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Sibling Relationships

sisters lee family life

The special connection between brothers and sisters, whether supportive or antagonistic, has often been explored in modern drama, from the realism of Anton Chekhov to the mythic symbolism of Sam Shepard. Changing social conditions in the twentieth century impacted family structures, and sibling relationships were undoubtedly affected to some degree. Social and political upheaval, periods of intense impoverishment, and the alienation caused by ever-fragmenting personal relationships in an increasingly materialistic and profane society all affect the dynamics of the sibling bond and are reflected in the plays chosen for this chapter.

As an early proponent of the movement toward realism in drama, Anton Chekhov had a desire to write plays about “real life” as it is lived by ordinary people, so relationships between family members must have seemed like promising material to him. In his attempts to create realistic plays that still entertain, Chekhov has melodramatic events (like deaths) happen offstage and only shows their impact on the characters involved, thus putting the emphasis on feeling over action. His characters converse, often inconsequentially and even illogically, as real people do, and are rarely the stock representations seen in “well-made plays.” His conclusions avoid triteness, usually seeming as messy as outcomes in real life.

Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters looks at the relationship between three sisters and a brother from Russian aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century. After his father went bankrupt and abandoned his family, Chekhov assumed responsibility for his siblings and was a father figure to them for the rest of his short life (he died at age forty-four). This is reflected in his plays by offspring who have usually lost one or both parents, and one of the siblings takes on a parental role. In The Three Sisters , it is Olga, unmarried at twenty- eight, who keeps the home together until she is displaced by their brother’s new wife, Natasha. Even then, she holds the three sisters together in their idealistic dreams of a better future to counter the apparent misery of their actual lives, though the brother is left to deal alone with the horrors of living with his new wife.

Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa looks at the relationships within a lower-class family—the five Mundy sisters and their older brother in rural 1930s Ireland—through the memory of a young relative. The play depicts the benefits of living among a large group of siblings, and the severe threat under which such family communities live. The unmarried sisters provide a supportive network of friendship and caregiving that shelters Chris, a single mother; Rose, who is simpleminded; and, on his return, Father Jack, the brother who has apparently lost his mind while performing missionary work in Uganda. Despite occasional squabbles, the sisters stick together until worsening economic and social conditions scatter them apart and destroy their spirit. None fare so well once the family is broken apart. Their lengthy service to each other, and the family’s eventual breakdown and failure, are echoed in the missionary career of Jack. When he dies, so too does the family itself.

True West , by Sam Shepard, is more contemporary in its presentation of two brothers encountering each other for the first time in five years. Totally contrasting types, Austin and Lee are instantly at odds, yet each strives to understand the other and, for a time, even become the other. The exercise is futile, since they are who they are, and they end up in a tableau of eternal conflict. Shepard wants us to know that the sibling bond is not always warm and supportive, and can be as marked by jealousy and mistrust as any relationship; indeed, such feelings often run that much deeper between family members, whose very connection allows them to cause more damage.

Prior to True West , Sam Shepard’s plays were mostly experimental, impressionistic collages of sound, movement, and image. True West , which is more consciously crafted, is closer to realism, and marks a turning point in the playwright’s career. It represents a definitive statement by Shepard of his concern with family dynamics and the plight of the artist. Although ostensibly about two opposed siblings, Shepard uses their confrontation to express concerns about the dual nature of the self and America itself, especially the seductive myths of the West in which Americans often place their hopes to avoid facing reality. The play’s title is taken from a defunct magazine that purported to tell true stories of the Wild West, but created a romanticized vision for its readers. In the same way, the brothers attempt to create a “true” image of the West, but cannot conjure up anything convincing beyond their own struggle, the reality of which they all, including the mother, fail to recognize as what the West has become.

In The Three Sisters , the Prozorov siblings walk a tightrope between their romantic illusions and the banal necessities of their lives, and they become both comic and pitiable in their efforts to maintain this tricky balance. While they long to return to the Moscow of their birth, this is shown to be an impossible dream as they become trapped by loveless marriages and exhausting jobs. Their father had encouraged them to become highly educated—all speak at least four languages, and Masha and Andrey are accomplished musicians—but it is an education none utilize. It is partly the father’s fault, since he moved them to this provincial town far from Moscow and married Masha to a boorish schoolteacher, Koolyghin, who is incapable of original thought.

Their mother died when they were young, and their father has been dead a year when the play begins, so the Prozorov children are thrown back on each other for support. All feel deeply, but are unable to fully voice what torments them. When they try to express their feelings—Masha speaks about her desire for Vershinin and Andrey bemoans his former ambitions and current reduced state—the others refuse to listen, for they find such feelings messy and uncomfortable. If only they would listen, it might allow them all to properly connect and support each other; instead they resort to idealistic platitudes about future possibilities whose impossibility they completely ignore.

