Contemporary American Drama Analysis

Resonant American Voices

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

First produced in 1946, the revival of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was one of the most sought-after tickets of the 1998-1999 Broadway season, and that same season, the revival of Arthur Miller’s 1948 classic Death of a Salesman earned a Tony Award for Brian Dennehy for his portrayal of the beleaguered title character Willy Loman and a Tony nomination for Kevin Anderson for his portrayal of Willy’s eldest son Biff.

New works by such long-declared masters of American theater as Miller, Williams, and Foote were also being performed. To commemorate his 1944 Broadway debut, Miller opened a new play, Last Yankee (pr. 1993), doing so nearly fifty years after the day of his first Broadway production, The Man Who Had All the Luck (pr. 1944). Not surprisingly, that play was revived in 2002.

The master of the southern gothic genre, Williams proved that a great playwright’s work quite literally survives its author when Williams’s Not About Nightingales (wr. 1939) was given its Broadway premier in 1998, fifteen years after Williams’s death. Fellow southerner Foote also had new work mounted on the American stage during this period, including The Carpetbagger’s Children pr. 2001), and he was richly rewarded when he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his The Young Man from Atlanta (pr. 1995). For nearly half a century, Foote’s writing had explored family life and its assorted dynamics, reminding his audiences that the middle-class nuclear family is—at once—the strongest and weakest of our social constructs.

This focus on family life also proved to be an ongoing concern of Sam Shepard extended the familial theme of True West (pr. 1980) and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child (pr. 1978) with yet another play set in the Southwestern desert, The Late Henry Moss (pr. 2000), a play distinctive for giving the missing father figure of Shepard’s earlier works a presence on the stage, as two brothers tried to lay to...

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Homosexuality and AIDS

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes first produced in 1991 in San Francisco, was a seven-hour play so epic in vision and so operatic in production that it had to be mounted over a pair of theatrical seasons. It came to Broadway in two lengthy installments, with Part One: Millennium Approaches brought to the stage in 1992-1993 by director George C. Wolfe, and Part Two: Perestroika staged the following season. Each play garnered a Tony Award for Best Play, in 1993 and 1994 respectively. So successful were Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America plays that Angels in America has become the signature treatment of what it means to be gay in the United States.

This is understandable, given its scope and execution. However, Angels in America was hardly alone in dealing with gay and lesbian life in the 1990’s. There were door-openers at the beginning of the decade such as Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart (pr. 1991). A deceptively simple comedy, Lips Together, Teeth Apart takes place over a Fourth of July weekend on New York’s Fire Island. Act by act, for three full acts, a pair of heterosexual couples reveal their preconceptions, misunderstandings, and ultimately their anxieties about homosexuality, perhaps their anxieties most of all. Larry Kramer ’s The Normal Heart (pr. 1985) and The Destiny of Me (pr. 1992) offered life partners first acknowledging and then solemnly confronting the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic, while in Paul Rudnick’s Jeffrey (pr. 1993), solemnity about AIDS is little more than a passing mood, for the protagonist finds he is surprisingly ready to throw caution to the wind when he meets the man of his dream. McNally’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (pr. 1993) was a surreal, sometimes labyrinthine examination of two cellmates in a South American dungeon for whom sexual preference was only one delimiting factor among many, and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz (pr. 1992) and And Baby Makes Seven (pr. 1986) were less interested in one’s sexual preference than in how it limited one’s options. Moises Kauffmanrsquo;s Gross Indecency (pr. 1998) followed Oscar Wilde through a gauntlet of Victorian prejudice, homophobia disguised as jurisprudence, and literary censorship, focusing on the relationship between art and the life choices of the artist.

Women’s Increasing Visibility

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

During the 1990’s, the American stage did much to open a discussion about homosexuality and AIDS and kept that discussion underway from a variety of viewpoints. There was not one voice, but many, and something similar might be said in regard to Wendy Wasserstein, Beth Henley, Margaret Edson, Vogel, and other women playwrights. Women playwrights who came to prominence in the 1980’s and 1990’s on the high tides of feminism proved to have longevity and to speak in many voices rather than a few.

Wendy Wasserstein first achieved widespread attention with her The Sisters Rosensweig (pr. 1992), a sendup of Anton Chekhov’s Tri sestry (pr. 1901; The Three Sisters, 1920) that earned her an Outer Critics Circle Award as well as a faithful following, and as the decade moved to its conclusion, her An American Daughter (pr. 1997) suggested that she deserved the warm reception.

Best known for her plays of the 1980’s set in the deep South, Beth Henley established herself with Crimes of the Heart (pr. 1979), The Miss Firecracker Contest (pr. 1980), and The Debutante Ball (pr. 1985), all wicked comedies in which the honey of her southern belles was sure to be laced with venom. Although Henley might well have continued writing in this mode, she opted instead to challenge herself and her audience by moving from comic realism into expressionist theater with Control Freaks (pr. 1992),...

