Emily Mann Critical Essays


(Drama Criticism)

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.