As siblings they profess to love one another and offer sympathy and encouragement for each other’s dreams, but it is questionable how much they truly support each other. The three sisters seem proud of their brother’s abilities, but once his professorial ambitions disintegrate, they offer him little comfort. These siblings are too self-involved and fearful of commitment to help one another emotionally or to offer any practical advice. Andrey finds himself in a loveless marriage, his young wife turned shrewish and unfaithful; he hates his job; and he is too scared of his sisters’ teasing to admit to them his feelings of despair. Instead he resorts to gambling to fill the void, and impoverishes himself to the point where he has to mortgage their house, further alienating his sisters. All are frustrated, filled with unrequited longings—for others, for meaningful work, for personal achievement—and see themselves as trapped in a provincial town. The sisters long to return to cosmopolitan Moscow, and in some sense sustain each other through this common desire. Poor Andrey feels alienated from their union, and thereby more isolated in his grief. He eventually asks for advice from Dr. Chebutykin, who suggests that his best course is to walk away and leave Natasha, but Andrey is incapable of such decisive action.

The Prozorovs are like the dead tree Toozenbach sees in their garden: “It’s all dried up, but it’s still swaying in the wind along with the others” (321); they only play at life and never really live it—internally they are as dead as that tree. Masha is also unhappily married. She complains to her sisters about her husband (though not to him directly), whom she sees as vulgar, limited, and as offensive as the company he keeps and tries to get her to join. The only relief her sisters propose is the possibility of a summer escape to Moscow if they ever move back, which it becomes increasingly obvious will never happen. Desperately in love with Vershinin, Masha asks her sisters for help, but they refuse to even accept that her problem exists. Vershinin is transferred and she loses him, and her husband annoyingly offers to pretend that nothing ever happened.

Irena, meanwhile, seems incapable of actual love—she agrees to marry Toozenbach only as an act of duty and desperation, and this kills him, for he is murdered in a duel with a rival suitor the day before their wedding ceremony. Irena constantly speaks about the wonders of work, and how that will provide fulfillment and escape from a stifling life, but she should be warned by Olga’s constant weariness and complaints of headaches that work may not be the answer she seeks. She tries working at the post office and for the council, quitting both jobs as too uninspiring, and plans by the end to follow teaching, the very job that exhausts Olga.

As Natasha takes over the family house, she displaces the Prozorovs one by one, and their old nurse, Anfisa, whom they have never had the heart to fire. Natasha even plans to move her husband and give his room to their daughter. She stops their socializing at home, canceling their carnival party with the excuse that her son needs peace and quiet. As she declares: “I do like order in the home, I don’t like having useless people about” (296). She may stroke Olga’s cheek in a gesture of affection, but it is only a gesture, for her intent is to displace her without compunction. Andrey is embarrassed by his inability to control her, but accepts whatever she does and follows instructions; his only freedom is the surreptitious gambling in which he indulges, but even there he has no luck and seems to have a constant losing streak.

Dr. Chebutykin gets angry at the family’s tendency to ignore what is happening. He breaks the clock, frustrated at the way they pretend not to notice Natasha’s infidelity. Unsurprisingly, even when challenged by the Doctor, they just continue talking as if he had never spoken, and refuse to acknowledge any reality that hurts them. Masha and Irena discuss their brother’s decline since marriage but do nothing to help him reverse course.

What we see is a family affected by the degeneration of a formerly wealthy and respected aristocracy. Irena’s declaration that she must work becomes as empty as the hopeful declarations about going to Moscow, and equally as unlikely. For all her talk about the beauty of work, she hates its actuality. However, despite this, all three sisters offer expressions of hope at the play’s close, regardless of the nihilistic interruptions of Dr. Chebutykin. Their collective idealism seems born out of their boredom, but instead of trying to improve the present, they gaze into the future. Each has a dream that gets deflated by someone else.

Colonel Vershinin suggests to the sisters that their education is not wasted, since it will help them to create a better future. But, too wrapped up in their own disappointments, they make no efforts to disseminate their knowledge, beyond Olga and Irena’s careers as schoolteachers, so this becomes yet another empty dream. Natasha is an intrusive force who kicks the others out, becoming rather melodramatic as the villain who hurts the good Prozorovs. She is ani-   malistic in the amoral way she manipulates others, and, like an animal, her priorities are to preserve her children and satisfy her own needs. She survives, happily achieving her aims.

The sisters spend too long talking about life to really enjoy living it, and are shown to be too analytical and idealistic, while Natasha just gets on with it. Only a peasant, she can also be seen as a sign of the future, like the peasants in the upcoming revolution, who just want to be landowners, and who have the capacity to be cruel to those below them on the social ladder rather than changing the system.

