Dinner parties, real or imagined, have long been a highly reliable source of drama: Whether joyful, combative, filled with laughter or dread, they offer filmmakers, playwrights and novelists a chance to explore what happens when characters who’ve known one another their whole lives — or who only just met — face off across a table. And since even the most informal dinner party is a kind of ritual, with its own customs and practices, it can be especially thrilling when the rules are shattered as easily as a wineglass. With the help of some guest nominators, we’ve assembled a list of fictional dinner parties that epitomize the possibilities of the genre.
“August: Osage County” (2007)
A family comes together to mourn the loss of their patriarch and winds up coming undone in Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, their brokenness laid bare during an act-long memorial dinner at which the matriarch, deep into her losing battle with a prescription pill addiction, insults her relatives past the point of no return.
Guest Pick: “Fairview” (2018)
“‘Fairview’ initially presents as a perky family comedy surrounding a Black family’s preparations for Grandma’s birthday, which ends up being the stuff of nightmares. Let’s just say that, when I saw the show a few years ago at TFANA [Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn], a giant fake sandwich smacking me in the face was far from the most arresting moment. [Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury] is a certified genius and this production was one of the most deep, unflinching and blackly — not a pun, just true — comedic interrogations of race in America.” — Gabby Beans, actor
“The Glass Menagerie” (1944)
In Tennessee Williams’s “memory play,” based on his own fraught family relationships, the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield makes her son invite a co-worker over for dinner with the intention of setting him up with her shy, disabled daughter. The meal doesn’t go remotely as planned, but Amanda keeps clinging to her hopes for the “gentleman caller” until her illusions are finally cracked.
Guest Pick: “A Little Night Music” (1973)
“The second act’s banquet scene in Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s musical begins mid-laugh and unravels from there. Couples re- and decouple, bitterness is the entree, and the guests strive mightily at ‘keeping control / while falling apart.’ Although the scene takes place in Sweden around 1900, one could imagine it reset and regendered — and with less eloquence — at a dinner party in the Fire Island Pines today.” — Mark Campbell, librettist
The psychological torment permeating William Shakespeare’s tale of regicide and bloodlust is made hauntingly manifest in the middle of its five acts when the newly crowned king sees the ghost of Banquo, a friend he’d ordered killed, sit in his place at the table. Driven mad by this illusion, he bursts into a fit of guilty rage, causing his guests to scatter.
“Top Girls” (1982)
The first scene of Caryl Churchill’s play is a dreamlike encounter in which contemporary businesswoman Marlene celebrates a promotion with the help of famous historical women — from British explorer Isabella Bird and Japanese noblewoman Lady Nijo to Griselda of Boccaccio’s “The Decameron.” After questioning the ethics of success as a woman in a businessman’s world, Churchill’s play goes on to explore and subvert female archetypes.
Years have passed since the overworked livestock revolted against the humans and reorganized their society along caste lines in George Orwell’s parable of the Russian Revolution, with the pigs in charge. Napoleon, the Stalin stand-in, throws away the last vestiges of their socialist ideals by holding a dinner party for other pigs and local farmers, leaving the rest of the animals to fend for themselves. As the downtrodden look on from outside, they find it hard to tell the difference between oppressors new and old.
In Ian McEwan’s novel, a young girl mistakenly believes she’s just witnessed the rape of her older sister by their housekeeper’s son. Rattled by the vision, her strained nerves during the subsequent family dinner contribute to a tense atmosphere, after which the plot’s dominoes begin to topple.
Guest Pick: “The Bean Eaters” (1960)
“This exquisite poem [by Gwendolyn Brooks] shows us that a dinner party can consist of a humble spread for just two people with love and long years between them. ‘This old yellow pair’ enjoys a simple meal of ‘beans in their rented back room.’ Their stories and memories are evoked ‘with twinklings and twinges,’ as they think of the life they have shared over ‘plain chipware’ and ‘tin flatware.’ Ultimately, the beauty of our lives is in the living and in the ‘remembering … / Remembering,’ at a dinner party for two across a simple kitchen table.” — Elizabeth Alexander, poet
Guest Pick: “The Color Purple” (1982)
“All the women in this story are strong-willed and self-possessed, mercilessly controlled by society’s limitations. This moment [over dinner], in particular, is when their collective power in the story is evident in the sharpness of language, wit, testimony and solidarity. Celie stands up to her oppressive husband for the first time by freeing herself; a tinderbox of freedom sets a flame for the women at the table.” — Abigail DeVille, visual artist
“Mrs. Dalloway” (1925)
Featuring perhaps the most fussed-about dinner party in literature, “Mrs. Dalloway” charts the unsteady trajectory of a handful of post-World War I London society members as they prepare for a gathering at Clarissa Dalloway’s home, at which old passions, bad blood and distressing news each make an appearance: “Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death.”
“Norwegian Wood” (1987)
Haruki Murakami’s fifth novel catapulted the writer to fame in Japan with its critique of the hollowness he perceived in his country’s 1960s counterculture. In it, Tokyo drama student Toru sees his history of complicated relationships come to a head while he’s out to dinner at a French restaurant with a classmate and his girlfriend. After it is revealed that he and his friend have previously swapped sex partners during the same night, their childish innocence gives way to the seriousness of adult consequences.
“The Satyricon” (first century A.D.)
