The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is notable for its deviation from the traditional form and content of mainstream American drama. Most commercially and critically successful plays are family dramas written in the psychological realism genre. They concern traditional family relationships, and female characters are seldom central. Their stories are linear, proceeding from exposition, through crisis, resolution, and denouement in an Aristotelian fashion. The actors never break through the imagined “fourth wall” to talk to the audience, and the audience appreciates the drama by identifying with its characters.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe breaks many of these rules. Trudy, the narrator, speaks directly to the audience, inviting them to become participants in the search for meaning. Because of the humor in Jane Wagner’s play, the performance often resembles a stand-up comedy routine, in which much of the dialogue is one-liners. The play circles in and out of its events in a nonlinear fashion, and there is no crisis propelling its action.
The play’s focus on women’s issues through female characters also made it an important document in twentieth century dramatic literature. Wagner’s frank, gentle, humorous treatment of contemporary American feminism also reinvigorates the one-woman-show convention of feminist theater, by adding an element of presentation that allows for cogent social commentary. The actor’s transformations must be complete, vital, and varied, but the audience should always be aware that the performer is commenting on her roles. Wagner is careful to introduce Lily (Tomlin), for whom the performance was written, as a character in the play and implies that the performer is present beneath each of the other characters. Because of its commercial success and feminist implications, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is an important addition to the canon of American drama.