Despite their evident intelligence, capacity for energy, and refinement, the sisters totally lack will and the power to combine these qualities into effective action, and are effectively paralyzed. By consistently living in the past and looking toward the future for hope, they cannot ever be truly happy in the present. The play ends with an image of support between the sisters as Olga holds Masha and Irena and tries to instill in them a hope for the future despite their current suffering, but this only shows their lack of progress, in its echo of her opening speeches.

In Dancing at Lughnasa , Michael Mundy narrates a memory of the summer when he was seven years old, living with his mother and her unmarried sisters in rural County Donegal. Besides relating his first impressions of his father, Gerry Evans, and the relationship Gerry had with Michael’s mother, Michael also tells us about the sisters’ ups and downs, which are punctuated by snatches of song and dance by which the family reaffirm their connection and raise their spirits. During this summer, their older missionary brother, Jack, having been sent home in disgrace from an African leper colony by the Church for “going native,” returns to the family to die. As the sisters lose their livelihoods, the family breaks apart.

Dancing is the central metaphor of the play. In an age where honest communication has become increasingly difficult to maintain, these siblings resort to song and dance to display their love for one another, fierce spirits, and presence. The title refers to the pagan dancing of the Lughnasa festival, in celebration of the harvest via a Celtic god of fertility. It is a celebration of life, and it is the impetus behind the dances in which we see the sisters indulge, either to Irish folk music on the radio or to their own songs. They welcome the sense of connection and the release dancing offers from the mundanity of their simple lives. They dance as do the people in the leper colony, because they have little left to lose. The dance is tribal in essence, as no one dances truly alone, for even if they dance apart they are watched by the others and the experience is shared. They do not get to attend the festival, because Kate insists that they are too old for such revelry, but they dance together at the house, albeit Kate somewhat reluctantly, and apart, to relieve their frustration. Chris and Gerry also dance outside each time he calls to celebrate their relationship, as the other sisters jealously watch from indoors.

By the interesting parallels Friel draws between what goes on in Ballybeg and Uganda, he universalizes the play’s impact. Jack draws comparisons as he describes the Ugandan festivals and dancing. The Mundy women become like the hens in their own henhouse, barren without a rooster. It is most likely Jack who killed their rooster, attempting to reenact a tribal rite, as a fox would have killed the other chickens. And it is Jack’s return in disgrace that puts an end to Kate’s job, which has been holding the family together. The wearer of the plumed hat, which significantly gets passed on from Jack to Gerry, is the metaphorical rooster of the household; but Jack is past his prime and Gerry mostly absent. Gerry becomes the African chieftain with his “preferred wife” (presumably the one he keeps in Wales with his other children), and the women of the Mundy family fawn over him, with Chris giving him a “love child.”

In 1930s Ireland, times are hard, and the family shares the domestic chores, with Kate’s job largely covering the household expenses. Together they try to protect Rose and raise young Michael. Together they survive. But when a group lives so closely, whatever happens to one affects the others. Families cannot live on love alone, and they soon discover that they are not yet at the bottom. The family is gradually stripped of every opportunity for income, and worn down by continual misfortune. Kate is unfairly “let go” from her teaching job because of her brother’s disgrace. Agnes and Rose lose their knitting contracts when a knitting factory starts up nearby. Chris refuses to marry or ask for support from the unreliable father of her child. Jack, of whom they had originally been so proud, has lost his ministry and faith, and his health deteriorates until he finally dies. His return from a life of service, broken in body and mind, echoes the family’s decline, but even before his death, the family has fallen apart, ironically, because of that regard they have for one another.

While Maggie and Kate struggle to avoid reality and keep things going, Agnes and Rose slip away to London so as not to be a burden, where they both die miserable deaths—Agnes on the streets of exposure, and Rose in a hospice. Political engagement to counter these misfortunes is shown to hold no answers, by the way Gerry’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War is mocked, with him wounded falling off his bicycle. Neither down-to-earth Maggie nor the more refined Kate have the courage to leave Ballybeg, so they unhappily remain, despite having no future there. Chris reluctantly works at the knitting factory, and Kate tutors the children of a man she had once hoped to marry. What Michael remembers most clearly, and is haunted by, is the dance, the ultimate symbol of connection, but it is a ghostly legacy, just as he is clearly the last of his clan, and the only one who never dances.

