Abstract and Keywords
This essay discusses the theme of this volume, which is about the origins of theater in North America and the major developments in American drama during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. This volume focuses on drama before the age of Eugene O’Neill and considers the elements of pre- or proto-realist theater. It explains the reasons for studying drama and highlights the way it is connected to cultural formation in ways that other literary genres are not. This essay also discusses the distinction between theater and drama.
This volume in the Oxford University Press Handbook series is the most comprehensive multiauthored book on American drama currently in print. Representing the work of more than thirty authors, the Oxford Handbook of American Drama contains essay-length chapters organized historically and generically, and it covers the origins of theatre in North America; major dramatic developments in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries; and new work and trends in the twenty-first century. As such, this book can serve in several capacities: as a major source of new perspectives on drama and theatre in colonial North America and the later United States; as a text that can be used as a critical and historical resource in drama classes at many levels; and as a stimulus to further scholarship in the field. Because it is organized in full-length essays rather than brief entries, the Handbook offers the advantage of comprehensive views along with developed examples from hundreds of plays. In its scope and variety of viewpoints, this volume occupies a unique position in the historical and critical literature on American drama.
One feature to be noted is the emphasis on drama before the age of Eugene O’Neill. In many courses on American drama, early plays are often covered hurriedly in order to get into the twentieth century. Although this book has a majority of its chapters devoted to post-1914 drama, it has sixteen chapters that take into account the periods before then. Rather than slight phenomena such as comedies of manners or melodrama, this volume accepts them as important elements of pre- or proto-realist theatre; in other words, rather than taking the rise of Ibsenism as the defining moment in US dramatic history, the Handbook pursues the precursors to O’Neill, Miller, and Williams with equal vigor to their successors, noting the significant cultural space occupied by genres like minstrelsy or reformist drama. Thus, there is an implied historical frame to the book, even if successive chapters overlap or even recur to slightly earlier work than the chapters before. In other words, each essay brings forth its own perspective, while still occupying a historical niche organized roughly as follows: the beginnings to 1860, 1860 to 1910, 1910 to 1945, and 1945 to present. Naturally, some chapters overlap with others regarding (p. 2) playwrights or trends discussed, but for the most part, even essays that cover similar territory most often choose different plays or authors to emphasize.
Why American drama at all? For one thing, drama is tied intimately to cultural formation in ways that other literary genres are not, even in times when drama is scorned. Colonists in Jamestown were told to eschew “the players,” with the implication that theatrical activities in the age of Shakespeare would be distracting or undermine the serious business of forming a colony; by the same token, nonconformist colonials in New England feared the establishment of theatre as undermining their claims to live in a godly commonwealth. The very fact of denial indicates the potential power of drama and theatre as the media of cultural reflection or cultural change. Despite admonitions and prosecutions, however, theatre erupted here and there, even in the seventeenth century in British North America—in Virginia, in Massachusetts, and in Jamaica, for instance—suggesting that a theatrical urge preceded the institutional development of playhouse performance in the English-speaking New World. By 1700, with the growth and stability brought by coastal urban establishment, conditions improved for mounting at least amateur theatricals. A half century later, professional actors arrived from Britain, bringing with them new plays and heightened performance expectations. In another half century, permanent companies had established themselves in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities, encouraging to some degree native authorship among Anglo-Americans, with a significant surge in dramatic writing and publication from 1787 to 1800. Even so, it is only after the end of the eighteenth century that American-authored dramas take on important local features, developing characters such as the Yankee or the urban fireman and creating new forms of theatre such as the minstrel show.
The nineteenth century is the great age of mass theatre. Rapid urban development brought the stage not only to rising cities like Cincinnati and Mobile but also to smaller towns in the west. Playhouses were fitted with new technology to accommodate larger stages and audience spaces as well as new energy sources such as gas lighting in the 1830s and electrical lighting in the 1880s. With each change in audience demographics or playhouse technology and design, concomitant alterations in drama took place, such as the shift from the wide and tall proscenium stages of the 1830s to the box sets of the early 1900s, or the flame-lighted houses early in the century and the darkened houses—made possible by electricity—at the end of the 1800s, which fostered the movement from large-scale melodramas to more intimate plays. But until the 1870s, at any rate, theatres were built to accommodate an audience that spanned the socioeconomic spectrum from servants and slaves in the galleries to artisans and clerks in the pit and middling families and elites in the boxes (with plenty of exceptions and crossovers). Thus, dramas were written to appeal broadly. This did not mean there was no art to such dramas, but it was a different kind of aesthetic and expectation than playhouse patrons demanded in later eras. One of the assumptions of this volume is to accept the taste of the time as constituting a theatre that people wanted to see, even if by our current measures we would prefer to see something of more recent and recognizable vintage.