Petronius captured the daily decadence of Emperor Nero’s Rome in this famous satire, which survives in fragments. Most unforgettable among its exploits is an extravagant dinner at the estate of Trimalchio, a former slave who has come into great wealth and who, still unwelcome in the upper echelon, is trying to outdo his new peers. Perhaps inspired by such lavish touches as a Zodiac-themed dinner course — as well as by the guests’ vulgar conversations — F. Scott Fitzgerald almost named his 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby” after the nouveau riche Roman character.
A writer, shaken by the funeral earlier that day of a friend who had committed suicide, narrates the events of a Viennese dinner party, while talking to no one and launching into internal diatribes against the guests from the few different chairs at which he sits throughout the gathering. Thomas Bernhard’s incisive roman à clef targets the never-ending rivalries and bitterness that can pervade any artistic milieu.
Guest Pick: “Alma’s Rainbow” (1994)
“A cinematic celebration of Black womanhood over an exuberant dinner party honoring the 10th anniversary of Alma’s (Kim Weston-Moran) beauty shop: Dinner is served — as is a sublime showcase of the ways Black women move to express joy, confidence and freedom. When a stranger from the past enters the night’s festivities, the film’s events are fully set in motion.” — Maya S. Cade, curator
“Black Girl” (1966)
With a stirring lead performance from Mbissine Thérèse Diop, this is considered one of the first major works of African cinema. In just under an hour, writer-director Ousmane Sembène paints a bleak portrait of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman working as a maid in France whose mistreatment by her employers leads to a tragic end. Among the indignities she is forced to endure is a lunch party at which one of the hosts’ friends kisses Diouana in a degrading show of power.
Six colorful strangers are anonymously invited to a spooky mansion dinner party hosted by a mysterious Mr. Boddy, who soon dies amid a room full of suspects holding various weapons, including a candlestick and a lead pipe. In a rare feat of spot-on adaptation, this cinematic version of the classic board game became a Reagan-era satire of McCarthyism with unimpeachable performances from Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn and an embarrassment of other comic actors at the top of their game. It has since developed a cult fan base among viewers who keep it alive through sheer memeability.
“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989)
Peter Greenaway’s scathing tirade against Thatcherism consists almost entirely of lavish dinners at a restaurant taken over by the nouveau riche thief (Michael Gambon). His wife (Helen Mirren, dressed in custom Jean Paul Gaultier) and her bookish lover (Alan Howard) are aided in their indiscretions by the cook (Richard Bohringer). A gorgeous exercise in formalism that takes its cues from Flemish Baroque art, the film’s violent final meal is the only one not prepared by chef Giorgio Locatelli, who crafted the prop food.
“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972)
Reversing the setup of his earlier film “The Exterminating Angel” (1962), in which a wealthy coterie is unable to escape a hellish dinner party, Luis Buñuel cranked up the absurdism for this surrealist farce in which an international bourgeoisie cannot, for the life of them, start their meal — whether that’s because they’re being interrupted by armed militias or realizing they’re onstage in a theater. The film’s increasingly bizarre antics helped it to become the iconic Spanish director’s only film to earn an Academy Award.
“Fanny and Alexander” (1983)
Originally conceived as a mini-series for public television in his native Sweden, the first episode of Ingmar Bergman’s five-plus-hour period epic (trimmed to three hours for the theatrical release) includes a wealthy family’s Christmas dinner. Warmly lit, the relatives sit side by side with their servants in a moment of shared joy, which the director complicates with intimately shot asides in which the family reveals its inner turmoils.
Guest Pick: “The Nutty Professor” (1996)
“Professor Klump tries to hip his family to the importance of eating healthy — only they ain’t having it. Roll-on-the-floor funny; Eddie Murphy playing most all the roles; ‘Hercules! Hercules!’” — Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright
Guest Pick: “102 Dalmatians” (2000)
“Cruella de Vil has all of her guests bring their dogs for a doggy dinner [where the canines leap onto the table and devour the roast served]. It’s so bonkers and bizarre that I could imagine myself doing that. I have a trimming of the feathers from the red dress that she wears in that scene; I’m that obsessed with it.” — Elliot Joseph Rentz, a.k.a. Alexis Stone, performance artist
Two “close” college students and aesthetes strangle their old classmate hours before a dinner party they’re hosting in their Manhattan penthouse — leaving them with no choice but to set up the buffet atop the antique chest into which they’ve stuffed his body. Will they get away with what they’ve intellectualized as their “perfect murder?” Based on the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton that was itself inspired by the infamous Leopold and Loeb murders, Hitchcock’s version is one of his most grippingly claustrophobic films, with the director using hidden cuts to make it appear to unspool in one thrilling take.
“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988)
Not a dinner gathering in the traditional sense: In the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s breakthrough comedy, a voice actress (Carmen Maura), recently dumped by her lover, whips up a batch of gazpacho and laces it with sleeping pills intended for him. Instead, the soup is consumed by a parade of mostly uninvited guests, including the telephone repairman, the police, and a young Antonio Banderas and Rossy de Palma, leaving them all on the floor. Yet it still feels like a party not to be missed.
BONUS NOMINATION: MUSIC
Guest Pick: “Under the Table” (2020)
“It’s a familiar scene, even from reality TV — someone challenges the values of a fellow dinner guest and causes an altercation. But Fiona Apple’s song recharges this scenario by putting us inside the head of a principled dissenter at a ‘fancy’ party to which a social-climbing companion drags her. We don’t get many specifics, but that’s not the point. It’s a standout anthem on an excellent record [‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’], many of whose songs are about breaking the bonds of self-censorship.” — James Hannaham, writer
Additional reporting by Coco Romack.