Emily Mann Essay - Critical Essays

Mann, Emily


Emily Mann 1952-

Mann is an award-winning playwright and director whose works often take a documentary approach to such social and political events as World War II, the Vietnam War, and the 1978 murder of two San Francisco politicians. In Still Life, Execution of Justice, and other plays, Mann creates what she calls a "theater of testimony" in which she provokes and challenges audiences to confront often painful and divisive subjects.


Mann was born in Boston on 12 April 1952. Her parents were both educators, her father a history professor and her mother a reading specialist. Mann's family moved to Chicago in 1966, when her father received a position at the University of Chicago. Mann subsequently attended Chicago Laboratory High School, an experimental school where a teacher engaged her interest in theater. She went on to Harvard University and Radcliffe College, receiving her bachelor's degree in 1974. Mann won a directing fellowship to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota. In 1976 she received a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing. The following year she directed a production of her first play, Annulla Allen: The Autobiography of a Survivor, at the Guthrie Theater. In 1983 Mann received a Guggenheim fellowship, which she used to do research for her next play, Execution of Justice. This work was a co-winner of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Great American Play Contest in 1983. Mann has won numerous other awards and honors, and has directed productions of her own plays and those of others at theaters across the country, including the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the American Place Theatre in New York. She is currently the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.


Among Mann's best-known works are Still Life and Execution of Justice. In Still Life, which won five Off-Broadway (Obie) awards, Mann examines the Vietnam War's toll on the lives of a veteran, his wife, and his mistress. The veteran, who discovered a taste for killing during the war, struggles with rage, guilt, and pleasurable feelings regarding his past. His wife, whom he periodically abuses, would like to get on with raising their children. His mistress steps lightly over all problems without letting any of them truly touch her. Staged as a dialogue among the three characters seated at a table facing the audience, the play illustrates their failure to communicate and their inability to deal effectively with the past. Execution of Justice concerns the 1978 murder of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and gay city supervisor Harvey Milk by city employee Dan White. Set in the courtroom where White was convicted of two counts of manslaughter and sentenced to less than eight years in prison, the play reveals the uproar the "gay murder" sparked among San Francisco's gay community and more conservative citizens. In this work Mann quotes the official trial transcripts and news coverage along with the statements of various people whose lives were affected by the event. Execution of Justice received several awards, including the Bay Area Critics Award. Mann also wrote and directed Having Our Say—The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years, which was nominated for an Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award in 1995. This play is based on the memoirs of black centenarians Bessie and Sarah Delaney and recounts their lives and struggles before, during, and after the Civil Rights Movement.


Mann's critics have focused on her use of interviews, transcripts, and other historical materials, judging her documentary style particularly effective and forceful. Michael Feingold, for example, likened Still Life to "a jagged and arresting chunk of dramatic shrapnel that is now lodged permanently in my brain." In his review of Execution of Justice, Richard Hummler noted that the play "succeeds to a remarkable degree in the theatrically tricky task of putting a complex actual event into dramatic focus." Mann's technique does have its detractors, however. Robert Brustein judged Still Life monotonous and little more than a "succession of monologues" in which "the characters rarely engage each other," making it "hard for them to engage us." Similarly, John Simon argued that Execution of Justice is "underwritten and overdirected, so that much that should be in clear focus remains fuzzy, and much that should be simply stated and directed is gussied and gimmicked up into shrillness and garishness." Despite such criticisms, many consider Mann's documentary technique a significant contribution to American theater.

Principal Works


Annulla Allen: The Autobiography of a Survivor 1977; revised as Annulla, An Autobiography, 1985

Still Life: A Documentary 1980

Execution of Justice 1984

Nights and Days [adaptor; from a play by Pierre Laville] 1984

Betsey Brown: A Rhythm and Blues Musical [adaptor with Baikida Carroll and Ntozake Shange; from a novel by Shange] 1989

Having Our Say [adaptor; from a memoir by Sarah Delaney and Elizabeth Delaney with Amy Hill Hearth] 1995

Greensboro: A Requiem 1995

Author Commentary

Interview with Mann (1987)

SOURCE: An interview with Emily Mann, in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Beech Tree Books, 1987, pp. 274-87.

[In the following conversation with Betsko and Koenig, Mann discusses her use of interviews and transcripts in the creation of Still Life, Execution of Justice, and Annulla Allen.]