Clearly, the twentieth century has produced the most innovations in drama, far more than can be covered in detail even in a volume of this sort. Even so, the persistence of (p. 3) older notions of playwriting or the echo of those older types in more recent plays (like the minstrel show in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum ) tells us that contemporary drama is not merely a modern or postmodern development but often depends on a historical understanding of previous theatres and dramatic types. In a sense, every play has multiple histories: its own as a written and acted text, situated in the era of its composition; the previous plays and performances it evokes; and the larger cultural history in which it is embedded. Being able to read through this Handbook enables a reader to make the kinds of connections in which multiple histories are present and inform other histories to which each play is related.
The title of this volume is also crucial: American Drama. Despite the intimate relationship between drama and theatre, they are not the same. This is apparent in this volume, when theatre historians and critics on the one hand, and dramatic literature scholars on the other, tackle a play. Performance conditions and circumstances matter a great deal to some writers, while the text is the thing for others. Even though drama is the operative term, many of the contributors start with the theatre itself. Readers are thus guaranteed to get multiple perspectives on situating a text: Timeless words? Bounded performance? Literary art? Cookie-cutter template? Product of a political movement? In the case of this book, all of the above phenomena and then some provide critical and historical angles by which to evaluate plays. Nevertheless, the larger frame of this volume stresses the text more than performance, although that is complicated by contemporary performance artists who resist the dissociation brought about by severing a text from its enactment.
If anything, the Handbook of American Drama stresses richness and variety over the three centuries discussed between its covers. This can be seen even in the first half dozen chapters, which examine the period up to 1800. Some of the writers, like Odai Johnson and Heather Nathans, have their training in and work for theatre departments; others, like Jason Shaffer and myself, have their training in and work for English departments. But a reading of all together will show the degree to which theatrical and literary methodologies overlap and inform each other. The point is that the contributors to this volume have various backgrounds, including international, and different kinds of expertise; the ideal reader of this volume is someone open to that variety.
For all this volume contains—a glance through the index will show how much is here—it cannot absorb everything. For example, there are two chapters that examine in total the musical theatre from 1866 to the present, but there is not one dedicated to the ballad operas and other forms of singing drama before that. Fortunately, there are wonderful published resources, including Susan Porter’s With an Air Debonair, that cover early musical drama, and some of the chapters mention plays with music, but given the commonplace use of music in antebellum theatres, whether scored for the play being performed or not, the presence of music is something one assumes, even if I regret not having a chapter dedicated to the subject from an early republican and antebellum perspective. By the same token, some major playwrights get less treatment than they probably should, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee being two of them, although neither of the last persons mentioned gets ignored in the critical literature. But such figures as Eugene (p. 4) O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams get significant attention in this volume along with a host of undervalued writers and performance artists. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the essays in the Oxford Handbook of American Drama is the inclusion of discussions about dramatists whose excellent work has been undervalued by the academy.
The volume opens in chapter 1 with a look at the theatre world of pre-Revolutionary British America by theatre historian Odai Johnson. Johnson lays the groundwork for the collection by establishing the critical history of theatre’s formation in the colonies and the significant figures who led to the permanent establishment of the theatre in an environment where opposition to the stage was widespread and powerful. Johnson pays special attention to David Douglass, the first real theatrical entrepreneur and leader of the American Company of Comedians. Douglass developed a successful business by building theatres in several cities, defending the legitimacy of theatre against antitheatrical forces, and guiding a corps of moderately talented actors and scenic artists while making possible the long-term establishment of theatre as an American institution. Johnson brings forward fresh information about this period, providing a distinctive and foundational examination about the beginnings of American dramatic culture.
Jason Shaffer, in chapter 2, takes Revolutionary-era theatre as his purview, examining the several types of dramatic text produced during the period. As he notes immediately, the drama of the Revolution is largely a page rather than a stage art. Politics dominates the drama being produced; Shaffer focuses, for example, on the propaganda plays of Mercy Otis Warren as establishing a Whig voice, while scattered plays by other writers provide a Tory view of the conflict. Among other plays represented is the Tory ballad opera The Blockheads, one of several dramas to use allegorical figures to make its contemporary point. In addition, Shaffer takes note of the collegiate playwriting culture that developed at several institutions, with the emergence after the war of The Contrast, a professionally produced comedy of manners written by a native-born American writer. To be sure, American playwrights were, by economic necessity, amateurs, but finding that on occasion a local writer could have his work staged by a permanent company made possible the slow development of the profession of playwright in the United States.
