American Drama Analysis

Early American Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The beginnings of American drama date back to April 30, 1598, near El Paso, Texas, when a comedy about soldiers on a march, written by a Captain Marcos Farfan de los Godos, was performed. Spanish-speaking areas, for the most part, were more congenial to theatrical entertainments than were those colonized by the English and Dutch.

Among other “firsts” on the American theater scene was a play by Virginia landowner William Darby. His Ye Bare and Ye Cubb (pr. 1665), “the first record of a play in English,” resulted in a lawsuit against the author brought by an Edward Martin. Darby was found not guilty.

The “first play written by a native American to be performed by a professional company,” reports the historian of drama Arthur Hobson Quinn, was performed “on the stage of the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia in 1767.” That play was The Prince of Parthia , a heroic tragedy by Thomas Godfrey . The Southwark Theatre, which replaced an earlier one built outside the limits of Philadelphia (like Shakespeare’s on London’s South Bank) and torn down after protests from religious groups, became the first permanent theater in America.

Written in blank verse and depicting historical events in a foreign country, The Prince of Parthia was influenced by many plays, including William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), Macbeth (pr. c. 1606), Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593), Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600), and Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596) ; Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy (pr. 1610-1611); John Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe (pr. 1675); and Nicholas Rowe’s Tamerlane (pr. 1701), among others. The traditional tragic passions of love, jealousy, loyalty, and revenge motivate the action, involving two brothers, one of whom returns in triumph to Parthia from a military victory, and Evanthe, the maiden for whose hand the two brothers compete. Personal and political passions eventually lead to Evanthe’s suicide by poison, as well as the suicide of Arsaces (the brother whom she loves). Order is restored to the kingdom by Gotarzes, a younger brother, who, like Fortinbras in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is a figure outside the main action of the play. Although lacking in a native subject, the play is significant, as Quinn observes, as “the only play of American origin that was actually performed on a native stage during this period, before the Revolution.” (Having died at an early age, Godfrey himself did not live to see his play performed or published.)

The history of the Southwark Theatre , at which The Prince of Parthia was produced, involves the beginning of the actor-manager tradition in colonial times. A number of...

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The Nineteenth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The second comedy by a native American to be performed on the professional stage was William Dunlap ’s The Father: Or, American Shandyism (pr. 1789), a play influenced by another English work, Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767). The Father also holds the distinction of being the first professionally produced comedy of an American author to be published.

Dunlap, born in New Jersey, was also America’s first major playwright-producer. A man of many interests, he seems to have been the Samuel Johnson of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century American stage. Among his varied publications, the first chronicle of the American stage, A History of American Theatre (1832), stands out. Drama criticism had begun, and Dunlap records the formation of groups that gathered to support and stimulate interest in the theater by reviews in the magazines.

Especially important during the Dunlap era was his long-standing association with August von Kotzebue, a German dramatist whose domestic melodramas were very popular on the American stage. Americans during the early nineteenth century were enjoying the same kind of melodramatic fare that was popular on the English stage.

Two other major figures in nineteenth century stage history merit mention here. James Nelson Barker wrote the first surviving drama about Pocahontas, The Indian Princess: Or, La Belle Sauvage (pr. 1808). Taken from John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), the play used native history. Although remembered primarily for his romantic dramatizations of native subjects, Barker also wrote plays that featured exotic foreign settings. John Howard Payne , author of more than sixty plays, was known for his adaptations of foreign plays. Payne’s exotic, gothic melodramas, such as Ali Pacha: Or, The Signet Ring (pb. 1823), entertained American audiences, as did his domestic melodramas.

Hastily and cleverly written for performances, melodramas—domestic and exotic, drawn from sources as varied as Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Kotzebue, and Guilbert de Pixérécourt—fulfilled the expectations of early...

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Early Twentieth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

At the turn of the twentieth century, theater continued to depend on foreign influences in both style and subject matter, despite efforts to create serious native drama. The much-needed catalyst for change was provided in 1913, with the beginning of Workshop 47 , the famous playwright course at Harvard taught by George Pierce Baker . O’Neill became Baker’s most distinguished student; among the many other enrollees in Baker’s classes, those who were most influential in shaping the course of American drama include Sherwood, S. N. Behrman, George Abbott, Philip Barry, and Sidney Howard. Baker’s influence extended to those involved in the production aspects of the theater and to critics as well, including Heywood Broun, Brooks Atkinson, and John Mason Brown. When Baker moved to Yale, he numbered among his protégés Elia Kazan, important for his work in the Group Theatre and the Actors Studio and for his direction of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Miller’s Death of a Salesman in the late 1940’s. The effect of Baker’s classes was eventually felt not only throughout the United States but also internationally.

At the time that Baker started Workshop 47, William Vaughn Moody, himself a Harvard graduate, had already left his Harvard teaching post to write his own poetic dramas. Others, such as Percy Mackaye, also of Harvard, had formed a band of serious writers who worked for changes in the drama. Yet even as these...

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The 1920’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The decade of the 1920’s proved important to modern American theater. The distinction between the dramatists of the 1920’s and their predecessors was twofold. First, the dramatists of the 1920’s achieved a genuine breakthrough in their freedom to treat every aspect of human reality. Second, they introduced a range of styles and forms that gave the American theater an unprecedented vitality.

Earlier dramatists such as James Herne and William Vaughn Moody, who had attempted to bring change to the worn-out comedies, farces, and melodramas of their time, had succeeded only partially. Herne’s Margaret Fleming and Moody’s The Great Divide, although inching closer to genuine realism in dialogue and plot, were still characterized by emotional excess and by the artificially theatrical big speech. Then, in one decade, the long gestation period of American drama came to an end, its birth characterized by honesty and naturalness in language and plot.

