Putting the Eat in Theatre

It's that time of year again. Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and as I thought about an appropriate and timely topic for this week, I kept coming back to the function of food in theatre. This is an exploration of food, eating, and dinner tables in production, with the intention of making you look at food on stage in a new way.

The relationship is evident in Margaret Visser's introduction from The Rituals of Dinner, as she says, "a meal can be thought of as a ritual and a work of art, with limits laid down, desires aroused and fulfilled, enticements, variety, patterning, and plot. I would like to begin by discussing this issue of plot. If dinner is supposed to have a specific plot, that every person has ostensibly acted in at some point in their lives, then these plays have used these expectations and structures to reveal the psychological underpinnings of the characters' motivations." It is easy to see why so many playwrights have used eating, food, and dinner tables as key components of their own plots: it is a structure that everyone is familiar with, and therefore one that is easily relatable.

Yet, there is another quote from Visser that really struck me, and is indeed what I would like to share with you. She says, "Murder at dinner is especially horrendous, "worse than death in war," just because it is so easy to achieve, and therefore so unexpected it is "not done." Everybody is armed, with knives. Their teeth -- formidable human weapons -- can scarcely remain invisible, in spite of every effort, as they chew." Put on stage, these moments are all the more frightening to our subconscious. We recognize ourselves in this primitive act of feeding while we watch people breaking out of the etiquette of the table, which therefore become doubly frightening. Of course, even if we are watching a "normal" dinner, the fact that it is set on stage in front of us give it a new meaning. (This phenomenon is often referred to as "the museum effect.") The fact is that there are a striking number of plays that use food and the concept of dining to expose violence in their plots. I want to clarify that what I mean by violence is a strong rupture of expectations, though it can include physical violence.

There are many different ways to use food on stage, but let's explore the dinner table as a stage within a stage which puts characters in a structured environment where they have a built-in audience and are able to share sentiments with a stronger impact. (I don't have space to explore the other three major ways I see food functioning, but if you would like to hear more about my other examples, please leave me a comment to that effect.) In the meantime, I will use the example of a play with a large dinner scene reminiscent of a family Thanksgiving: Tracy Letts's August: Osage County.

A family dinner is an opportunity for everyone to enjoy a communal meal. The ritual togetherness reinforces our social ties as we eat, but it is only a matter of time before the dysfunctional aspects of the family dynamics begin to come out. In this Pulitzer Prize winning play, the family is brought to the table after the death of the patriarch, and dysfunction abounds. At the end of the second act of this nearly 3 ½ hour long epic, things finally come to a head. Violet, the drugged up 65-year-old matriarch, has been pestering the children, when Barbara, her eldest daughter, takes exception to Violet's comments towards Ivy, the second eldest daughter. The entire 9 person family is eating at the dinner table. The scene breaks down entirely as Barbara and Violet end up in a physical altercation. Not only does this scene and violence occur at the dinner table, but the line of aggression that begins this infelicitous breach of dinner conduct is "I'll eat you alive, girl!"

What is the function of staging a fight around the dinner table? The dinner table with a large family is the ultimate challenge to the private/public distinction. It is private, but it still has the etiquette rules of a public space. Bearing bodily witness to a violent altercation in a theatrical setting brings our awareness to the simulacrum of these scenes in our own lives. Hopefully we've never witnessed someone strangled at the dinner table (or anywhere, for that matter), but the fluid space between "civilized" behavior and "primitive" chaos, already challenged by Visser's reminder of the weapons that exist all around a dinner scene, is highlighted in this moment.

So when you ask your brother to pass the gravy, or when you pick up your fork, think about what someone watching you would glean from your behavior. As you act your part at dinner, with your scene partners and props, perhaps you can think of how you play your part. In between delicious bites, of course.