Pulitzer Prizes Analysis

The Drama Award

Pulitzer specified the terms that would govern the awarding of the Pulitzer Prizes, and the Advisory Boards through the years have done their best to stay within the boundaries the donor originally set. Pulitzer stipulated that the final approval of all awards rested with the president of Columbia University, who was given the power to veto any recommendations made by the Advisory Board and the various juries.

In the case of the drama award, a play could be considered only if it had been performed in New York during the twelve months between March 2 of a given year and March 1 of the following year, and only if it represented the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standard of good morals, good taste, and good manners. Plays original in their sources and that dealt with American life were given preference.

The Changing Scene in American Drama

American drama did not come into its own until the 1920’s, when the first truly significant American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, emerged. In 1920, he received the second Pultizer Prize awarded in drama, for Beyond the Horizon (pr. 1920). The first Pulitzer Prize in the field had gone to Jesse Lynch Williams for a relatively innocuous play, Why Marry? (pb. 1918). The prize was withheld in 1919, as it had been in 1917. O’Neill’s Anna Christie (pr. 1921) brought him his second Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and by the end of the decade, in 1928, he had received yet another Pulitzer Prize for Strange Interlude (pr. 1928). He was not to receive his fourth Pulitzer Prize until twenty-nine years later, in 1957, for Long Day’s Journey into Night (pr. 1956).

One may wonder why such O’Neill plays as Mourning Becomes Electra (pr. 1931), Ah, Wilderness! (pr. 1933), The Iceman Cometh (pr. 1946), and A Moon for the Misbegotten (pr. 1947) were passed over. Certainly Mourning Becomes Electra and The Iceman Cometh seem worthy of the highest recognition from a literary standpoint. They did not, however, conform to the guidelines Pulitzer had established in his will, under the terms of which an author’s best work might well be passed over while works of less literary significance might receive the award if they were considered “uplifting.”

Such was the...

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Altering the Guidelines

Partly as a result of the controversy that the rejection of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? engendered, a special committee of the Drama Award in 1964 recommended that the “uplift” clause be expunged from the guidelines. The whole fabric of American life was drastically changing, and any searching drama would necessarily reflect such changes, the depiction of which would not necessarily be uplifting.

There was little serious, deeply searching American drama at the time the awards were established. Subsequent noteworthy drama often offended delicate sensibilities but brought to center stage social problems and conditions that required venting. Also, it was noted that the 1955 award, somewhat inconsistently, had gone to Tennessee Williams for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (pr. 1955), a play of great literary importance that clearly did not conform to the “uplift” standard articulated in the Pulitzer guidelines.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof likely would have been rejected had Benjamin McKelway of the Washington Evening Star, a member of the Advisory Board, not absented himself from the meeting in which the 1955 recommendations were made. McKelway had not seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but nevertheless argued strenuously against giving the award to Albee for the play, citing the “uplift” provision in his successful attempt to scuttle the play’s chances. At the 1964 meeting, Barry Bingham of the Louisville Courier-Journal suggested that anyone who had not read a book or seen a play being considered for the prize abstain from passing judgment on the work in question.

Withholding the Prize

It is possible to withhold a Pulitzer Prize in any category if, in the eyes of the Advisory Board, no work in a given year meets the standards established for the prize in that category. In the period from 1917 to 2001, eighty-four Pulitzer Prizes in Drama might have been awarded. As it turned out, the prize in drama was withheld fourteen times during this period, in 1917, 1919, 1942, 1944, 1947, 1951, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1986, and 1997.

Pulitzer awards were disrupted in the early 1940’s because of World War II, but the withholding of the prize six times between 1963 and 1974 is particularly telling. This was a time of considerable social unrest in the United States. The most important plays of the period reflected the social upheaval that characterized the era. Plays that employed coarse language, sexual situations, sexual deviation, and other elements offensive to some who served on the Advisory Board were at a distinct disadvantage, regardless of any literary excellence they might possess.