Nowhere is the phenomenon more strikingly illustrated than in three plays that were staged in the fall of 1924: Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings ’s What Price Glory?, Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, and O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. What Price Glory? is a realistic comedy about the futility of war. Stallings had lost a leg in World War I, and Anderson, at the time, was a committed pacifist. Like many writers of the 1920’s, they shunned any romanticism about love and war in their characterizations of the two main characters, Captain Flagg and Sergeant Quirt. Whether fighting each other (over women) or the enemy in trenches, the men experience disillusionment in a fast-moving, hilarious series of events.

In Howard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning They Knew What They Wanted , a folk drama later adapted to the musical stage as The Most Happy Fella (pr. 1956), Tony, an Italian immigrant grape grower, employs deception to win a girl much younger than he, sending her a photograph of his handsome young hired hand instead of one of himself. The trick backfires when Tony’s bride is seduced by the hired hand, by whom she has a son. In the end, Tony overcomes his murderous rage, seeing the girl’s mistake as one of the head, not of the heart.

The third play of this remarkable season, O’Neill ’s Desire Under the Elms , is, like Howard’s, a drama about an older man and a young wife. Here, however, the illegitimate father is the youngest son of the old man, and the setting is a rockbound New England farm. The child is murdered by the mother as a demonstration of her love for its father, and the couple, as the play...

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The 1930’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

If the playwrights of the 1920’s were bold in their treatment of subject matter and dramatic form, those of the 1930’s were more self-confident in their social and political commitment and, in their topicality, perhaps more brave. Their leading voice was Clifford Odets, whose Awake and Sing! (pr. 1935) continues as a stage favorite, despite its label as a period piece. Odets and his contemporaries—William Saroyan, Sherwood, Anderson, and Lillian Hellman—wrote their major dramas during the Great Depression. This was the era of the Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939), which made live theater available to a general public for the first time. As the first government-subsidized theater in the United States, the project...

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The 1940’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

If the 1930’s represent, at least in retrospect, some cohesion in the use of drama as a vehicle for social protest, the 1940’s seem far removed from any such unity. Thus, it is fitting that Wilder ’s The Skin of Our Teeth should be regarded by many critics as the most memorable play of the first half of the decade. An expressionistic, farcical drama of epic events that span human history from the Ice Age to the present, the play proclaims that there is no order, no cause-effect relationship in events, and, consequently, no explanation of the catastrophic events that humankind has survived from earliest times. Therefore, one can learn little or nothing from history. What pleasure or even comfort human beings can hope...

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The 1950’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

During the 1950’s, the old lines between “theater” and “drama” were redrawn, sending the “serious” and new dramatists, producers, directors, and actors scurrying to the small theaters of Off-Broadway and to the even smaller ones of Off-Off-Broadway. The Antoinette Perry Awards (or Tonys, as they came to be known on Broadway) were supplemented by the Off-Broadway selections for best plays and productions (or Obies). Regional theaters and arts complexes sprang up in the major metropolitan areas, Lincoln Center in New York being the most prominent.

The times were troubled by the Washington investigations conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which called various artists in for...

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The 1960’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1950’s were not to close, however, without the emergence of a major new voice on the American stage, that of Edward Albee , whose pessimism about American cultural values seemed an exorcism of the general malaise of the time. Optimism regarding the American Dream, closely scrutinized or questioned in earlier plays and still insisted on by popular audiences, collapses under its own weight in Albee’s early plays. In no other American dramatist and in no other Albee play is this collapse so total as it is in The American Dream. A searing comedy, the play probes the psychological dismemberment of a child by its parents and by the social institutions whose ostensible purpose it is to nurture the young. The play...

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The 1970’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

All three minority movements discussed above (black, gay, female) were part of a larger new wave of American dramatists from which emerged several particularly promising playwrights. In this new wave, two interesting phenomena developed: one involving a popular playwright who wrote steadily for Broadway and for film, Neil Simon , and the other involving a quartet of dramatists who started their careers in small theaters and who have continued to develop steadily: David Rabe, Wilson, Mamet, and Sam Shepard. The last two have demonstrated a uniqueness of style that sets them apart as writers with the potential to join the ranks of O’Neill, Miller, Williams, and Albee.

Simon began his career as a writer for television...

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The 1980’s and 1990’s

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Since Shepard and Mamet, no dramatist has appeared with the innovative impact of either of these two writers. Instead, a number of traditional dramatists who began writing plays in the 1970’s (and even earlier) have made their mark in the Off-Broadway theaters in New York. A. R. Gurney, John Guare, and Romulus Linney, with roots in the academic-literary tradition, have assumed increasing prominence. Incorporating some elements of the prevailing Beckettian or Brechtian theater, each in his unique way has reinvented themes and styles of earlier writers.

An example is Gurney’s The Cocktail Hour (pr. 1988), which not only plays on T. S. Eliot’s themes in The Cocktail Party but also is replete with...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bigsby, Christopher W. Modern American Drama: 1945-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Surveys major figures in latter-twentieth century drama, including Eugene O’Neill, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard.

Bloom, Clive. American Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Explores the coming of age of American drama through chapter essays on prominent playwrights, and a final essay on contemporary feminist theater.

Brietzke, Zander. Aesthetics of Failure: Dynamic Structure in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002....

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