one often dismissively dubbed “kitchen sink realism” to both support and contest the idea that the home is naturally women’s sphere. But there is more to the genre than even its supporters suggest.

In analyzing kitchen sink realisms, Dorothy Chansky reveals the ways that food preparation, domestic labor, dining, serving, entertaining, and cleanup saturate the lives of dramatic characters and situations even when they do not take center stage. Offering resistant readings that rely on close attention to the particular cultural and semiotic environments in which plays and their audiences operated, she sheds compelling light on the changing debates about women’s roles and the importance of their household labor across lines of class and race in the twentieth century.

The story begins just after World War I, as more households were electrified and fewer middle-class housewives could afford to hire maids. In the 1920s, popular mainstream plays staged the plight of women seeking escape from the daily grind; African American playwrights, meanwhile, argued that housework was the least of women’s worries. Plays of the 1930s recognized housework as work to a greater degree than ever before, while during the war years domestic labor was predictably recruited to the war effort—sometimes with gender-bending results. In the famously quiescent and anxious 1950s, critiques of domestic normalcy became common, and African American maids gained a complexity previously reserved for white leading ladies. These critiques proliferated with the re-emergence of feminism as a political movement from the 1960s on. After the turn of the century, the problems and comforts of domestic labor in black and white took center stage. In highlighting these shifts, Chansky brings the real home.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609383763
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 11/05/2015
Series: Studies Theatre Hist & Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Associate professor of theatre and director of the Humanities Center at Texas Tech University, Dorothy Chansky writes about American theatre, audiences, feminist theatre, and translation. She is the author of Composing Ourselves: The Little Theatre Movement and the American Audience and many articles, and coeditor of Food and Theatre on the World Stage. She writes criticism for New York Theatre Wire. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, and New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Kitchen Sink Realisms

Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre

By Dorothy Chansky

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2015 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-376-3




The first Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded in 1918 to Jesse Lynch Williams's Why Marry? To a present-day reader, the piece smacks of second-rate Shavianism, with its lengthy, prolix debate about whether marriage is a domestic trap or a fulfilling obligation for women. Williams employs stock characters of the period: the wealthy businessman, John; his browbeaten wife; the poor-relation clergyman literally working his wife to death; the New Woman, Helen, who resists marriage; and her whiz-kid scientist boyfriend, Earnest. John, Helen's older brother, knows that Earnest cannot support a wife on a scientist's meager earnings. John also knows that Helen values her own work in science but that she would need to work if she married Earnest. He puts the problem to his sister:

[W]ho'll take care of your home when you're at work? Who'll take care of your work when you're at home [?]. Look at it practically. To maintain such a home as he needs on such a salary as he has — why, it would take all your time, all your energy. To keep him in his class you'll have to drop out of your own, become a household drudge, a servant.

Helen agrees. A married Earnest would have a poor home, "morbid meals," and a wife concerned with everything she didn't have. An unmarried Earnest could take his meals at the university club, "at slight expense compared with keeping up a home, upon the best food in the city with some of the best scientists in the country." Helen will, therefore, follow Earnest to Europe as a single woman, keep up her own research, and bypass the piece of John's equation that would make her a household drudge: marriage. Other characters weigh in. Ultimately, the couple is tricked into saying "I do," although we gather that they still head for Europe and the life of the lab. The setting is John's weekend country house, where no actual domestic labor is depicted, although a butler and footman appear sporadically. The problem is clear and meant to address women who are smart and independent. Is domestic labor a worthwhile lifetime commitment? For that matter — especially in plays that answer "yes" to the question — is it worth looking at onstage?

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. In Shore Acres, James A. Herne's hit of 1893, a full act (of four) is devoted to the preparation and consuming of an anniversary dinner, complete with roasting a turkey in the onstage oven, a discussion of recipes for cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes, and several family members, including an elderly uncle, participating. The scene does nothing to further the plot. But watching a couple of generations in a farm family cook on a woodstove was satisfying theatrical fare in the 1890s, even if the next act's ship passing a lighthouse on a stormy night was more thrilling. Melodrama, spectacle for the sake of fireworks, and meandering storytelling were, however, going the way of the horse and buggy by 1918.

In their stead, plays began to question the value of housework, positioning it as trap or career. Packaged with questions about domestic labor were questions about marriage and food. Between 1918 and the advent of the Depression, domestic labor was front and center in American theatre across genres as a topic in its own right. The plays in this chapter come from the earliest years of the period and are one-acts crafted for noncommercial theatres in which audiences and performers were understood to come from the same social group. United under the rubric Little Theatre, these companies' audiences included people who were participant members — some with aspirations to professionalism, many with the goal of social uplift — as well as like-minded friends from outside the companies. Little Theatre was a national phenomenon that started in the mid-1910s. By 1926 a writer for Variety claimed there were five thousand Little Theatres. Their workers and supporters were virtually all white collar. Accordingly, the kitchen sink realisms their plays favored tell a great deal about the concerns and expectations of their members.

