- Kitchen Sink Realisms: Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre by Dorothy Chansky
In their introduction to Food and Theatre on the World Stage (2015), part of the Routledge Advances in Theatre and Performance Studies series, Dorothy Chansky and coeditor Ann Folino White note that the late-twentieth-century growth in food studies demonstrates that food and the labor used to produce and consume it are enmeshed with cultural identity; for example, the time and energy spent rolling pasta and sautéing garlic are as integral to the traditional Italian American Sunday dinner as are the oral and physical interactions between family members creating and consuming the meal. While the articles included in Food and Theatre treat the mingling of food and performance throughout world history, Kitchen Sink Realisms affords Chansky the space to focus, in part, on "exposing causalities and ironies in the behaviors and assumptions that go with domestic labor and dining" (5), especially as they are influenced by and influence gender, as presented in American plays between 1918 and 2005. Through investigating how audiences' assumptions throughout these decades might have informed representations of cleaning, cooking, food preparation, and childcare in their theatres, Chansky provides a unique method for demonstrating the importance of plays to our understanding of cultural history.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, any play or production labeled, often derisively, as "kitchen sink realism" typically conjured images of a gritty, mimetic representation of "real" life, complete with a Belascoesque stage full of [End Page 330] furniture, decorations, and appliances. Chansky's project offers a refreshing understanding of the form not as a single genre or style, too often limited by representations of middle-class white characters, but as a multiplicity of genres—realisms—that treat "material actuality" (5) in a variety of ways "across cultural space" (5) and that extend beyond the well-made-play structure. Here "kitchen sink realisms" also resemble advertisements for the "American Dream" and the longing of the intended audience member/consumer for material betterment (21). As a feminist critique of American drama, Kitchen Sink Realisms explores how domestic labor as it is visible (staged) and invisible (not staged) identifies a truthful way of life, especially for women who, Chansky notes, have historically been saved from the drudgery of difficult housework "only as it was directly legible to men and made sense to them" (14); the stove, for example, which saved men from chopping and hauling wood for fires, entered homes before washing machines or dishwashers did, which eventually made the mainly female job of laundry far easier. Chansky notes that it is the sink, even if time-saving appliances are present, in any home (real or fictional) that is the "ugly duckling" of the kitchen and is used to complete the "grubbiest" tasks (18). Although not all such plays include an actual sink onstage, Chansky reminds readers that the daily functioning of the house necessarily includes the use of a sink and that someone is involved in that labor. Another fascinating aspect of Chansky's text is her use of not only Burns Mantle's commentary over twenty-eight years in Best American Plays but also several household advice manuals (the result of the domestic science movement beginning in the nineteenth century) and cookbooks to provide context for the myriad domestic labors, including dining, in the almost fifty plays she examines.
Although Chansky briefly examines domestic labor in America before the twentieth century in her introductory chapter, she begins her chronological exploration with the year marking the end of World War I, in part because 1918 is the first year a drama was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and because it marks the end of "corny, joke-driven dramaturgy" (2) and the beginning of the more serious style of writers like O'Neill and Glaspell. The first two chapters consider changes to domestic labor, such as the shift from live-in servants to hourly workers, in primarily middle-class American homes, as depicted in plays like Glaspell...