Father & Son: An Enduring Dramatic Relationship

Posted on: June 17th, 2013 by Roundabout

In The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin, we are given a window into a fraught father-son dynamic, that of Tom and James, whose relationship is at the heart of this play. Of course, they are far from the first paternal pairing to be at the center of a drama.


Christopher Denham & David Morse in The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin. Photo: Joan Marcus.

We can go all the way back to the Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles and find a father-son relationship at the center of the play. Creon and son Haemon are at a crossroads. Creon has sentenced his son’s fiancé, Antigone, to death for disobeying his law. Haemon pleads with his father to reverse his sentence. When Creon refuses, Haemon takes his own life. While their relationship is not the main plot, it highlights the major theme of the play: conflict with authority. By presenting these big themes within a small, familiar relationship, the playwright gives his audience a way into the story. Like most Greek tragedies, this is an epic tale of high emotions, but what makes it an enduring story are the relationships that generations of people have connected to.


Antigone in front of the dead Polynices (1865), oil on canvas, National Gallery of Greece.

Moving many years forward, we can find a similar example of the father-son relationship enlightening larger themes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While Hamlet is traditionally considered to be a play about revenge and loyalty, at the core of the play is Hamlet’s turmoil over losing his father and his subsequent spiral into questioning his identity. When his father dies, Hamlet’s whole world is turned upside down. He feels obligated to seek revenge on his own uncle for the death of his father, but that responsibility causes him inner chaos. Even the audience in Shakespeare's time might not have understood what it was like to have a conniving uncle plotting against them for the throne of Denmark, but they would certainly understand the loss of a parent and the emotional turmoil that would cause.

All My Sons by Arthur Miller is a classic American story about a son discovering the imperfections of his father. Joe Keller, the father in All My Sons, is the “everyman.” He is the most likable character in the story, until we discover he was responsible for sending out faulty airplane parts that cost twenty-one American soldiers their lives in WWII. When son Chris discovers his father’s crime, neither father nor son can bear it.  Joe knows his son will never see him as a hero again, and Chris’s entire identity and belief system are turned upside down.  Joe and Chris’s relationship is a commentary on the disillusionment felt by the American people towards their country after WWII. The American Dream lost its purity in the eyes of Miller, and this play was his commentary on that loss. In this piece, like in Antigone, we see a larger theme of the play simplified within the father-son relationship.

Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy is about the crumbling empire of Gregor, a shady Romanian businessman who spends his final days in his illegitimate son’s Greenwich Village apartment. Unaware that he is a pawn in his father’s game, Basil idolizes the legendary tycoon. Even when his father tries to use him as a pawn for his own gain Basil is forgiving. Again we find father and son at the center of an intense story. Gregor’s dysfunctional relationship with his son allows us to truly understand how deeply Gregor’s self-loathing lies.

Frank Langella and Adam Driver in Roundabout's 2011 production of Man and Boy. Photo: Joan Marcus.

While there are vast differences between Greek tragedies and modern family dramas, we still find the same dynamics at the heart of the plays. The relationship between father and son is not a problem to be solved. It’s a dynamic all its own that will continue to be explored anew in each generation through their own lens.

The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 31 through August 25. For more information and tickets, visit our website.

This article is from our Education at Roundabout Upstage Playgoer Guide.

Related Categories:
Education @ Roundabout, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin

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