In chapter 3, I examine the post-Revolutionary fixation on republicanism as the motivating source for dramatic themes by American writers. In a continuation of some of the issues facing patriot writers like Mercy Otis Warren, the postwar dramatists looked to the stage in part as if it were a schoolhouse of republican virtue; therefore, as the essay contends, one finds actual schoolmasters turning to drama (as some had before the war) to inculcate civic virtue as much as to entertain. Playwrights also saw an educational function as part of their justification for becoming dramatists in the first place. The essay examines a variety of play types, but all the ones mentioned develop something of a republican theme, whether wrapped in tragic or comic garb. Preparing the way for much later political drama, as described in some of the essays on twentieth-century and twenty-first-century theatre, the republican political plays of the 1780s to 1820s both verify the establishment of a republic as the chief end of the United States and suggest the differing ways a republic might be enacted and celebrated. (p. 5)
The fourth chapter explores American melodrama with a political twist. Scott Martin investigates the plays commissioned by Edwin Forrest, as well as other contemporary dramas, in the terms of nineteenth-century topical issues and political movements. Beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville and his commentary on Americans and the theatre (which Martin challenges), Martin notes both the democratizing impulses of the stage and the love for Shakespearean-type vehicles that jointly animated US theatre; plays like Metamora or The Gladiator, two of Forrest’s most successful prize dramas, while set in the past, had the means to provoke passions over modern events, including slavery and Indian removal. Of course, melodrama, a mode of theatrical presentation that deliberately employs an artificial style of emotive presentation for the purpose of evoking feeling, is everywhere on the antebellum stage, but as a system of histrionic representation, it is more complex than simply Pearl Pureheart fends off Snidely Whiplash. Martin’s chapter suggests some of that complexity, particularly in the political arena.
Certainly, one of the topics discussed by Sarah Meer in chapter 5, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, proved to be the most successful of all melodramatic plays of the nineteenth-century stage. Meer’s essay, however, links the Uncle Tom material to minstrelsy, a distinctly nonmelodramatic mode that runs on parody and satire for its fuel. Meer argues that blackface entertainment has a multiple history; in other words, the fact of a blackened face onstage did not, especially in the minds of those who created entertainment out of blackface, immediately constitute a commentary on race. Meer speaks of the “obliviousness” of such early minstrel plays as William Leman Rede’s Life in America (1836) to race as a political issue. Nevertheless, race is a component and no more so than in the stage versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe herself seems to have adopted minstrel techniques in the novel, which were then easily turned into minstrel-type scenes and dialogue. The complex intertextuality of these versions along with minstrel plays shows that a cultural analysis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin has vastly more lines of influence than a simple context of antislavery can hold.
If blackface theatre is a dominant form in antebellum stage life, it is also only one of many ethnic-inflected theatres in the nineteenth century. Heather Nathans, in chapter 6, explores the “crazy-quilt of ethnic types” that defined the American stage. Plays with Native American, Irish, and Jewish characters proliferated between the Revolution and the Civil War (many of them also coming as imports from Britain) and they launched more homegrown ethnic plots and motifs. Yankees, Germans, Dutch, and French characters also emerged during this period and, in the hands of American playwrights, took on distinctly local coloring. As Nathans explains, the “cultural palimpsest” of ethnic variety engages both with individual ethnic groups and the broader issue of national cohesion. In short, she shows how much American drama is indebted to ethnically defined characters, white or black or other, for its Americanness.
Along with ethnicity as a defining marker of character, sex and gender also serve to demarcate the drama. As Amelia Kritzer notes in chapter 7, the presence of a growing corps of female playwrights, though hardly a majority, allowed women to define female stage characters, rather than simply receive them as a fixity from male authors. Kritzer provides a fairly comprehensive accounting of the women who wrote for the stage (p. 6) during the antebellum decades, from well-known figures such as Anna Cora Mowatt to lesser-known writers such as Elizabeth Crocker Bowers. While female dramatists chose a broad variety of themes and settings for their plays, they tended to avoid politics except by implication of the cultural and social situation of women themselves. One persistent motif is the “powerless” woman, Kritzer argues, a figure who emerges in the failure of 1790s feminism to take hold in American society. Love stories, then, become fraught with peril because of the power wielded by men in the marriage market; even in plays with marriages, women are exposed to dangers nonetheless, even when their spouses are virtuous. Kritzer provides a freshly conceived framework by which to adjudge the achievement of female dramatists in the antebellum period.
If the general tenor of plays by women about women emphasizes a lack of power, the countervailing force, drama as a vehicle of social reform, also pertains in the nineteenth century. As Mark Mullen explores in the eighth chapter, certain plays or play types used melodrama as a mode of reformist presentation to encourage audience identification with a number of issues, notably abolition (covered in chapter 5) and temperance, discussed in this essay. For Mullen, reformist melodrama, notably temperance plays like The Drunkard, “articulate a discourse of masculine self-empowerment,” a clear contrast to what passes as feminist drama during the antebellum period. The key is seeing the drama as drama with its own peculiar traditions, not simply as an extension of reform, even if reform is a significant influence. In temperance plays, for example, one finds both reform language to quit drinking and a more common dramatic theme of the establishment of virtue in men. Mullen challenges us to consider the investment of corporate interests in nineteenth-century theatre and the place of reform within a socially acceptable middling morality.