The Halcyon Years

The award was not withheld once in the twenty-one years from 1920 to 1941. The United States was bristling with dramatic activity during that period, during which the Theatre Guild and the Group Theatre were both flourishing. Awards were given to some of the more searching social dramas of the period such as Paul Green’s In Abraham’s Bosom (pr. 1926), Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (pr. 1929), Marc Connelly’s The Green Pastures: A Fable (pr. 1929), Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses (pr. 1933), Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White (pr. 1933), and Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (pr. 1938) and There Shall Be No Night (pr. 1940).

Thornton Wilder received two Pulitzer Prizes in the 1930’s and 1940’s, one for the nostalgic, reflective play Our Town (pr. 1938) and one for his comedy, The Skin of Our Teeth (pr. 1942). Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman shared the 1937 award for their comedy You Can’t Take It with You (pr. 1936). Other comedies were awarded the prize through the year 1945, notably Zona Gale’s Miss Lulu Bett (pr. 1920) in 1921; in 1925, Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted (pr. 1924); Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight (pr. 1936) in 1936; and in 1945, Mary Coyle Chase’s Harvey (pr. 1945).

Perhaps no play met the Pulitzer guidelines more closely than William Saroyan ’s The Time of Your Life (pr. 1939), which was awarded the prize in 1940. This loosely structured play was about the inherent goodness of humankind. Saroyan, however, returned the check to the Advisory Board that he received as a prizewinner, apparently without rancor. The board advised him that the play had already received the prize and would be recorded as the winner in the permanent annals of the organization. The check that Saroyan returned went into the Pulitzer Fund.

“Catch-up” Awards

In some instances, notably in the cases of Albee and Lillian Hellman, the playwright’s best play literarily was not deemed suitable for the award, usually because of the “uplift” clause. Hellman’s most celebrated play, The Children’s Hour (pr. 1934), had homosexual overtones that probably precluded it from receiving the 1935 award. The Drama Jury attempted to honor Hellman by awarding her the prize in 1960. The Advisory Board, however, balked, and the award was not made. Albee certainly received “catch-up” awards after the controversy over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

An attempt was also made to honor Clifford Odets, who had been passed over for such plays as Awake and Sing! (pr. 1935), Paradise Lost (pr. 1935), and Golden Boy (pr. 1937). The Drama Jury in the years in question had such an array of strong plays to choose from that Odets lost out to Zoë Atkins, whose The Old Maid (pr. 1934) won the prize in 1935, to Sherwood, whose Idiot’s Delight took the 1936 award, and to Hart and Kaufman, whose You Can’t Take It with You was the winner in 1937. Finally Odets’s The Flowering Peach (pr. 1954), a redaction of the story of Noah and the flood, would have won the 1955 award save for a technicality.

Many of the plays that received recognition in the 1980’s and 1990’s would not have met the “uplift” requirement in effect earlier. They dealt openly with such controversial topics as race relations (notably August Wilson’s Fences, pr. 1985, and The Piano Lesson, pr. 1987, and Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, pr. 1987); homosexuality (notably Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches, pr. 1991, and Jonathan Larson’s Rent, pr. 1996); and feminism (notably Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, pr. 1988). They did not deal with the “smiling” aspects of American life but rather focused upon the provocative social problems that reflected modern America in the throes of realistically working through the more challenging and enigmatic dilemmas that faced people in the waning years of the twentieth century.


Adler, Thomas P. Mirror on the Stage: The Pulitzer Plays as an Approach to American Drama. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1987. Adler succeeds in demonstrating that one way of assessing the course of American drama during the twentieth century is by examining the plays that won Pulitzer Prizes. This intriguing book is essentially a social history.

Bates, Douglas. The Pulitzer Prize: The Inside Story of America’s Most Prestigious Award. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991. Bates presents interesting anecdotal material about Pulitzer Prizes in the various fields in which they are awarded. A solid overview of the...

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