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The Function of Dysfunction

By Lawrence Henley

Paul Osborn’s 1939 play Morning’s at Seven explores the dynamics of four aging sisters living close together with their families in their longtime hometown. In fact, after five decades, three of them live in two next-to-each-other houses without a fence. A fourth sister lives just a couple of blocks down the street. Both yards and porches have, for decades, been the stage setting for all of the drama, comedy, and tragedy surrounding their lives. Along with it all, of course, has come a good deal of the emotional palette that goes hand-in-hand with many years of family living: secret love, fits of envy and jealousy, sympathy, caring, anger, and a harmonic disharmony.

If the enormity and complexity of these lives seem overwhelming and complicated to you, imagine the heaviness of the atmosphere hovering above these senior citizens. They have lived through it all decade after decade. Audiences are the lucky ones. They enjoy the opportunity to experience the slightly loony world of the Gibbs Sisters through two of the topsiest, turviest days a family could possibly have.

These four sisters, seeming to be frightfully simple at first glance, become much more complicated when a closer look is taken. These four women are as close-knit as a group of sisters can be, rarely apart during their lifetimes. Despite their obvious affection for one another, intense (and sometimes bitter) rivalries become increasingly evident as the action of Morning’s at Seven develops. The familial support machine is there in place and is solid, but it doesn’t always run smoothly. Despite all of their years together, the engine isn’t always “firing on all cylinders.” How is it that after all of this time there are so many things they haven’t been able to work out amongst themselves?

These women, despite their experience, have all had their fair share of difficulties. In spite of their best efforts, life hasn’t always been cooperative. Past experiences haven’t made things any easier. Although life in their world bears the initial appearance of relative calm, almost everyone in the play is revealed to be walking an emotional tightrope. One wrong move by anyone and the entire apple cart will be upset. The viewer will soon discover that their “familyscape” has long been bound together with a generous helping of duct tape and bailing wire, long overdue to come apart. For this reason, Esther’s calming presence is crucial to her family.

Esther Swanson (Esty) was nicknamed “the smartest” by her father. Esty proves time and again throughout Morning’s at Seven that she is “the rock” of the family: the lone daughter with the ability to keep everyone and everything in check—most of the time. Life through the years has often brought moments when things began to unravel for one or more members within her extended family. Whenever the equilibrium has swayed out of balance, Esty has always been the one to push the pieces back into place, doing so with love and generosity. She is a woman of strong character (she has had to be), possessing the toughest emotional fiber of anyone in the play.

Unfortunately, her husband David has never shared Esty’s passion for the rest of her family. David was once a well-respected university professor, before running his mouth off to the school’s president. He maintains an air of arrogance and snobbery, especially when it comes to his view of Esty’s simpler kin. In fact, things have now deteriorated to such a point that David has forbidden Esther to so much as visit with the “morons.” His professional confidence may have been damaged by his dismissal, but David continues to reek of intellectual elitism and cockiness. He’s determined to keep his wife apart from the rest of her brood and threatens her with marital separation within the house upon her next infraction, planning to banish Esty to the upper floor of their residence.

Cora Swanson is the second to the eldest of the Gibbs women. She lives in a home immediately next to that of a third sister, Ida Bolton. Papa Gibbs called Cora “the mildest,” and she has a tendency to internalize her troubles. She is blessed to have a husband with a terrific sense of humor. Theodore (Thor) Swanson is a jovial man, different from the others in the play. He has a tendency to take most things in life in stride, preferring to tolerate the quirkiness of everyone else’s personality rather than criticize. Of all the men in the play, Thor is the only one who possesses much bonding ability, making him Esther’s male equivalent.

Living with the Swansons is Aaronetta (Arry) Gibbs. She is the youngest, and the only unmarried sister. Labeled “the wildest” by their dad, Arry has developed a “best defense is a good offense” sort of demeanor after four decades of living with Cora and Thor. At all times, Arry has a pressing urge to know what’s going on with everyone in the family and the neighborhood and is certain to have an opinion that she will voice on every conceivable matter. Arry has cultivated an extremely defensive position, convinced that someone in the family is always doing something behind her back. She also displays a strong attachment to her sister’s husband.

Ida Bolton, tagged “the slowest,” is more timid than the other sisters. She is a devoted wife to husband Carl and mother to son Homer. She dreads the prospect of being left alone. In Morning’s at Seven she comes dangerously close to being abandoned by both of the men in her household simultaneously. Threatened by the frequent occurrence of her husband’s “spells” (which are really acute lapses of self-confidence), she is also somewhat reluctant about the idea of losing Homer to matrimony. Still, Ida has tried to do her motherly duty, encouraging him to socialize more with women.