Reform drama often plays out in urban contexts. Rosemarie Bank, in chapter 9, investigates the scenic poles of city and frontier as sites for theatre. The frontier served as a markedly American location, particularly when peopled by Native characters or dialect-spouting frontiersmen, but it also served as a register of modern concerns, notably Indian removal and white expansionism. Urban plays direct their attention, says Bank, to such matters as poverty, the seductive dimension of city life, and the threats to middling (as in rural) morality brought about by exposure of new residents to urban corruption. However, the city is not uniformly presented as bad; while the Tiffany family in Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion flees the city at the end, the greenhorn in Benjamin Baker’s A Glance at New York, while frequently hustled by lower-class slum dwellers, also learns to appreciate city life through the figure of Mose the fireman. Both scenic types, then, in Bank’s view, contribute to a growing American sensibility that distinguishes US plays from European.
Following the Civil War, theatre underwent some profound changes slowly at first, then with increasing speed as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Pseudo-Shakespearean tragedies such as George H. Boker’s Francesca da Rimini (1855) gave way to a number of popular styles. Playhouses, which had grown in size during the antebellum period, now found that the mass audiences prior to 1860 or 1870 began to move to smaller, more specialized theatres, meeting the entertainment needs of (p. 7) differing groups: variety shows and burlesque for working-class audiences, on the one hand, and dramas and comedies aimed at the lives of the bourgeoisie on the other. At the same time, the mechanics of theatre were also changing; gas lighting, the standard after the 1830s, gave way at century’s end to electric lights, at least in the larger cities, thereby making possible the darkening of the house in ways that increasingly isolated patrons from each other. A play like The Contrast captures the life in the boxes and pit, where everyone can see each other, converse, and carry on social practices while the play is playing, a life that over time gave way to darkness and solitude. Thus by 1910, the end point for several of the chapters in this section, theatre was poised to make its next big move, to the small playhouse and the experimental play, which launched what many consider the modern era in American drama.
Mark Hodin describes the development and changes that happen to melodrama as one century gives way to the next. Hodin, in chapter 10, interrogates the dominant narrative about melodrama that realism, a superior type, replaced melodrama in the creation of modern drama. Using a number of fin de siècle commentators as a vantage point, he shows how the difference between realism and melodrama can be as much tone as anything else or perhaps just attention to detail. In other words, it is not melodrama per se that is the source of scorn for an emotive theatre but the writing to formula for the playhouses aimed at working-class audiences. A writer like William Gillette, in this view, offers a “theatrical” presentation of middle-class life; that is, the melodrama infuses what looks like realism: “the cool manners of charismatic characters,” as Hodin puts it. This chapter forces reconsideration of what melodrama means in an age that ostensibly rejects it but finds it of continuing use, even—or especially—in the hands of Eugene O’Neill.
Nevertheless, the persistence of melodrama could not stop a new realism from taking shape during the change of centuries. Mark Fearnow uses chapter 11 to examine what passed as realism before the “golden age” of 1920–1970 and the slowness with which American playwrights adopted the changes fostered by Ibsen and others. Citing William Dean Howells as an early exponent of realism in his fiction, Fearnow explains how in his dramas he backed away from a full-blown Ibsenism for comic portrayals in short plays. When a play modeled after Ibsen did emerge from an American pen, James Herne’s Margaret Fleming, it failed to secure production outside its small, private stagings, despite Howells’s support. Still, its writing and production remain signal events in American dramatic history, as Fearnow describes in some detail, and Herne’s essay, “Art for Truth’s Sake,” emerges as a classic statement of a new dramatic aesthetic. Despite this promising beginning, relatively few realists emerge before 1920. Those who do—Clyde Fitch in The City, Edward Sheldon in Salvation Nell, and Rachel Crothers in A Man’s World—keep alive the playwright’s wish to describe life as lived rather than as desired. In short, this chapter makes the case that realist plays before O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon present matter still worthy of investigation.
The rise of realism, strangely enough, coincides with the development of musical theatre. As Thomas Hischak demonstrates in chapter 12, the first “modern” style musical is probably The Black Crook, a post–Civil War extravaganza that proved popular with (p. 8) audiences, setting in motion a craving for plays with (at least partially) linked music and song. However, the fully integrated musical did not arise until sometime later, setting in motion a period frequently referred to as the “golden age” of musical drama. While most theatregoers are familiar with Oklahoma!, Hischak provides names of dozens of musicals of various types, offering a comprehensive look at the emergence of the musical and its growth to the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard still recognizable to audiences in the twenty-first century. And although the musical is rarely considered to be “realistic” like Ibsen’s work, Hischak notes that the musicals at the end of the period (1945) are not froth but engage in an integrated fashion with something approximating real life.
Katherine Kelly in chapter 13 examines the transatlantic nature of the New Woman drama that emerged at the end and beginning of two centuries. Her primary American exemplar is Rachel Crothers, whose dramas about independent-minded women, including He and She and A Man’s World, created new models for the portrayal of female characters. This is not to say that the dramas were radical portrayals, but they did amount to a significant departure from the beleaguered and often passive heroines of earlier epochs.
