Theater in America
- Brenda MurphyBrenda MurphyDepartment of English, University of Connecticut
It is generally agreed that the post–World War II period produced the most significant American drama and theater. This included Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1945), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955); Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953); and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (written 1941, produced 1956). It was also the time when American theatrical production, characterized by a hybrid blend of realistic and modernist techniques known as “the American style,” was most influential. This period of extraordinary accomplishment would not have occurred without the particular theatrical developments that preceded it. American theater had gotten off to a slow start during the 18th and early 19th centuries, partly because of an anti-theatrical prejudice in the puritan roots of the Northeast, where most US cities were located, and the copyright situation, which made it much more profitable for theatrical managers to pirate English plays than to produce new American ones. During the mid-19th century, some native melodramas achieved popular success, but none entered the permanent repertoire except as curiosities.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the realism of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw began to have an impact, and by the 1920s, realism was the dominant dramatic and theatrical idiom of the American stage. At the same time, the impact of modernist techniques such as expressionism was being felt, and Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell were writing avant-garde modernist plays such as O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922) and Glaspell’s The Verge (1921), which paved the way for O’Neill’s great experiments of the 1920s and 1930s, such as Strange Interlude (1928) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). For playwrights like Williams and Miller, it was a natural development to create a drama that united both of these strains, anchoring their plays in a realistic idiom but suffusing them with expressionist techniques that made it possible to dramatize a character’s consciousness on stage in juxtaposition with the external reality they must negotiate.
The final decades of the 20th century may be characterized not so much by individual playwrights as by dramatic and theatrical developments. Escaping the intense commercial pressure of Broadway, the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theaters fostered the development of feminist and other experimental drama as well as the careers of playwrights such as Sam Shepard, Adrienne Kennedy, Maria Irene Fornés, and Lynn Nottage. Edward Albee, August Wilson, Ntozake Shange, and David Mamet came from alternative or regional theaters to achieve popular success on Broadway as well as critical acclaim. At the turn of the 21st century, American drama and theater reflected the heightened awareness of gender identity and ethnicity in the 1990s and the broadly eclectic aesthetics that would be evident in the next decades, a drama that is epitomized in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992), which combines realistic characters, sociopolitical commentary, humor, and sentiment with fantasy, myth, and epic.