[Betsko and Koenig]: You often utilize performance elements in your plays: recorded dialogue, repetitions, slides.

[Mann]: I'm fascinated with live performance aspects of theater. It enables you to add another layer of perception to what you are presenting and gives you alternative ways to tell your story. You can stylize without being linear, without the traditional rising and falling action, where you watch one protagonist. The play can then be seen from different angles simultaneously. I did use some performance elements in the writing of Execution of Justice [which premiered at the Eureka Theatre in 1982], and I like that aesthetic. Some people called Still Life [premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 1980] a performance piece. I don't know if I would or not. But there are certainly performance elements in it.

Simultaneity seems important to you as a playwright, and as a director.

Yes. Incredibly so. For example, when I was working on Execution of Justice, I kept telling the dramaturg, Oskar Eustis at the Eureka Theatre [in San Francisco], that I was hearing all this emotional noise throughout the play. I wanted to hear both the trial and the community breaking down … at the same time. It has to do with content dictating form. The sobs from the community had to be heard. I had been in many living rooms, offices, kitchens in that city hearing people's stories and I knew the people I'd been talking to had to have an opportunity to give testimony. In the theater you can hear many voices at once; it is a wonderful aspect of live theater that can't actually be reproduced in film.

At what point, during the creation of Still Life, did you realize that you were not using standard dialogue?

When I realized that the dialogue I'd written, which I'd liked by itself, didn't have the muscle I wanted. It became a way to get information across, and the play began to seem like educational theater. The piece seemed very leaden; it didn't have any poetry, it didn't have any drive or electricity or tension in it. And it didn't have the traumatic element.

How did you get the invented dialogue and the material from the transcripts down to the "muscle," the "poetry"?

First, I became obsessed with the material, the story, and with what needed to be said. Then I found the form. For example, when I was editing the court transcript of the Dan White trial for Execution of Justice, I knew this was the spine of the play. I felt that I had to get the material in the right order, so that the audience would understand the trial. But that was only one layer, and I didn't know what the next layer would be. I'd edited the trial down well but that was just the first step. The rest came to me when I went to San Francisco for a full month. Once I was there, I heard the community story, breathed it and lived it. When I went back to the raw material of that first draft, voices started to come at me. That's when I discovered that emotional noise and began to let it be words and responses and needs.

How did the structure of Still Life evolve?

It's not mystical at all. The first draft was a series of monologues in a particular sequence for each of the three characters [distilled from taped conversations with a Vietnam veteran, his wife and his mistress]. Everyone who read the first draft loved it, then I had a reading and it was dead as a doornail. I didn't know why. I talked to my husband, Gerry [Bamman, actor] about it, and he said that he felt each monologue in its distinct form was fantastic, but he was curious as to why I had put the monologues in that particular order. I said, "Don't you see the connections between this moment and this one? Or this and this?" I indicated points in each monologue and how they related to points in others placed close to them in the text. He said, "Why don't you put the connections closer together?" Then he literally handed me scissors and tape. That was the beginning. Then all of my personal connections became so trippy and ultraclear that it was like I was on speed. A whole different part of my brain was working. I didn't sleep or eat for five full days. Before that, each monologue was about ten pages long. When I read a monologue I would hear the response in my brain, but it wasn't on the page. Now the response was there as I heard it. It was the beginning of my work with simultaneity, juxtaposition.

What about the line breaks in the monologues? Were the original monologues in poetic form, as they are in the published version [T.C.G. New Plays U.S.A., Volume I, ed. James Leverett, 1982]?

Yes. Those monologues were distilled down to ninety pages from the eight hundred pages of interview transcript. Obviously, when I began to narrow them down, they found their own rhythm, which was, in fact, iambic pentameter. I never had any fat in those monologues, even in first draft. There was never a wasted word. I wanted to retain the actual rhythms of the way each person spoke, in real language, during the interviews. That came from my training in literature and from my work with Shakespearean texts with director Michael Langham. So much of Shakespeare's poetry is in the rhythms of real speech; that's what iambic pentameter actually is! Many powerful moments emerge when speech rhythms change, for example, the witches in Macbeth, or the songs in Shakespeare's plays. I also learned about soliloquy from working with Shakespearean texts—they are, after all, conversations between the protagonist and the audience. I know from coaching actors the power of direct address, and so it became clear to me that I wanted to use it in Still Life.