The first three plays in this chapter feature various middle-class white characters; in the final two, written by black playwrights for black audiences, domesticity serves larger, racial questions about citizenship. All grapple — sometimes humorously or indirectly — with three American institutions that changed dramatically by 1918 and that sparked debate and consumer interest throughout the 1920s: food, theatre, and housework. A brief look at the broad nature of the changes serves as a prelude to examining plays and productions.

Food historian Harvey Levenstein locates the arrival of a "Newer Nutrition" — one based on a scientific understanding of the values of food groups, vitamins, and minerals — around 1915. The originators of the earlier "New Nutrition" — "domestic scientists" and largely women — wanted improved efficiency, sanitation, and nourishment. They were also "Americanizers," hoping for a nation built on WASP thriftiness and a bland diet. The Newer Nutrition had similar goals and benefited from improved laboratories, the discovery of and work on several vitamins beginning in 1911, and alliances with food processors and advertising. Its principles as well as a nationally homogenized way of eating were consolidated in the 1920s, when mass-produced foodstuffs began to shape the eating habits of all but the most isolated rural Americans and when ideas about healthful, modern eating came to saturate women's magazines aimed at readers from almost all income levels.

Theatre of the same era underwent major changes as a result of the Little Theatre Movement. The goal of this national, grassroots phenomenon was to make theatre less frivolous, more personally meaningful to audiences and to amateur participants, and to combat what Little Theatre reformers saw as the trivialities of both commercial theatre and the increasingly "threatening" movies. As Douglas McDermott notes, in the 1910s and 1920s American theatre "became an image of reform, struggling against a conservative corporate society. ... [L]ive theatre persists because it offers an alternative image of society to an audience that desires one." Thus, American theatregoers after the late 1910s cannot be understood as representatives of the body politic writ small. They were, and remain, a self-selected cohort.

Little Theatre values and styles infiltrated Broadway, so this sense of specialness is appropriate to the examination of most post–World War I American Theatre audiences. David Savran has argued that American drama critics after World War I worked to make their subject taken seriously so they themselves would be taken seriously, using, among others, Eugene O'Neill to shore up the intellectual and "high art" components of their field. Theatregoers did come to take seriously published criticism, which was applied to any and all theatre, not only the most difficult. Accordingly, 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.

The third American institution, housework, changed radically after World War I for two reasons. First, uneducated young women who needed to work for wages became much more likely to chose manufacturing occupations. Those in domestic labor increasingly ceased to "live in," preferring day work. Even when employed in manufacturing or service industries, though, they often contributed to household labor in ways that became invisible to many families: wage earners facilitated the production of processed foods or became waitresses in the many lunch counters and restaurants that began to cater in the 1920s to diners who were not wealthy. Second, housework was marketed to middle-class women by schools and advertising as serious, important, and even creative work that would make them better citizens and more desirable wives if they did it right.

Concomitant with the exodus of the live-in maid was a social and political retrenchment on the part of radical "New Women" of the "bohemian" 1910s, and the arrival of a popular ideal of female fulfillment residing neither in marriage as a retreat into family service (a Victorian ideal) nor in careers or independent living (a bohemian ideal), but in a companionate marriage to the right man. Theorists of modern marriage posited a union in which sexual intimacy and an intense psychological bond held the couple together; one in which the couple had a right to privacy and to use birth control to guide the spacing and number of children; and one in which wifely subservience was replaced with respect for her intellectual and emotional equality. In this context, the plays treated in the following discussion negotiated a new terrain in which public and private overlapped through advertising, electricity, and increased access to education, putting people previously divided by class, sex, or national origin into increasingly shared social space.


Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook's Tickless Time, staged by the Provincetown Players, cofounded by the two authors, in 1918, features two main female characters adamant that they do not belong in the kitchen. Tickless Time captures the anxieties and pieties of a particular segment of American theatregoers even as it goes about deflating these. As Greenwich Village "bohemians," Provincetown audience members were rebelling against the mores of Victorian Protestantism; a number were émigrés from the Midwest and had a push-pull relationship with the small towns they had left behind. They chafed at moral and social strictures even as they recalled fondly some of the values of a "simpler" way of life. Virtually all did white-collar work, and many were writers. Few had any background in theatre or much interest in popular entertainments, so the drama they wrote and the theatre they created satisfied their need to see themselves reflected on a stage of their own devising. At worst, their plays were self-indulgent and unpolished. At best the group was part of a new movement that made theatre a locus of social commentary and expression for and by a changing middlebrow citizenry.

The small theatre in which they presented their works was set up as a private membership organization to circumvent fire codes. The Provincetowners sought publicity and reviews virtually from the outset, but the membership requirement as well as the location outside New York's main theatre district generated a self-selected audience for the productions. In the first season, members of the well-heeled New York Stage Society purchased a block of subscriptions. The Stage Society's members had an interest in theatre and followed the latest in European avant-garde work. Between these aesthetically progressive elites and the Provincetowners an audience profile emerges of a group that was interested in new ideas but hardly willing to give up personal comfort, whatever their responses to depictions of social inequality might be. They emblematized an American theatregoing public that would emerge over the next few years and continue to refine itself over the twentieth century. The extent to which plays were legible and attractive to this cohort would have much to do with what was seen as "real" (even if not always classed as "realist") on the American stage.