At the start of True West Austin is house-sitting for his mother on vacation, when his brother, Lee, arrives from three months in the desert. Not having seen each other for five years, their conversation is uncomfortable. Tension mounts as they discuss their father, and Lee becomes increasingly threatening, mocking Austin’s scriptwriting, talking about casing the neighborhood, and  acting insulted at Austin’s offer to help. Austin’s producer, Saul Kimmer, is coming to see him, so he bribes Lee to stay away by lending him his car. Lee returns early with a stolen television, and arranges to play golf with Kimmer, so he can pitch his idea for a Western. He gets Austin to help him write this script after telling him he envies his life. Kimmer buys Lee’s story, dropping Austin’s script, which provokes Austin to drink, steal, and behave like his brother, even asking Lee to take him into the desert, which Lee agrees to do if Austin will help him finish his script. As they work together, their mother arrives, and her behavior provokes Lee to quit and leave, alone. In anger, Austin attacks him. Lee appears to be dead, but then springs back to life, and the play closes with the brothers circling each other warily.

As brothers, Austin appears to be the softer and more open of the two, offering to help his brother with money and a place in his home. He enjoys recalling their youthful escapades, and feels drawn to Lee’s apparently unfettered existence, revealing that he finds his own existence empty. He helps Lee type his script, despite his skepticism about its authenticity, and when Lee confesses that he envies Austin’s comfortable middle-class life, Austin is drawn to help further. Austin is intrigued by as much as fearful of his older brother, as evidenced by his attempts to become more like him by drinking and stealing. Ironically, it is he, rather than his violent brother, who makes the first direct attack, strangling Lee with a telephone cord because he is angry that his brother refuses to take him to the desert.

Lee, on the other hand, is threatening from the start, as he mocks and cajoles his brother and talks about burglarizing the neighborhood. He seems to enjoy disconcerting Austin, rejecting his kindness as insults, disrupting his nostalgic remembrances, and refusing to clearly answer his questions. He overturns Austin’s life, edging him out with Kimmer by getting his script to replace the one Austin has been working on, and promising, then refusing, to share his desert existence. However, Lee is no less discontent with the life he leads than his brother is with his own life, although Lee is shaken out of his desire to pursue a middle-class lifestyle after witnessing his mother’s automatic and mindless behavior.

In one sense, the brothers are two halves of the same person: Lee portrays the darker, more dangerous id, which Austin, concerned with placating the superego, has spent his life repressing. Thus, the play explores Shepard’s belief in people’s “double natures,” whereby one side is repressed in favor of the other, which inevitably limits the whole. Austin is a well-groomed suburbanite, who writes television scripts for a living and likes to keep everyone happy. Lee is a scruffy criminal, who likes to drink and pick fights. Both envy the other’s life to some degree, and on the surface they seem diametrically opposed, representing a whole series of apparent opposites: imagination/reason, anarchy/conformity, lowbrow/highbrow, emotion/intellect.

However, the differences between Lee and Austin become blurred as they each try to take on characteristics of the other, provoked by envy for the life each sees the other as leading, and in search of their own missing egos. Austin is drawn to the romantic possibilities of his brother’s independent life out in the desert, just as Lee wonders what life would be like as a member of the steady middle class, making a living by the less dangerous process of writing about life rather than living it.

They attempt to switch lives, as Austin drinks and burglarizes the neighborhood while Lee writes a script. Both are utterly ineffective at what the other does. Austin ends up stealing toasters that he polishes up and uses to toast bread—a parody of a dangerous criminal—while, in frustration, Lee takes a golf club to the typewriter. Evidently, they cannot surmount their essential differences, by which Shepard suggests that the two sides can never be entirely reconciled, but must be accepted for their differences. The brothers’ conflict will continue until both recognize this. When they work together, as Kimmer suggests, they progress, but each feels the threat of the other, which stops them from completing their script. The play ends, necessarily unresolved, with the brothers facing each other with homicidal menace, neither prepared to give way to the other.

A further cause of the brothers’ antagonism stems from the fragmented state of their family, the parents lured away by a promise of freedom that is nothing more than a refusal of responsibility. The father, an alcoholic living in the desert, abandoned his offspring long ago. The mother similarly escapes by vacationing in Alaska and has become totally disassociated from her children. She shows no concern over her destroyed kitchen or her sons, as one tries to throttle the other in front of her, and she refuses to see what is happening. Such parents indicate what Shepard sees as the spiritual death of the American family, and into this spiritual gap the brothers seek to place an image of something that might sustain them: the West.

Both brothers struggle to write an authentic Western story, but both have trouble connecting the reality they understand with their dreams of the Wild West, largely created by popular culture. Lee has been there and knows the West has been wiped out by development, though Austin insists it has simply changed, becoming a land of freeways and stores. Yet Austin idealizes Lee’s desert life, while Lee desires to live in Austin’s pragmatic world. But Lee’s tale of the West is utterly contrived, comprising every Western cliché he can conjure up, while Austin’s vision of the West is denatured and unsustaining. What each creates is as artificial as their mother’s plastic grass and as dead as her plants, and their struggle and relationship remain unresolved.

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