Steven Dietz Essay - Critical Essays


Steven Dietz is a versatile playwright who uses an impressive array of subjects and styles and whose plays are seen in theaters across the United States. The language of his plays is direct, the structure is intricate, and the character relationships are honest. He is prolific, establishing a respected body of work rather than producing a single, defining dramatic work. Dietz has said that a driving motivation behind his plays is to get his audience interested in the world. He therefore uses facts liberally in his writing—historical events, family history, and literary allusions. God’s Country, Handing Down the Names, and Ten November are examples of plays based on factual events. Plays that begin with literary epigrams include Private Eyes (a quotation from Anne Sexton), Rocket Man ( Philip Levine), Trust ( Andre Dubus), Halcyon Days (Lance Morrow), and Force of Nature, which is based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities, 1849).

Dietz has also commented that he sees theater as a public forum in which people can gather to consider and discuss things that confront them, including politics and social and humanitarian issues. He uses the U.S. invasion of Grenada as backdrop for Halcyon Days, which includes as characters a broad section of humanity: medical students, senators, shop clerks, and presidential speechwriters. No matter how grim the theme or plot becomes, Dietz regularly intersperses wit, irony, and outright humor into his plays. Lonely Planet, a play about men dying of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), for example, is relieved with light-heartedness and warmth. Especially in the later plays, Dietz often employs direct address of the audience, signifying that he does not wish his readers or viewers to remain passive during and after they experience his work.

Ten November

Dietz wrote this play while living and working in Minneapolis. Most Minnesotans are familiar with the Lake Superior tragedy of the ore freighter that disappeared with all hands on board in a storm on November 11, 1975, an event Gordon Lightfoot memorialized in his ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Commissioned by the Actors Theater of St. Paul to create a theater piece on a topic of his choosing, Dietz collaborated with composer Eric Bain Peltoniemi to focus on this maritime tragedy, gathering extensive historical information about the vessel and studying the Coast Guard report about its sinking.

Dietz’s approach was not an attempt to present individual stories of the twenty-nine men who perished aboard the freighter. Nor did he seek to determine an ultimate cause for the accident or to assign blame. Instead, the play presents his and his collaborator’s response to the event, focusing on “the myth of invincibility in our culture and our attempts to deal with loss.” He begins both acts of the play with epigrams that are lines from the American poet Emily Dickinson, who writes about the universal loss of human love through parting. Dietz dedicates his play to the men of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Using nine actors and three singers, the...

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