The New Woman arose a generation before the New Negro, but that did not mean that there was not something new about African American drama in the nineteenth century. We know, for example, that African Americans had formed theatre companies as early as 1801, twenty years before the well-known African Theatre of New York, but there is no evidence of black playwriting prior to 1822 (although it is likely there were original contributions, even if they cannot be documented now). For Marvin McAllister in chapter 14, a few key documents and historical moments that can be substantiated suggest the active theatrical self-definition of black writers and performers during the era of slavery and emancipation. Examining four key performing moments, McAllister charts a liberatory impulse among persons of color in creating distinctive drama and theatre. From William Brown’s groundbreaking play (not extant) The Drama of King Shotaway in the 1820s, to William Wells Brown’s The Escape (the first published play by an African American), to the post–Civil War minstrel-inflected dramas Out of Bondage (featuring the African American actresses the Hyers sisters) and Peculiar Sam (written by the black author Pauline Hopkins), African Americans sought to adapt Anglo-American forms to their own “peculiar” situation. Beginning and ending with Shotaway, McAllister demonstrates the likely politics behind early efforts at a black theatre and the resistance to adopting minstrelsy as a mere imitation of white practice.
The year 1915 brought war to the headlines and drama to the docks, with both merging in the work of the Provincetown Players, a pioneering group that helped launch the “little theatre” and experimental theatre movements in the United States. In chapter 15 Brenda Murphy chronicles the extraordinary output of the Players who, in the space of eight years, produced nearly one hundred original works that engaged with the newest aesthetic trends, notably realism and modernism. Although the identification of Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell with the group is well known, especially through such plays as Glaspell’s Trifles and O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, Murphy notes that another forty-five writers contributed plays of varying kinds to the enterprise. A notable trend among (p. 9) many plays was the importance of feminism. Female writers, actors, and technicians constituted a significant minority of those involved, and the group was able to stage such feminist-influenced works as Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo and Glaspell’s The Verge. As Murphy makes clear, the Provincetown Players did more than grease the skids for O’Neill’s later, commercially successful career; their daring, even their dramaturgical failures, opened possibilities for the American stage (including for women, socialists, and African Americans) that had not been imagined a decade before.
Emerging from the Provincetown period, one playwright from the group continued to gain critical and commercial success: Eugene O’Neill. Steven Bloom in chapter 16 provides a summary view of the Nobel Prize winner’s career, taking readers from the playwright’s early career as a maker of one-act naturalistic melodramas, to his major experimental phase in the 1920s and critical acclaim, to his last plays, now considered to be his greatest achievements. Of course, the actual trajectory of his career was hardly as smooth as that outline suggests; O’Neill struggled with alcoholism into the 1920s, spent time in psychoanalysis, married and divorced several times, was estranged from his children, got into near fisticuffs with actors playing parts in his plays, and suffered from a debilitating illness in his last dozen years. But Bloom allows us to measure the lifetime accomplishment of a writer who perhaps more than any other single author changed the shape of American drama toward the kind of realism that Ibsen was once scorned for. In Bloom’s view, O’Neill’s dramas reach for a nobility of being, even amidst the drunken losers of The Iceman Cometh or the sad Jim Tyrone and Josie Hogan in Moon for the Misbegotten. In essence, O’Neill’s experimental dramas made way for a playwright able to overcome the limitations of the experimental label through postmortem critical success.
O’Neill also participated in two literary trends of the early twentieth century, naturalism and expressionism, that often get short shrift in studies on American drama. But as Julia Walker makes clear in chapter 17, both movements appeared in the work of other playwrights whose work defies the rising standard of realism. Naturalism, she argues, has often been seen as a debased or lesser form of realism, something writers exercise in their apprenticeship but give up once they become mature playwrights. But by looking at some oft-ignored plays, including several by Theodore Dreiser, Walker demonstrates that whether or not influenced by German expressionists, for instance, American playwrights developed an interest in the working-class characters of naturalism and the symbolic psychology of expressionism in aesthetics that rejected the recognizable living-room scope of realism. By establishing the historical-cultural context of early twentieth-century dramatic authorship, Walker forces readers to reconsider these movements as integral to theatre of the period and not merely outliers to the O’Neill-to-Miller-to-Williams trajectory of American drama.
Perhaps one of the results of formal experimentation was the development of a rich, varied, and sometimes challenging political drama between the wars. In other words, playwrights from the 1910s onward and particularly in the 1930s availed themselves of differing modes and appeals in their plays, from the fantastic to the gritty realistic. Christopher Herr, in his essay, traces the diversity of styles used and attitudes taken by (p. 10) politically influenced dramas from the ones that supported capitalism in the 1920s to the increasingly oppositional leftist dramas of the 1930s to the pro-war (or antifascist) plays of the 1940s. As Herr makes clear, “political drama” is itself a contentious term: how much political content does it take to make a play political? One of the strengths of this essay is its willingness to consider shades and to provide guidelines. For example, Herr notes that O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape has a scene at a radical labor office and a socialist character who spouts slogans, but he explains that the play is not ultimately political in its way of reading the protagonist, Yank. On the other hand, Herr demonstrates that much of the overtly political writing produced dramatically demanding work; he brings forward key writers like John Howard Lawson, both a practitioner of leftist politics himself but also someone interested in form and craft. For this period, “political” is not necessarily a delimiting or pejorative term; instead it is one that indicates how much politics and its expression were embedded in the culture of the period.