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Racial and Ethnic Barriers

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Anna Deveare Smithcomposes in something of the same spirit as Ensler. First in Fires in the Mirror (pr. 1992), then in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (pr. 1993), and finally in House Arrest, presented at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in 2000, Deveare Smith’s authorial method has been to transcribe accounts of those involved in major cultural events, then bring their testimony to the stage verbatim, playing each of the characters herself, using their words, the arrhythmia of their voices, a strategy that would raise issues about what it means to call one’s self a “playwright.”

Deveare Smith’s favorite subject matter is the calumnies reported nightly on the television news broadcasts. Fires in the Mirror for instance, deals with an incident in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, an area where lower middle-class African Americans live side by side with affluent Hasidic Jews, with one group doing its best to ignore the presence of the others. Specifically, the play focuses on what happened when an esteemed Hasidic “rebbie” took the life of a black youth in a traffic incident, and in return, as an act of vengeance, a gang of twenty blacks murdered a young Talmudic scholar, putting the area on the brink of social collapse.

A chronicle of how divided the United States remains as a multicultural country, Deveare Smith’s work focuses on realities that belie the melting-pot myths of the country, for rarely do her characters envision a truly “united states” of America. What her characters speak of instead are the walls that separate one America from another. Deveare Smith is only one of the playwrights of color whose work has contributed both in form and content to the American stage of late, and while it is tempting to pigeonhole her as a minority playwright with an interest in giving voice to minority issues, the truth is that Deveare Smith writes...

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Young Talent

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Parks is to be counted among the many vital, important young playwrights in the United States who showed promise early in the decade, then went on to fulfill it. After several years of absence following the success of Angels in America, Tony Kushner mounted Homebody/Kabul (pr. 2001), the first significant production to deal with life in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and Paul Rudnick mounted Rude Entertainment (pr. 2001; includes three one-act plays: Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach; Very Special Needs; and On the Fence), three comic one-acts dealing with flamboyantly gay life and its place in American culture. Donald Margulies, whose Dinner with Friends (pr. 1998) won a Pulitzer Prize and the Lucille Lortel Award, found success earlier in the decade with plays about dysfunctional families such as The Loman Family Picnic (pr. 1989) and about the trials of cultural identity such as Sight Unseen (pr. 1991), featuring a Jewish artist who thinks of himself as defying and exceeding both those labels.

However, the work of a still younger generation of playwrights was emerging at the same time. For instance, Proof (pr. 2000), which won for David Auburn a Pulitzer Prize, was his first important production for the stage. This was true also of Warren Leight ’s Side Man (pr. 1998), a play set in the twilight of the jazz era about the failing marriage of an able musician. David Lindsay-Abaire, hose bizarre comedy Wonder of the World (pr. 2000) played to large audiences and general acclaim, had only one earlier New York success to his credit, Fuddy Meers (pr. 1999), a comedy about human dysfunction with a stroke victim as its central character.

At the turn of the second millennium, the United States’ younger important playwrights such as Kushner or Parks were no longer its youngest. This was promising indeed for the future of American theater. Perhaps never before had American theater known such a wonderful mix of talents from so many generations of writers, nor had it ever embraced such a mix with such joy. Clearly there was room on the American stage for such masters as O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Foote, Albee, and their theatrical kin, room for Mamet, Shepard, and the like, and room for still younger playwrights.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Bigsby, Christopher W. Contemporary American Playwrights. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Details the decades from the 1970’s through the 1990’s, examining how playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein, John Guare, Paula Vogel, and Tony Kushner redefined the American experience and the politics of gender and sexuality.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Edward Albee. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Though dated, this collection of work on Albee’s plays is still the best primer for anyone coming to the playwright’s work for the first time.

Clum, John M., ed. Staging Gay Lives: An Anthology of Contemporary Gay Theater. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Begins with an excellent introduction to the subject by Tony Kushner, and presents ten plays that examine AIDS, homophobia, and the politics of being gay.

Kolin, Philip C., and Colby H. Cullman, eds. Speaking on Stage: Interviews with Contemporary American Playwrights. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1996. Offers interviews with twenty-seven prominent modern-day playwrights, including Terrence McNally, Ntozake Shange, Edward Albee, Beth Henley, and David Mamet, with topic-driven sections that include “Anxiety and Alienation” and “Celebrating Difference.”

McDonough, Carla J. Staging Masculinity: Male Identity in Contemporary American Drama. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996. Using a postmodern, gender-studies approach, McDonough explores the portrayal of manhood in plays by such dramatists as Sam Shepard, David Mamet, August Wilson, and Arthur Miller.

McNamara, Brooks, ed. Plays from the Contemporary American Theater. New York: New American Library, 2002. Introduction to the subject by McNamara and several plays from late twentieth century dramatists, including August Wilson, Beth Henley, Christopher Durang, and John Guare.

Roudane, Matthew C., ed. Public Issues, Private Tensions: Contemporary American Drama. New York: AMS Press, 1993. Critically explores the thematic centrality of public issues and private tensions in American theater since 1945. Playwrights discussed include David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, and Edward Albee.

Wolfe, Peter. August Wilson. New York: Twayne, 1999. Provides an overview of the life and works of August Wilson.