Carl Bolton suffers through emotional peaks and valleys, worsened by the arrival of his twilight years. He agonizes continually over the misbegotten career decisions of his youth, longing to return to that “fork” in the road where he chose the wrong turn. As a result, the slightest amount of normal situational tension can send him plunging frantically into a state of panic, followed by a bout with depression.

His son, Homer, has arrived at the age of forty, positioned at his own “fork in the road.” Homer has rarely shown the slightest sign of interest toward living with anyone else, or, for that matter, anywhere outside his parents’ home. Strangely, he has maintained a steady and long-term relationship with a woman he has kept completely away from his parents. Homer has always found one reason or another not to take the next logical step in his life, and this rattles Carl, who doesn’t want to see his son make the same kind of mistakes in life that he did. Carl has undertaken the extreme action of building a house for Homer, which sits empty up on the hill—to be moved into when, and if, Homer marries.

Homer’s fiancée, Myrtle Brown, is a benignly sweet thirty-nine-year-old single working woman. Myrtle longs for her wedding day, allowing that she wouldn’t at all mind quitting her job to start a family with Homer. Carl and Ida sense that they are as close as they have ever been to hearing the news that they, and Myrtle, want to hear from Homer. Carl, naturally, is tormented by the idea that Myrtle may not think very much of him.

Myrtle’s appearance on the scene is, quite possibly, the most excitement that any of these folks have had in many a year. Indeed, her romance with Homer conjures up memories of relationships consummated in the past for all of the seniors, and, just as importantly, of opportunities missed. A melancholy aura seems to vicariously infect all of the elders, and, as a result, they suddenly can hear the clock of opportunity in life just tick, tick, ticking away. Homer and Myrtle may be facing a major crossroad in their lives, but, in actuality, so are their elders.

Within less than forty-eight hours of Myrtle’s train pulling in, the world of each character in the play is inverted: David banishes Esther to the upper floor and she decides to leave, Carl disappears, and Cora is the slimmest of threads away from taking Thor away to their new love nest. Arry and Ida are both threatened with abandonment. Homer calls off his engagement to Myrtle, who sees her opportunity for happiness slipping away. In a few moments, all of these relationships which have held up for so many years are in danger of being extinguished.

Because we are drawn by playwright Paul Osborn to see the humor in their situation, the characters in Morning’s at Seven don’t appear to be a “normal” family, and yet they probably have much more in common with most of our families than we would freely admit. Upon further inspection, the extended family of the play, on the whole, probably bears a strong resemblance to many American families. What family doesn’t get a little bit carried away in their personal lives at one time or another? In reality, all families suffer from differences of opinion, outbursts of individuality and insecurity, emotional spats, and quarrels sparked by jealousy.

In the early part of the last century, when most folks simply “stayed put,” relationships and rivalries had more time to develop. As a result, they formed with greater longevity and complexity. In today’s world, a group of siblings such as the Gibbs sisters would be more likely to part ways with one another in search of education or employment. We still carry these same family rivalries with us, but nowadays we’re more likely to share our disagreements, heartaches, and disappointments long-distance via e-mail and cellular telephones. Today’s lifestyles often make the impact of family relationships less immediate and conflicts easier to avoid or delay.

Genetics dictate that most siblings have considerable commonalities when it comes to their wants and desires in life. Because of simple human nature, it stands to reason that our yearnings may come into conflict at times. That Cora and Arry are attracted to the same man is no accident, nor is it coincidence that Carl’s son Homer doesn’t have adequate stability or acumen to determine what he really wants to do, or set a steady course toward a goal in life. Genetic factors can create the kind of personality compatibilities and oppositions that will determine the quotient of harmony and competition between children all their lives long, just as it has in Morning’s at Seven.

Still, for all of the hilarious and seemingly dysfunctional behavior we are treated to in Morning’s at Seven, the play ultimately becomes the portrait of a strong family unit that survives personal trauma. Not unlike the release of tension in the earth by a severe quake at the fault line, the ground between these houses trembles mightily in order that stability may once again be restored. Despite all of their incompatibilities, turmoil, and squabbling, by staying together this family manages to hold onto one another in order to work through troubled times. The emotional support system they have developed is strong enough to help them outlast tremendous pressure.

In the final analysis, the Gibbs Sisters offer us proof that the pitfalls engendered by a lengthy family history of unresolved issues can be overcome, albeit with varying degrees of difficulty. By maintaining their faith in the strength of the family unit, the characters in Morning’s at Seven (and most real families) have the ability to brave the storm, and resurface with their bindings intact. The function of their dysfunction is catharsis, which results in a renewed understanding of what makes the others unique and deserving of love and respect. In the end, it purges the family of whatever bad blood exists, allowing them to overcome trouble in the worst of times. Most importantly, the final unearthing of their “skeletons in the closet” enables them to extend and appreciate the most important gifts they receive—understanding and forgiveness.

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