What does it mean to be successful—as a man, a father, or a son? Male playwrights have grappled with this question for over 2,000 years, ever since Sophocles dramatized Oedipus’ murder of his father, King Laius in Oedipus Rex. Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, which plays the Kirk Douglas Theatre November 20 to December 20, 2015, carves out a subversive new place in this celebrated theatrical tradition through the story of the intransigent Matt, a smart, good-looking young man whose lack of ambition baffles his family and finally leads to a confrontation with his father, Ed.
Although they have been written by a woman of color, when taken at face value, Matt and Ed resemble characters we have seen throughout thousands of years of Western theatre: they are white, straight, and well-off. They’re part of a tradition that stretches back to the Middle Ages in Europe, when father and son stories began to pervade the theatrical landscape. At the time the most popular, and sometimes only legal, form of theatre was the “mystery play”: a dramatized re-enactment of Christian liturgy. Often, this concerned Jesus and his father, God, as he leads his son to a powerful transformation that culminates in Jesus becoming divine.
As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, the subjects of plays expanded to secular topics, but the father-son story remained pervasive. Take Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which follows the young prince Hamlet as he carries out the bloody revenge commanded by his father, communicated to him from beyond the grave. Whether encountering the ghost of his father transforms Hamlet for the better is debatable, as is whether the ghost was his father, a demon, or simply psychosis. What is clear is that from this time on, playwrights frequently put father and son relationships on this very same path: an adolescent male follows the guidance and wishes of his father, often facing immense challenges, and through this experience attains maturity and manhood.
But by the mid-20th century, some playwrights began to turn the predictable trajectory on its head. In Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, the eponymous salesman Willy Loman encourages his son, Biff, to pursue business ventures and become “successful.” Ironically, this happens as Willy’s own professional success begins to implode, and Biff ultimately rejects his father’s wishes for his life, instead seeking success on his own terms. Whereas Hamlet carries out the ambitious visions of his father, Biff refuses both the wishes of his father and the very worldview that precipitated them.
The father-son play has not been limited to straight white men. In Wole Soyinka’s 1975 play, Death and the King’s Horseman, which is set in colonial-era Nigeria, a father neglects his duties as a Yoruba spiritual figure, and they end up falling to his Western-educated son. And in August Wilson’s 1983 play Fences, Troy attempts to block his son from playing high school football in pursuit of a college scholarship. Troy, a garbage collector, is still scarred from the extreme discrimination he faced as a black man playing professional baseball, and he fears that his son’s bright future will be dashed in the same way. Both of these sons must forge their own paths—in opposition to their father’s wishes—to become adults.
Conflict-laden father and son relationships have become expected—not just in theatre but also in films, TV shows, novels, and songs ranging from Star Wars and The Godfather to Arrested Development and “Cat’s in the Cradle.” More recently, the expected out-of-touch father and the self-actualizing son who rejects him have become the target of parody and satire. In Not Another Teen Movie, the popular high school jock Jake says to his father “I don’t want your life!” for comedic effect.
But even if we’ve seen straight white men and their fathers duke it out many times before, we haven’t seen them done by Young Jean Lee. In Straight White Men, she explores our assumptions of what it means to reach maturity, become a man, and navigate that father-son relationship. The conflict between son Matt and father Ed does not dominate the play, and unlike previous incarnations of the theme, Matt does not transform into an adult as a result of this conflict. Indeed, it is Matt’s refusal to take on the mantle of manhood and maturity that is culturally expected of him that forms the main conflict in Straight White Men.
Lee, who is neither a father nor a son, has taken an outsider’s view of the typical father-son relationship. While writing the piece she “was trying to inhabit that identity as a woman of color,” as she told American Theatre. Lee asks us to reconsider the relationships between fathers and sons we have seen dramatized so many times before, and perhaps revaluate how we perceive those relationships in our own lives.