THE family unit has been a source of intrigue for American writers for decades. Playwright Arthur Miller’s nuclear families provided the basis for some of his – and America’s – finest plays, including All My Sons and Death Of A Salesman, both of which possess devastatingly powerful climaxes.

Meanwhile Eugene O’ Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, often called the most accomplished US play ever, revolves around the strained relations between a father and his sons, with the family’s mother battling addiction. It would be fair to say none of these stories have happy endings but they are celebrated for the vivid scenes they create in limited environments; the action in all three occurs in closed, domestic spaces.

Richard Nelson, a Tony Award-winning playwright, follows this formula in his election-based trilogy of plays. Entitled The Gabriels: Election Year In the Life of One Family, Nelson’s work is set on three evenings throughout 2016; first play Hungry on the so-called Super Tuesday date in the primary elections last March, the second What Did You Expect? on a September day with the main election in full swin, and last play Women of a Certain Age on election night itself in November.

As personal and national history, art, money and culture are discussed over dinner in the village of Rhinebeck, New York, Nelson weaves in the election subplot to show how everybody’s life is permeated by politics. As the race is narrowed down to Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, the Gabriels, like every other American family, await the result with bated breath.

Nelson spoke exclusively to The Guide about the play ahead of its run at Brighton Festival in May.

When did the idea for The Gabriels first come about?

I wanted to write about an American family with three plays all around the same national event – the election. Unlike with The Apple Family Plays [the trilogy Nelson brought to Brighton in 2015], which were about people moving to the little village of Rhinebeck and finding a home, this is a family of people who feel pushed out. These people are feeling like they are losing a home.

The play was written in real time. Does the fact that you were reacting immediately to the unfolding election keep the script alive?

Yes, I think so. The goal of the play, in essence, was to try and see the world through these characters’ eyes. I was constantly reading the news and trying to figure out what they might be thinking. I wanted to make it as immediate to the time of the play as possible. The last play is set, and was performed, between five and seven at night which is why the characters never know the result of the election. Each play I would write up to the opening night. They act as three snapshots in a year.

Would it be fair to say the play is more about people and their relationships than the election per se?

It’s not about who is going to win or lose. There are little to no arguments in the play and as a writer I’m not trying to make a point in any way. I just want to show how the familial, the personal, the financial, the artistic and political are all intertwined. The ambition of the play is to present the complexity of people. In each of the plays the characters cook a meal. When you’re cooking, conversations happen in a certain way that is very different to any other time. Human beings are the only animals that cook, therefore cooking is one of the things that makes us human beings. The play is about the complexity of human beings who centre around this fundamentally human activity.

What kind of people are The Gabriels? Where would you place them in the American social scene?

They grew up in this very small village but they are very cultured and play musical instruments. These are educated people who feel the pressure of a world in which they are being forgotten – at least in terms of economics.

The blurb for Women of a Certain Age, the third play, includes the line “the game seems rigged”. Is there a sense of determinism at play?

There is a refrain in the play that is quite significant in that sense; “what about us.” That feeling goes all the way through the play and it suggests a certain futility.

In an interview you said your characters are marked by a certain sense of “exile”. Can you pinpoint where this theme comes from in your work?

I think that’s accurate. It’s that sense of home, whether that’s feeling at home, homeless or in the process of losing a home. That theme is related to that feeling of not quite fitting in or being forgotten or lost. I also think my characters are resilient and there is a strength to them in the face of some serious problems, though.

Why did you take the decision to stop the narrative before Donald Trump was announced as winner?

Well, the play is not about the election in a news-like way. I’m trying to write about how the politics relates to people in both human and complex terms. I think that’s what’s not conveyed often in the news or television. It’s much more about the horse race and who wins and loses. That’s something others do – it’s not what the play is about.

How did you go about merging the personal and the political in a subtle way, without overstating the election narrative?

I think if any of us look at our lives, politics is involved. If there’s any kind of political event it’s going to be talked about by you and your family. It might not come up as the number one thing you have to keep talking about, though – it’s more incidental than that.

What was the audience atmosphere like in the election night performance of Women of a Certain Age?

It was an extraordinary night because the audience had no idea what was happening in the voting while they were watching the play. Everybody lived in that moment, in the present. We left and there was a party with big television screens so we could see the results. Everyone in the audience and those involved with the show were very, very surprised.

In retrospect, people felt that the play provided a kind of calm, a good place to be. Nobody was looking at their phones – the audience gave their attention to the humanity of the family. I think it was quite healthy in that sense.

Who is Richard Nelson?

Profile Nelson was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Viola, a dancer, and Richard Finis Nelson, an accounting-systems analyst. The family relocated frequently when Nelson was a child to accommodate his father’s work but they settled for long periods in Indiana and a suburb of Detroit.

Before he realise he had a passion for plays, Nelson was obsessed with musical theatre; he estimates that he saw 25 musicals before seeing a straight play. He graduated from Hamilton College in 1972 and received an honorary doctor of literature degree from the institution in 2004.

Nelson has worked frequently with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has produced 10 of his plays including Some Americans Abroad (1989), Two Shakespearean Actors (1990) and New England (1994). He won a Tony Award in 2000 for his book for the musical of James Joyce’s The Dead.

In an interview in 2006, during his spell as the chair of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama, he gave budding writers some advice: “I ask my students two questions: why did you write it? And why should I watch it? People ask about structure, form, character development, and I’m not even sure what that means. Try not to second guess yourself. That will come if you focus on what you want to say with truth and honesty.”

From 2010 to 2013, Nelson wrote and directed four plays based around the Apple Family, a fictional household set in Rhinebeck, New York, with each play focused on either an election or a significant historical anniversary.

Reviewing the follow-up to The Apple Family Plays, The Gabriels, The Guardian praised Nelson for “reflecting the anxieties of liberal America”. In its depiction of Americans who feel they are disenfranchised from mainstream politics, the trilogy was called “eerily prophetic” by The New Yorker. Nelson lives in Rhinebeck and has two daughters with his wife Cynthia Blair Bacon.

All three plays in The Gabriels trilogy will be shown on May 20, 21 and 27. Visit for details