Did you realize the power and the poetry of everyday American speech while you were conducting the interviews for Still Life, or did that occur later during the writing process?

I realized it during the interview process. So many surprising moments occurred. I had expected combat imagery from the marine, but when I heard combat imagery from the two women, I realized that they had shared imagery, concerns, and common language. When Nadine said to me, "I've been in the jungle so long that even with intimates I protect myself," I thought, "What war were you in?" The language they spoke was an inspiration to me.

Edward Albee says that each play has its own musical architecture. Is this true of your writing?

Yes. A Washington reviewer understood that element of Still Life and talked about the play as a fugue. I'm very aware of the music and rhythmic structure as I'm writing; it's not just instinct. Before I went into theater, I had to choose between music and the theater. I used to play three instruments, though I don't anymore.

Why did you choose theater over music?

I knew I could never compose. I didn't have the skill. I felt I could become a better technician, but never master the creative side.

Has working with transcripts, for example, the interviews you conducted and edited for Still Life and Annula Allen [which premiered at the Goodman Theatre, 1978], as well as the court trial you utilized in Execution of Justice, helped you to develop your extraordinary skill with dramatic exposition?

Yes. But the skill has partly come out of my experience as a director. I have directed many so-called well-made plays. I loathed having to do Ibsen first acts, because you have to make that exposition seem like it's not exposition, and it so baldly is. You must make it seem as if it is all coming out of character. That is hard work for directors and actors. Exposition is THE hardest thing to write. You must get the story out without being heavy-handed. The audience needs the exposition, they need information in order to make judgments and to be able to fully experience the piece. You cannot make judgments without that information. And my plays are about asking the audience to face that information, and to actively question it. That is the form and content of Execution of Justice. It is a trial. The audience is the jury. The audience must have the information. But finally, the audience must have a visceral reaction to the play. All of this information, this exposition has to be made theatrical, rather than expositional. You could write a whole book about this! But I do want to say that you've got to make it theater. And that means you've got to make the play an active, live, gripping, in-the-moment event for people. From beginning to end, the audience must experience the information in a visceral way so that they don't notice they are using their intellect; they must be sucked in by their emotions and love for story, and then they must use both intellect and feeling to sort out what they've learned. It's very complex. Given that we're in a world where there is film and television where exposition is sometimes over by the end of the opening credits, anything that smacks of old-fashioned exposition always makes me uncomfortable. I hate it. From that hatred, I think, came a drive to get at it in my own way. A way that satisfied me.

How did you become interested in the Dan White trial [Execution of Justice]? [On November 27, 1978, Dan White—former policeman, former member of the Board of Supervisors...

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Still Life


Michael Feingold (review date 25 February-3 March 1981)

SOURCE: "Home Fronts," in The Village Voice, 25 February-3 March 1981, pp. 75, 77.

[Still Life premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1980 and debuted Off-Broadway early the following year at the American Place Theatre. In the following highly favorable review of the latter production, Feingold praises the writing, acting, and staging of the piece.]

"As incredibly civilized as we are in this room," says the nice young man, "these things go on." The things he is talking about are murder, mutilation, child-killing, schizophrenic breakdowns,...

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Execution Of Justice


Leslie Bennetts (review date 9 March 1986)

SOURCE: "When Reality Takes to the Stage," in The New York Times, 9 March 1986, Section 2, pp. 1, 4.

[Execution of Justice received its Broadway debut on 13 March 1986 at the Virginia Theatre. In the following piece, which appeared just prior to the premiere, Bennetts provides background on the genesis of the play, its staging, and its author.]

If someone had invented the plot, it might seem too incredible: a straight-arrow city official resigns from his post, then changes his mind and requests his job back—but the mayor has already decided to appoint...

(The entire section is 6379 words.)

Further Reading


Kolin, Philip C. and LaNelle, Daniel. "Emily Mann: A Classified Bibliography." Studies in American Drama 1945-Present 4 (1989): 223-66.

Includes an exhaustive listing of secondary materials on Mann and an essay surveying her important works.


Savran, David. "Emily Mann." In his In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, pp. 145-60. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Interview with Mann in which she discusses her plays Annulla and Still Life, the influence of Bertolt Brecht on her work, and other topics.


(The entire section is 478 words.)