Tickless Time is set in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Ian and Eloise Joyce, a young couple who consider themselves superior to most of their culture, neighbors, and friends, have decided to do away with their mechanical clocks and live by a sundial Ian has constructed. The action occurs in the yard where the sundial stands; the playing space includes access to the house itself and the gate through which visitors arrive. Invigorated by the chance to "refuse to be automatons" (133) and live in "a first-hand relation with truth" (131), the Joyces prepare to bury their regular clocks. They are contrasted to their friends the Knights, described in the list of characters as Eddy, "a Standardized Mind," and Alice, "a Standardized Wife." Eddy inquires how, if the Joyces "cast off standard time," they are going "to connect up with other people" (145), and Alice answers Ian's disappointed observation that the cook "would rather have a clock than grow" by asking why one can't do both (152). Burying the clocks, say the Knights, is a bad idea, and Eloise realizes that minus a watch, she will have trouble with things like getting to the train or the dentist on time.

The Knights' intervention regarding the clocks, however, is not nearly as dramatic as their intervention regarding the impending departure of the cook, Annie. Other than the jokey sense that the spoiled Joyces will be unable to function without her, much of the domestic reality related by the incidents involving Annie is hard for a present-day audience to grasp. It is precisely these domestic realities, however, that would have made the play thematically and ideologically immediate for its viewers.

The cook herself would have been read as Irish for a number of reasons. Her name was almost as familiar as Bridget or Maggie for cooks in literature or plays. The fact that Edna St. Vincent Millay, who first played the role, had red hair would have added to the impression. But Irish live-in maids and cooks were on their way out the door long before Millay's character departed in frustration mid-scene over the loss of her kitchen clock. That migration would have been a familiar phenomenon to those accustomed to Irish live-in household help. In New England, where the play is set, American-born women preferred Irish and Scandinavian maids, according to a 1910 study. First-generation Irish immigrant women workers frequently entered domestic service, but by the turn of the century their daughters had other aspirations. In 1900, 54 percent of all Irish-born working women in the United States were servants. In the same 1900 study, only 18.9 percent of Irish women born in the United States were in household service. By 1920, only 7 percent of native-born and 20 percent of immigrant women wage earners made their livings as servants. The fictional Annie, therefore, was part of a breed headed for extinction. She would be replaced by electrical appliances or black domestics who would live in their own homes and work an eight-hour day rather than on demand.

The Joyces' and Knights' anxiety about Annie's threatened departure plays out in a spoof of the silliness of the "servant problem." Alice grabs a shovel and begins to dig up the clocks as Eddy cries out, "Come home, Annie! Clock! Clock!" Ian, knowing exactly which clock Annie wants, disinters the timepiece and runs after her with it. Their return is described with "Annie triumphantly bearing her alarm clock, Ian — a captive at her chariot wheels — following with suitcase, shawl-strap, and long strings of bag around his wrist" (159, 160). The "servant problem," as David M. Katzman observes, "was always a middle-class one, since the upper class could always command the hire of whatever servants they needed. The expansion of the middle class ... occurred more rapidly than the growth of the servant pool," and the fact that American values promoted equality meant that most eschewed the label "servant." This became increasingly viable as vocational training and compulsory education affected the lives of most Americans. Both Glaspell and Cook were born in the 1870s and were, therefore, able to see how domestic service and servants had changed. By 1920 only about half as many American families or individuals had servants as would have been the case in 1870. Even bohemians who came from comparatively modest circumstances (Glaspell's profile) would have been accustomed to some household help. Tickless Time strikes at the intersection of pretensions and progressiveness regarding household servants.

The play also reveals how the playwrights and their presumed audience saw food, its preparation, and eating habits. The codes invoked would speak to rebellious, forward-thinking Protestants in ways that would have little meaning for immigrants, non-WASPS, or many present-day readers. When Annie first rushes in, she is peeling an onion and trying to calculate time by the sundial: "Starting the sauce for the spaghetti. Fry onions in butter three minutes" (148). Although Italian food would gain broad acceptance after World War I, it was hardly a staple in 1918. Glaspell and Cook's audience would certainly have recognized it, though, since Greenwich Village was one of the first places to have Italian restaurants staffed by Italians but targeting non-Italian customers. Accordingly, what might look simply economical to a present-day audience would have been stylishly "alternative" to those in the know in 1918.


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction: Realism and Its Discontents 1. The First Years, 1918-1921 2. Ambushed, 1920-1929 3. Waiting for Leftovers, 1930-1939 4. Wingless Victories, 1940-1947 5. Death of a Dream, 1949-1962 6. Prisoners of Total Blame, 1963-1993 7. The Clean House, or Change, 1993-2005 Notes Index

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