6 Pulitzer-Winning Playwrights Tackle Breakfast
Drama at the breakfast table
In the theater, dinner gets all the glory, maybe in part because it leads to the postprandial drinks that unloose the sloppy truths that come out when the sun sets. But what about breakfast? Where are all the great stage works that take place in the hours before noon? Isn’t there drama to be found over a bowl of cornflakes and comedy to be unleashed by a series of mimosas? Of course there is! Just check out these delectable plays by six Pulitzer-winning playwrights who recognize the theatrical potential that exists the moment we hungrily roll out of bed.
Eugene O’Neill’s Before Breakfast (1916)
There was a time before smoothie bowls and blue algae lattes, a time before sprinkled, frosted Pop-Tarts and Carnation instant breakfast, a time when “a cuppa joe” meant black coffee (no sugar), and a slice of bread constituted a meal, even when it was stale, untoasted and, worse yet, unbuttered. Welcome to the grim reality of O’Neill’s Before Breakfast where the best item on the menu is the full glass of Gordon's gin the lady of the house clandestinely consumes while nagging her cheating spouse, an unemployed writer whom she’s about to drive to slit his throat with a straight-edged razor. Clearly O’Neill was not a morning person. Some breakfasts, you’re better off alone.
Susan Glaspell’s Suppressed Desires (1918)
Glaspell’s version of breakfast is thankfully cheerier than O’Neill’s. In her kitchen-sink satire of psychoanalysis, a “radical” housewife encourages her husband and her sister to dig deeper into the meanings of last night’s dream. Her fully-opened gateleg table is, after all, a gathering place for ideas as well as toast, coffee, and a cigarette. (Remember when smoking was considered the natural extension of all meals?!) Not that everyone is clearheaded at this hour. Indeed the sister who “skips” to “reduce” is a muddle-headed mess who becomes convinced that the Mr. Eggleston of her dream represents all kinds of sexual longings for her brother-in-law. Freud himself thought an egg was a good omen in a dream but Glaspell’s housewife thinks any sexual interpretations of that damned man’s name are cracked. Who to trust? Check please!
Tennessee Williams’ Something Unspoken (1958)
Sure, Williams is our quintessential Southern playwright, but if you’re expecting biscuits with gravy or chicken and waffles at this spinster morning repast, think again. This table’s set for two, but despite an ornate silver coffee urn and a “section of grapefruit on a tiny silver fork,” neither Miss Cornelia Scott nor her longtime protégé/secretary/secret-lesbian-love-interest Miss Grace Lanchester are likely to leave this meal satisfied. Apparently, the love that dares not speak its name, when left unspoken, spoils the appetite. Plus, a single rose in a crystal vase does not an edible arrangement make! From a phone call, we learn the Daughters of the Confederacy in Meridian, Georgia have already moved on to lunch. My only question about this thwarted couple’s last cup of coffee is: One lump or two?
Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class (1977)
He’s bemoaned soggy Rice Krispies (Forensic and the Navigators), rhapsodized about Farina and poached eggs (Cowboys #2), obsessed about instant coffee (The 4-H Club) and crafted a comical plot device around stolen toasters (True West). But Shepard’s masterpiece of break-Faustian drama is unquestionably Curse of the Starving Class. Act 1 starts off with the mother mollifying her children by cooking bacon; Act 3 commences with a father out to make amends by frying ham and eggs. Yet in spite of these helpings of comfort food, this family is breaking apart like burnt toast. Blame the shady real estate deals and the unpaid loans fueled by alcoholic excess. If America were to name a playwright laureate for breakfast, Sam Shepard would be it.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays (2006)
For a year, Parks wrote a play a day. (Understandably, only a few run over three pages.) You’d imagine, at least one of these super-short one-acts would focus on breakfast. And you’d be partly right. For there’s a mini-musical about love and coffee (Coney Island Joe’s), a parable about sausage (The Worst), and a symbolist drama about the sunrise featuring Dawn—“a loud man with a yellow shirt and sunglasses, banging 2 pot lids together” (The Will of the World’s Way). String them together and suddenly you’ve got a revue. Hey, how many breakfasts have we all cobbled together based on random ingredients left in the fridge? Consider Parks’ epic collection of one-acts, the equivalent of a theatrical buffet. Sample as you see fit.
Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts (2008)
Given that Chicago is the doughnut capital of the world, it makes perfect sense that one of the Windy City’s currently reigning playwrights has set a play in a donut shop where the local cops, one conniving neighbor and a homeless woman come every morning despite the Starbucks down the street. But are they enough to save an independent business? Pastries may be handcrafted; coffee, homebrewed; but to beat the invading franchises—Whole Foods is rumored to be on its way, the longtime owner would be good to listen to his entrepreneurial, new employee and expand into evening hours with a poetry night featuring a Countee Cullen Cruller. Doughnuts aren’t just for breakfast anymore but nothing adds more appropriate spice to the first meal of the day than a good old-fashioned cinnamon doughnut. That’s what the Superior Donuts’ owner is recommending today.