American Literature: Drama, literature intended for performance, written by
Americans in the English language. American drama begins in the American colonies
in the 17th century and continues to the present. r6j20jk
Most American plays of the 18th and 19th centuries strongly reflected British
influence. In fact, no New York City theater season presented more American
plays than British plays until 1910. The reasons behind this phenomenon are
complex, but a common language and the ready availability of British plays and
British actors offer the most obvious explanation.
Although the British repertory dominated the American stage for so long, American
drama had begun to diverge from British drama by the time of Andrew Jackson’s
presidency, from 1828 to 1836. British plays, which typically reflected the
attitudes and manners of the upper classes, were by then in conflict with more
egalitarian American values. Despite this growing divergence, British actors,
theater managers, and plays continued to cross the Atlantic Ocean with regularity,
and most American plays copied British models until the early 20th century.
For this reason some critics claim that American drama was not born until the
end of World War I (1914-1918).
By the end of the 19th century American drama was moving steadily toward realism,
illuminating the rough or seamy side of life and creating more believable characters.
Realism remained the dominant trend of the 20th century in both comedies and
tragedies. American drama achieved international recognition with the psychological
realism of plays by Eugene O’Neill and their searing investigation of
characters’ inner lives. As the century advanced, the number of topics
considered suitable for drama broadened to encompass race, gender, sexuality,
Beginnings: 1600s AND 1700s
Because settlement was sparse and living conditions were arduous in the American
colonies, little theatrical activity took place before the mid-18th century.
The first-known English-language play from the colonies, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb
(1665), is lost. The play’s existence is known as a result of the controversy
it aroused in the Virginia Colony, where a lawsuit was filed to prevent the
play from opening. Several colonies had passed antitheater laws based on a Puritan
belief that the seventh of the Ten Commandments prohibited dancing and stage
The oldest surviving American play is Androborus by Robert Hunter (1714). Hunter,
the New York Colony’s governor, published the cartoonish play as an attack
on his political enemies, despite New York’s antitheater law. Intended
for a reading public rather than a viewing audience, it established a tradition
of political satire that became common fare in American drama of the 1700s.
Before more American plays had appeared, a company of British professional actors
established a touring circuit in the 1750s with an all-British repertory. By
the early 1760s this group was known as The American Company and American writers
occasionally submitted plays to the actors, though few were produced. But in
1767 The American Company staged The Prince of Parthia, a tragedy by Thomas
Godfrey, in Philadelphia. This is usually considered the first professional
production of a play written by an American. The play itself is indistinguishable
from imitations of the works of English dramatist William Shakespeare that abounded
in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
During the American Revolution (1775-1783), most professional actors moved to
Jamaica. Satirical plays were written as propaganda during the war, either supporting
British control of the colonies or attacking it. British soldiers presented
some of the pro-British plays. Few other plays were performed during the war
years, although they were widely read and recited. The Battle of Brooklyn (1776),
which was pro-British and written anonymously, presented rebel generals, including
George Washington, as drunks, lechers, and cowards. The Blockade (1775), written
by British General John Burgoyne, was performed in British-occupied Boston.
The play’s ridicule of American soldiers was subsequently burlesqued in
The Blockheads; or the Affrighted Officers (1776), written by an anonymous playwright
identified only as a patriot. The Blockheads depicts British soldiers as so
terrified of the Americans that they soil themselves rather than go outside
to use the latrine. Mercy Otis Warren, who created several biting satires of
the British, may have written The Blockheads as well. She remained the strongest
American dramatic voice of the Revolution and championed the rebel cause in
The Group (1775), a play that describes Britain, called Blunderland, as a mother
who eats her own children. The Patriots (1775?), a play by Robert Munford, was
unusual in its appeal for a neutral stance and its attacks on both sides for
By the mid-1780s professional actors were touring in America again. In 1787,
when the Constitution of the United States was being written, Royall Tyler wrote
The Contrast, the finest American play of the 18th century. This five-act comedy
owes much to The School for Scandal (1777) by British playwright Richard Sheridan.
Like Sheridan’s play, The Contrast is a comedy of manners that satirizes
the customs of the upper classes. It compares British and American fashions
and values and ultimately sides with what it sees as American candor and patriotism
over British duplicity and artificiality. A masterful element of the play is
the Yankee character Jonathan, whose honest innocence stands in stark contrast
to the rumormongering and gossiping of the play’s British characters and
the American characters that emulate them.
The 1700s also saw the first American play written by a woman reach the professional
stage. The melodramatic comedy Slaves in Algiers (1794) by Susanna Rowson reflects
troubles at that time with pirates along North Africa’s Barbary Coast
who interfered with shipping and ran a white slave trade that involved selling
girls and women into prostitution. Although the villain was treated comically,
the conflict and resolution in this play indicated a move toward melodrama,
a form of drama that became extremely popular in the 19th century.
