Overview (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Until the post-World War I era, American drama, confronted with religious hostility and then by economic necessity and academic indifference, struggled to come into its own as a respected literary genre at home and as a force that made itself felt on foreign stages. A commonplace of American literary history is that the plays of Eugene O’Neill, in Walter J. Meserve’s words, marked “America’s full-scale arrival into the modern drama of western civilization.”
In an article in a 1907 issue of Atlantic Monthly, John Corbin quoted Edmund Stedman, who proclaimed a literary declaration of independence for American drama: “Quote boldly, then, I prophesy the dawn of the American drama; and quite confidently, too, for the drama has already dawned.” Decrying the exhaustion of the European-influenced melodrama, Corbin applauded dramas by William Vaughn Moody and Percy MacKaye as plays “which challenge comparison with the best work of the modern stage in any country.” Moody’s The Great Divide (pr. 1906) and MacKaye’s Jeanne d’Arc (pr. 1906) are hardly plays for which modern historians and critics would claim such eminence, but Corbin expressed an optimism about American drama that would become a reality in the post-World War I era in the dramas of O’Neill.
Kenneth Macgowan claims, in his introduction to Famous American Plays of the 1920’s (1959), that the book might have been titled “The American Drama Comes of Age.” When American drama finally came into its own, each decade thereafter left its unique mark on stage history. In the 1920’s, Eugene O’Neill ’s stylistic experiments initiated a period of explosive growth and rich variety. In the 1930’s, the social protest dramas of Clifford Odets and his contemporaries dramatized the personal conflicts of individuals and families at odds with themselves and with the conditions in the country. In the 1940’s, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller emerged at the forefront of post-World War II writers concerned with psychological and moral dilemmas of individuals in a society readjusting to a peacetime economy and Cold War diplomacy. Their mood continued into the 1950’s in the Beckettian plays of Edward Albee , with his bleak vision of American culture and its alienated or dismembered characters. Albee, Miller, and Williams continued into the following decades, while social-protest dramatists flourished in Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theaters such as the Open Theatre, the Living Theatre, Café La Mama, the American Place Theatre, and the Public Theatre. Although the latter decades of the twentieth century witnessed some gains in minority theater by gay, feminist, and black dramatists, it was Sam Shepard , with his expressionistic utilization of the cowboy myth, and David Mamet , described by Ruby Cohn as the writer with “the most concentrated American stage speech since Edward Albee,” who captured critical attention as playwrights with the potential to join the ranks of O’Neill, Williams, Miller, and Albee.
A latecomer to literary history, American drama had its beginnings in the two preceding centuries, during which it slowly developed from plays modeled on foreign subjects and on the prevailing English and European styles of sentimental comedy and tragedy to those derived from native experience and characterized by a realism and literary quality that gained respectability domestically and internationally.
There was strong hostility from religious groups in colonial times, a carryover from the Puritan closing of the English theaters from 1642 to 1660. Except for the Southern states, where Episcopalians settled, the theater was considered frivolous. Puritan New England, Huguenot New York, and Quaker Philadelphia, where the American drama eventually took root, rallied against the theater. Their religious opposition was strengthened by the country’s preoccupation with the Revolutionary War. The high value placed on the thrifty use of time and money further consolidated opposition to such “trivial” pursuits as the theater. Yet even in earliest times, formal functions such as commencements featured...
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