The United States

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The history of American experimental theater is conventionally dated from 1958, the year that Joseph Cino opened his coffeehouse in New York City, Caffé Cino Begun mainly as a haven for artists and offering exhibits, poetry readings, and a café menu for its growing clientele, Caffé Cino soon expanded its fare to include, first, play readings and then productions of complete plays, evolving into a regularly operating theater. Perhaps its most enduring contribution to the development of experimental theater in New York was its influence: Other companies began to emerge following the Caffé Cino example (notable among them Ellen Stewart’s Café La Mama).

Thus was Off-Off-Broadwayborn, reflecting some of the features of what had been called Off-Broadway (equity waiver, small house, low budget) theater, but containing one relatively new element: the will to experiment, to break rules—both aesthetic and, often, social. Small companies proliferated during the 1960’s and 1970’s, many achieving little more than the thrill of the ephemeral moment of artistic freedom (sometimes all that was desired), but a few achieving fame (desired or not). To this liberated milieu were attracted a new wave of writers whose work has left an enduring stamp on the American experimental theater: Jack Gelber, Rochelle Owens, Ed Bullins, Leonard Melfi, Adrienne Kennedy, and the brilliantly prolific Sam Shepard. The work of others, such as Arthur Kopit, Lanford Wilson, and Amiri Baraka, has also continued to nourish the growth of this theater. Still others, though perhaps less widely known, have been integrally involved in the development of experimental theater, both in the United States and abroad; it is these latter writers whose work will be discussed.