Coincidental with the period of political drama, the Federal Theatre Project provided writers and actors opportunities to continue working during the Depression. Often accused by its enemies of being no better than political agitation, the FTP, as Barry Witham explains in chapter 19, offered a variety of plays and performances, some with a political edge, some not, but in the end, the charges by conservatives that the FTP was a staging ground for Communist propaganda led to its demise after only four years of operation. Nevertheless, a number of plays that emerged from the contentious project struggles did show an experimental and political edge. Witham focuses on a few key plays such as Lashin and Hastings Class of 29 and Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog, the latter of which played in Chicago (also the setting of the play). Ward’s work was seen by small audiences but artistically it is probably one of the finest dramas to emerge from the FTP. Although many FTP productions were never seen again after their original staging, Ward’s drama and Theodore Browne’s Natural Man, first produced by the Seattle Negro unit, both experienced revivals after the FTP had been closed down. With its Living Newspapers and other shows often drawing large crowds, the FTP exerted in its time a distinct influence over the concept of drama in America, bringing audiences to playhouses and warehouses that might never have seen a play outside of high school before. In that sense, it did serve as a “people’s theatre,” despite the FTP’s short life span.
Indeed, FTP productions can be considered as an extension of the efforts in the early 1900s to create a more broad-ranging dramatic art for African Americans, one that expanded the options available to actors, writers, and technicians of color. In chapter 20, Kathy Perkins traces the efforts of a number of people, notably African American women, to establish new voices in the American theatre. Perkins notes signal moments in theatre during this period, not only the FTP Negro Unit productions but also the staging of the groundbreaking Rachel by Angelina Grimké, the development of the Little Negro Theatre movement, and the establishment of African American acting troupes such as the Lafayette Players and the American Negro Theatre. Although many African Americans found opportunities to perform outside the usual song-and-dance venues, those same professionally motivated theatre people struggled in a segregated climate to (p. 11) make ends meet. The FTP provided temporary relief for some, but many aspiring actors and others staged their plays at historically black colleges and universities. Writers such as Mary Burrill, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston emerged out of these efforts between the wars, even if they found their work rejected by the FTP and other venues. As Perkins remarks, African American dramatists and theatre workers had to learn to rely on themselves rather than the largely segregated white theatre for opportunities to pursue their craft.
In chapter 21, Jeffrey Mason opens the section on post–World War II drama with a chapter on Arthur Miller as a transitional figure in politically-edged drama. Mason takes note of Miller’s apprenticeship in the 1930s, a period of intense leftist political activism spurred by the conditions that caused the Great Depression. As an occasional worker for the Federal Theatre Project and as someone who came of age during the development of radical plays such as Waiting for Lefty, Miller had, by 1947, a long view of how drama might treat the worker beyond Odets’s “Strike!” In fact, Mason argues that labor issues were no longer current when Miller wrote his labor-oriented plays; after all, the playwright was caught up in the threats to free speech by the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. The Crucible is not the only play to be influenced by a witch-hunt, but by literalizing the metaphoric one of the 1940s and 1950s, Miller weaves in his own experience as a man under suspicion into the political history of the country itself.
By contrast, the Tennessee Williams of the same period had other priorities than naked politics, although Williams could not ignore the politics of repression fostered by the Cold War and other factors. Following Mason on Miller, Stephen Bottoms argues that the aesthetics of Williams’s negotiations between his own instincts and the demands of a commercial theatre not only produced a distinctive style but also anticipated, even fostered, the new experimentalism that arose in the 1950s and 1960s. In chapter 22, Bottoms devotes much of the early part of his essay to the character Alma of Summer and Smoke, a play that, compared to Williams’s two earlier successes, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, was a box-office failure. If Alma’s sexuality was too much for tender critics in 1948, her return to the stage in a 1952 revival at an Off-Broadway theatre set in motion a reevaluation of the play and the making of Summer’s reputation as one of Williams’s best dramas. Other Off and Off-Off productions of Williams one-acts followed, providing energy to a less commercial, more daring drama than the playwright could risk on Broadway boards. Yet at the same time, Bottoms explains, a play like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which raises homosexuality directly as a theme, does not commit itself to an overt reading of Brick’s sexuality or Maggie’s materialism. Thus a hundred years and more after the tiptoe erotics of plays like The Drunkard or The Octoroon, Williams, for all his daring, still cannot escape the straitjacket demands of the commercial stage.
