American Theater in the 1960's Analysis

European Influences

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

As the 1960’s dawned, theater companies in Eastern Europe used their stages to comment on political repression. From Czechoslovakia and Poland came the voices of Josef Svoboda, Václav Havel, and Jerzy Grotowski, using theater to question the harsh realities of life and forge new relationships between actor and audience. By ignoring large theaters, these writers and producers were able to create an intimacy that forced the audience to confront the playwright’s challenges. German theater, largely state subsidized, flourished with documentary dramas highlighting political or social atrocities, either past or present. Soul searching about the recent war produced plays questioning Germany’s inhumane role as well as criticizing policies in other countries. Playwrights such as Rolf Hochhuth (The Deputy, 1963) charged that Pope Pius XII had not taken a decisive enough stand against the Nazis, and Heinar Kipphardt (The Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1964) joined Peter Weiss, whose The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (1964, commonly known as Marat/Sade) suggested that the world was, in fact, an asylum. The British theater, unlike that of Eastern Europe, changed from inside its venerable institutions. The Royal Shakespeare Company, filled with young talent (actors Paul Scofield, David Warner, and Judy Dench), expanded into a year-round venue, producing a season of Artaud, among other things. Peter Brook, perhaps the best known of the company’s directors, sought new drama from Europe and, by 1962, had the company performing a translation of German playwright Weiss’s Marat/Sade. Even when directing Shakespeare, Brook looked for new ways of translating the text into performance. His A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970) included trapezes and dance to envelope the audience in his magical world. He searched for ways to make the play relevant to modern audiences. Both of these plays were imported to the New York stage.


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

As the cost of producing plays on Broadway increased, producers sought relatively inexpensive sites for their offerings. They imported successful plays from London or searched for alternate venues in New York. Off-Broadway allowed traditional as well as riskier pieces to gain audiences with less financial outlay on the part of producers, and Joseph Papp’s Public Theater took a leading role. Papp had gained a following for his Shakespeare in the Park series of free summer Shakespeare performances. It was the Public Theater that initially produced Hair, which later was transferred (with some changes) to Broadway. At the same time, the Ford Foundation began funding theaters in U.S. cities outside New York, and local professional theaters proliferated. These theaters produced both proven drama and works by new playwrights. Early favorites in the local theaters were Neil Simon and Edward Albee, who led the country in writing new plays, some of which were first produced Off-Broadway, and many of which had absurdist themes. However, those who wanted an alternative to tradition began creating theaters in smaller sites around New York—Off-Off-Broadway. The La Mama Experimental Theater Club began life in a basement but had its own building by the end of the decade. Café La Mama tried to make the play an integral part of both audience and actor and encouraged new writers and new directors. Tom O’Horgan, one of the leading La Mama directors, featured physical...

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Politics on Stage

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Also reflecting the tenor of the times, African American theater developed a separate voice in the theater. Lorraine Hansberry led the way, gaining mainstream critical acclaim for A Raisin in the Sun (1959), her tragedy involving an African American family. Amiri Baraka, tried to create a movement separate from white theater. By trying to instill racial pride in their audiences, Baraka and the other African American playwrights frequently alienated white audiences. Equally political were the Bread and Puppet Theater and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which used performance as the vehicle to depict political positions. The Vietnam War provided much fodder for the theatrical groups, and they performed outside or anywhere there was space. By 1970, theater seemed to be without boundaries: It eliminated political boundaries when Eastern European works surfaced in London and New York; it transcended social boundaries as nudity appeared on the Broadway stage and the counterculture invaded; and it eliminated physical boundaries as theater no longer needed a stage. The new technology enabled mixed-media productions, and the theatrical world seemed united by the influx of Asian and Eastern European writers, actors, and directors to the Western European countries.


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Although theater has, by and large, returned to its more traditional roots, the experiments of the 1960’s still affect it. Many of the local theater groups thrive, using both traditional proscenium and thrust stages as well as the experimental open performance space, which can be adapted as necessary. Directors and actors use physical activity on stage where before the 1960’s, the acting would have been more sedate. Audiences, too, are not surprised if expected to take an active role in the performance.

Additional Information

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

A closer look at theater in the 1960’s is provided in Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb’s Living Theater: A History (1994), Oscar G. Brockett and Robert R. Findlay’s Century of Innovation (1991), and Oscar G. Brockett’s History of the Theater (1995).