News & Articles
I Never Sang For My Father — Artistic Director Martha Lavey's Preview
2003-2004, Volume 4
Sometimes people say to me, "Oh Steppenwolf Theatre — you're the ones who do all of those dysfunctional family plays." (More irreverent commentators than I have observed, "What family is NOT dysfunctional?") Sure, we do a lot of plays about families — a huge part of the dramatic canon is dominated by the exploration of families. The Greeks? Shakespeare? Chekhov? Tennessee Williams? Eugene O'Neill? Sam Shepard? Family. And this season at Steppenwolf, family has played a central role in Topdog/Underdog, Man From Nebraska, and even in Our Lady of 121st Street, with its collection of grown–up children, parented by Sister Rose and Father Lux. I Never Sang For My Father makes this theme most explicit: the play interrogates the extent and the limits of family responsibility. Does family require, finally, a choice between individuation and collectivity? Must we suffer the loss of home to gain the possibility of self?
Every time I read I Never Sang For My Father, I am touched. There are ways in which the play is old–fashioned: it is a story based in psychological realism, its population is comprised of that well–known American type, the upper–middle class WASP, it aims at the revelation of personal experience and emotion over the cultivation of political consciousness. I find it no less significant, in our exploration of the human story, for those characteristics. I am touched by the play because the sorrow at the heart of Gene's journey is the vexing, undeniable fact that to grow up, to choose to live inside one's own skin, to love where one chooses (as opposed to where one is delivered), is, always, a loss. A loss of parental approbation, a loss of collectively–conferred identity, the loss of a dream (the dream that family–belonging indemnifies one against dislocation and loneliness).
The exploration of family is especially pointed and poignant at Steppenwolf. Jeff Perry, one of our theater's co–founders (with Gary Sinise and Terry Kinney) once explained to me that the reason Steppenwolf found itself doing so many family plays was that as an ensemble, they were always looking for plays with a distribution of equally–important roles. In one way or another, those plays represented families — even when, like Balm in Gilead, like Our Lady of 121st Street, the family was more a tribe (a collection of misfits bound to a time and place) than a genetically–determined collectivity. The family dynamic on stage tended to mirror the off–stage dynamic of an ensemble company. As actors, they were committed to the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That tends to be the conviction of family: squabble though we may among ourselves, FAMILY as collectivity is powerful and presents a kind of shield from outside hardship.
The names in I Never Sang For My Father are significant in exploring this theme. Gene Garrison is the son. If as "gene" he is the producer as well as the one produced, he exists within the "garrison" of family. A garrison is the site of protection, the military post, and a "garrison state" is "one whose military preparations threaten to convert it into a totalitarian state." Robert Anderson, in providing these names suggests that the site of protection (the family) becomes, ironically, the source of oppression. For Gene to live his life, he must step outside of the garrison — he must risk living outside of the protected sphere of family to elude the threat of his father's authority.
For Gene's sister, Alice, the choice is obvious. She is, by marrying outside the faith, banished already from the protected sphere. Family, to Alice, represents a controlling and rejecting force. For Gene, the "good son," the apple of his mother's eye, family is approbation, the conferring instrument of a favored identity. Seen from the outside, to live by his father's rules, he has the opportunity to be the good son; experienced from the inside, he is bereft of this real love and its future. Why is the struggle so poignant, why is it difficult? Because, as Gene acknowledges, "father" MEANS something. To give up the image of ourselves as a good child, to abandon the wish for the good parent (despite the evidence) is a loss. A dream dies — a dream I suspect is, finally, rooted in a profound wish for protection. I am deeply fortunate to have both of my parents. The most common description I hear, from friends who have lost their parents, is that the death of a parent removes the shield, the barrier, that one has always (unconsciously) felt between one's self and
oblivion. It is flying without a net, it is accepting the consequences of one's actions and choices.
I Never Sang For My Father is a play that Steppenwolf is very pointedly prepared to deliver. The cast is comprised of six ensemble members who have known and worked with one another for years (and with guests artists with whom we have worked and whom we admire). We have felt the fortifying and the constraining forces of collectivity. Sure, we are the theater of the dysfunctional family — but what family is not dysfunctional? and what theater could possibly avoid drama's great theme, the family? We are, with I Never Sang For My Father, on common ground — we are marking the shared space of our stage and our lives. As members of the Steppenwolf family, you complete the circle of our discussion. We humbly offer this play, hoping it touches your lives (as it touches and conveys our own).