Yet by the 1960s, all the limitations on theatre were crumbling in the face of more widespread experimentation and an increase in the number of directors and playhouse managers willing to take risks with language and subject matter, especially the sexuality Williams struggled so hard to express. As Theodore Shank demonstrates in chapter 23, experimentation in the theatre is not merely words but also images and performance; (p. 12) for Shank, experimental means experiential, a theatre that resists conforming to pre-set templates. From such seminal groups as the Living Theatre and the performance artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s, experimental drama took on a variety of shapes and colors to the point that now experimentation is seen as more like the norm of an expressive theatre rather than Broadway. With the “post-porn” satires of the performance artist Annie Sprinkle or the mutilations of Ron Athey or the immigrant theatre of Guillermo Gòmez-Peña, experimentation expresses the broadest possible range of human experience; in other words, it is no longer a contained, white, middle-class institution but a stage full of challenges to every standard held dear by the very group most likely to attend a Broadway show.
In some ways, every play by a black author has something experimental about it. What is the form, the mode, the voice that should be used? In the twenty-first century, there is no easy answer to that question, except to note the diversity within African American writing and the richness of language, theme, and image presented in performances instigated by the texts of black writers. For Harry Elam, Jr., in chapter 24, however, one motif does stand out that marks the post–World War II African American drama: the family. Family dramas had appeared in the early part of the century as well: Angelina Grimké’s antilynching play, Rachel (1916), or Theodore Ward’s Big White Fog (1938), for instance, or such postwar dramas as A Medal for Willie or Take a Giant Step. With Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun (1959), however, says Elam, “the representation of the black family as a locus for racial discourse reached a watershed moment.” Elam discusses the “legacy” of the Younger family’s life insurance money, and legacy can be said to be a part of the family dramas of the period, certainly in material evidence in August Wilson’s later The Piano Lesson or in the experimental family plays by Suzan-Lori Parks. But the strength of African American drama can be found in its self-satire, as in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, or in its fronting the history of black people in America, as in works by Parks, Wilson, Baraka, and others. Elam takes readers to 2010, to the emergence of “postblack” theatre and Parks’s Book of Grace. As he makes clear, African American drama is an ever-expanding, dynamic art that at once pushes black-authored plays to new arenas of expression while at the same time providing echoes of plays and experience past.
Something of the same thing might be said of musical theatre, although the general reaction to post–“golden age” productions is one of melancholy over the alleged decline in quality from the heyday of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Michelle Dvoskin resists the golden age trope, however, by way of providing an opening to consider other kinds of musicals to the integrated or book type. Her essay in chapter 25 examines the critical response to the postwar musical, noting not only the persistence of the book musical standard but also the biases against the use of popular culture as a basis for a contemporary production. Part of the problem has to do with the importance of Broadway to the continuation of the musical; as both the location of the only large group of theatres still willing to mount musicals (with their high ticket prices) and a concept, Broadway looms large over thinking about such plays. But as Dvoskin explains, there is kind of a catch-22 involved: musicals are too popular, and therefore not art, or not popular enough, and (p. 13) therefore elitist. Maybe a question to ask is why musicals are subjected to this kind of critique perhaps more than other forms of theatre. At any rate, Dvoskin asks us to think about the place of musical theatre not simply as a past event but also as a present and evolving phenomenon.
The Broadway musical is rarely identified as a protest medium, but in postwar theatre, theatrical protest proliferated in a variety of non-Broadway venues, including farmers’ fields and small stages in many locations. S. E. Wilmer’s essay in chapter 26 details the many protest movements and theatre types that emerged particularly after 1960, many stimulated by the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and other political protest organizations. Wilmer provides glimpses into the varying techniques and often outrageous performance practices of protest theatre groups, even to the use of genitals as dramaturgical media. From such groups as Black Liberation theatre, El Teatro Campesino, Split Britches, and the Living Theatre, as well as from a host of individual performance artists, often incendiary shows developed, putting the lie to the traditional role of the theatre as affirming dominant cultural values. Companies protested the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts, while more established forms of protest—Marxist or anticapitalist, for example—found renewed energies in post-1960 social rebellions. Ethnic protest (African American and Native American in particular), challenges to heteronormative sexuality, and mock affirmation are all part of the protest theatre scene. Although theatre, even in its conservative forms, has always served a protest function, Wilmer demonstrates the degree to which protest in the last fifty years particularly has burst the boundaries of orthodox theatre practice in the United States.
One type of protest theatre that has had broad-ranging implications is feminist theatre, a theatre too complex to be limited by the word “protest.” In chapter 27 Dorothy Chansky addresses the panoply of feminist drama, from the “liberal” feminist drama of Wendy Wasserstein to the radical feminism of the critic and theorist Jill Dolan, and everything in between. Chansky notes, for example, the various waves of feminism and the spread of feminist thought and principles into all aspects of theatre, but at the same time, she discusses how success breeds self-critique, with feminists questioning aspects of other feminists’ practice. Still, feminism continues to exert pressure not only on repertoire but also on performance; for many feminist theatre workers, as Chansky describes, the goal of parity in positions of authority and throughout the theatre world remains a yet unreached goal. One of the pleasures of this essay is finding so many people linked under the feminist label: Marsha Norman, Muriel Miguel, and Suzan-Lori Parks are three very different but important voices in the feminist drama world. If protest is an instigating force behind feminist theatre, then the richness and diversity of plays within that label show that it continues to provoke new and intriguing work.
In the way that feminism’s main thrust is to provide new definitions for women, technology is daily extending new and often disturbing ways of being human. Although scholars may think of the 2000s as the age of technology, Roger Bechtel in chapter 28 reminds us that issues surrounding technology have been present in drama since the beginning of the twentieth century. Whether it is the phones on stage that appear from the 1890s onward or the other devices in such technology-aware dramas from the 1920s (p. 14) as Machinal and The Adding Machine, drama and machinery have been intimately linked. Bechtel demonstrates that even a gauzy drama like The Glass Menagerie has its vision of technology in the rival devices of the Victrola of Amanda and the television of Jim. Later plays complicate the technological, as with David Mamet’s The Water Engine or Arthur Kopit’s The End of the World, showing how the destruction of the planet or threats to traditional understandings of being human are linked to our endless tinkering and mechanical invention. Bechtel closes with two plays by John Jesurun, including one that brings us into the Internet age. As he asks about Jesurun’s Firefall, “how do we write our social narrative in an age that has lost its belief in belief and shifted instead to technology?” This is a question Bechtel poses amidst a play filled with computer projections, as if to say we cannot even ask without technology entering at some fundamental level.
Technology and politics are dominant sources of themes in contemporary drama; so is sexuality. Jordan Schildcrout surveys the ways in which playwrights have left the closet and brought gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered characters into mainstream theatre. Chapter 29 notes early attempts to represent queer experience on stage, notably the efforts of Tennessee Williams to raise homosexual situations without depicting gay characters directly.
With the Stonewall riots of 1969, a new consciousness of radical activism led to the rapid increase in the portrayal of LGBT characters onstage (instead of, as with Skipper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, always off), both as radical protest against the straitjacket of heterosexual normality and as a strategy of familiarizing Americans with the ordinary lives of people across the sexuality spectrum. Schildcrout brings forward many examples, including such (now) classics as Angels in America or Torch Song Trilogy but also more recent evolutions of LGBT-themed dramas. His point is that the panoply of sexual experience is ripe for dramatic representation, bringing new voices and situations under the gaze of American spectators.
Stephen Watt’s reflections in chapter 30 demonstrate the complex nature of theatre when it engages the political, where questions of form play as much a part in conceiving politics as the topical matter alluded to by such plays. Using an attack on political theatre in the New York Times by Christopher Hart, Watt examines key theorists and dramatic texts for the substance that Hart claims does not exist in such plays as Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. In dramas like the “Vietnam Trilogy” by David Rabe or Megan Terry’s Viet Rock, dramatists abandon the traditional bourgeois play format to capture differing reactions to the war experience. Black revolutionary and Chicano activist writers also create a new political theatre colored by ethnic strivings. Watt discusses many plays not otherwise engaged with in other chapters, including ones by Sam Shepard and Arthur Miller, expanding our understanding of “political theatre” as something more challenging than agitprop partisanship. He concludes with Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, showing the continued vibrancy of political theatre when directed at such places of conflict as central Africa and putting the lie to Hart’s critique.
Of course, we should remind ourselves that there is no pure “politics”; rather the political is interwoven with special interests of all sorts. To be ethnic, for instance, is to be political, if the ethnicity claimed is not already established within the acceptable space (p. 15) of mainstream culture. Jon Rossini’s essay establishes some of the directions one might take in evaluating the recent performances of racialized ethnic identities in American drama. Rather than cover all ethnic groups—there is, after all, not much of a theatre for, say, Welsh Americans—Rossini isolates such unassimilated ethnic identities as Puerto Rican, Mexican, Asian (mostly Japanese and Chinese), and Native American, and he explores the theatres to emerge from them in the last four decades. From such foundational theatrical groups as East West Players and Native American Theater Ensemble, dramatic texts and performances have emerged to tell stories not fully rendered in white-controlled theatres. These are not merely local color expressions but products of an overt rejection of assimilationism and declarations of the need for “potential social liberation.” Ethnicity, like so many other topics covered in this volume, is one more deliciously complicating factor in sorting out the direction of “American” drama.
In the final chapter, Marc Robinson traces how far the familiar narrative structures of American drama have traveled in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From O’Neill, Stein, and Albee, to works presented by contemporary performance troupes such as New York’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma and Elevator Repair Service, Robinson examines the impulse to experiment with storytelling—to disrupt and reconfigure linear narratives into forms simultaneously more disorienting and more comforting to modern audiences. As Robinson notes, “Narrative…is never neutral.”
In the end, there is no one American drama but many. Past and present are fluid; old styles mix with new cultural conditions. This volume makes possible a consideration of many of those dramas that in turn will serve as inspiration to seek out others. Even as American drama is in some ways a self-negating system, overturning itself many times over, it creates tradition out of its impossible diversity.