Nationhood: The 1800s
American plays, while still a minority, began to appear in the theater repertory
in the 19th century. Although American plays were still styled after British
models, their subject matter came to be based on specifically American incidents
or themes. In the United States as in Britain, many plays reflected the influence
of romanticism, a European literary and artistic movement. Melodrama, with its
outpourings of emotion, was the most prevalent dramatic form in the 19th century.
Gothic melodramas, which emphasized horror, mystery, and the supernatural, and
melodramas with tragic endings appeared regularly in American theaters from
the 1790s on—in many cases adapted or translated from German, French,
and British plays.
The first prolific writer of melodramas was William Dunlap, who also translated
several German plays for production in the United States. Dunlap adapted Revolutionary
War history in André (1798), a fictionalized account of the final days
of British spy Major John André. In 1803 Dunlap reshaped the play as
a musical, Glory of Columbia, in which George Washington is elevated to divine
status. It was an early example of spectacle dominating dramatic content. Dunlap
took spectacle even further in A Trip to Niagara (1828) by making the play’s
purpose the duplication of scenic wonders that the audience would recognize,
such as Niagara Falls.
Replication of local color, as in A Trip to Niagara, became the norm in 19th-century
American melodrama and encompassed details of scenery, dialects, and gestures
representative of specific locations; contemporary slang, and historical incidents.
An early example is She Would Be a Soldier (1819) by Mordecai Noah. The play
depicts the military spectacle of the War of 1812 between the United States
and Britain and features a heroine who disguises herself as a soldier to help
the American cause and join the man she loves.
Although American drama of the 19th century usually followed European models,
its subject matter often came from specifically American situations. Superstition
(1824), a romantic tragedy by James Nelson Barker, for example, was set in New
England of 1675. It discussed conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers,
British interference in local affairs, Puritan xenophobia (fear and dislike
of foreigners), and the idea of witchcraft. Superstition, in which the hero
is tried and executed for witchcraft, was the first of many American plays to
explore themes of isolationism, bigotry, and intolerance.
Barker’s The Indian Princess (1808) was the first professionally produced
play to explore Native American characters and themes. It told the story of
Pocahontas, a Native American who married an English colonist. A vogue for so-called
Indian plays began in the 1820s and continued through the 1840s. While the Pocahontas
story was popular in these plays, the most famous such drama was Metamora, or
The Last of the Wampanoags (1829) by John Augustus Stone. It was written as
a vehicle for American actor Edwin Forrest, who began in 1828 to offer annual
awards for new plays on American themes and gave Metamora first prize. This
melodrama was typical of most Indian plays in its setting in an earlier period
of frontier history (the 1670s) and its characterization of the Native American
hero. Metamora was viewed as natural but uncivilized—that is, living in
harmony with nature but unfamiliar with what European settlers saw as civilized
ways. The play put forth sentiments in harmony with white values and ended with
Metamora’s inevitable death as the representative of a displaced race
that cannot survive with the white man. By mid-century the waning importance
of Indian plays was signaled by works that lampooned them. Irish-born playwright
John Brougham, for example, wrote Metamora, or the Last of the Pollywogs (1847),
a musical burlesque that made fun of the idealized and earnest original.
Also in the 1820s an African American acting troupe called the African Theatre
was organized in New York City by dramatist William Henry Brown. The troupe
produced plays by Shakespeare as well as African American plays, including The
Drama of King Shotaway (1823) written by Brown. Although Indian plays of the
1820s and 1830s written by whites preached tolerance and understanding for Native
Americans, white toughs chased Brown’s company off the stage, and no copies
survive of the African American plays it produced.
American romantic plays took various forms. But without the American slant in
subject matter, it would be difficult to distinguish these plays from British
melodrama and romantic tragedy. What may be the best American play of the time,
Francesca da Rimini (1855), is a romantic verse tragedy by George Henry Boker
about an Italian noblewoman of the 14th century. It presents a villainous fool,
a forbidden love affair, and a grotesque, semi-villainous hunchback in the role
of the protagonist. However, nothing in the play’s characters and setting
or its imitation of Shakespearean style marks the play as American.
Forms of Melodrama
Melodrama was the most pervasive dramatic genre of the 19th century. Melodramas
were typically overflowing with emotion, set in mysterious locations, and peopled
with stereotypical characters: heartless villains, heroines in distress, and
strong heroes who faced almost insurmountable odds in rescuing those heroines.
Frontier melodrama enthralled audiences in the first half of the 19th century.
Nick of the Woods (1838) by Louisa Medina capitalized on the spectacle, romance,
and danger of the frontier—for example, when the title character escapes
his pursuers by plunging over a waterfall in a burning canoe. Playwrights repeatedly
glorified backwoodsmen and moved toward making Native American characters into
villains. One of the most successful frontier melodramas, Davy Crockett (1872)
by Frank Murdoch, featured the so-called natural gentleman. This character had
developed from an earlier view of the Native American but was now white and
considered a gentleman, despite his life outside society and his uncouth ways.
Another form of melodrama was the temperance play, which illustrated the evils
of alcohol and supported a ban on its sale. An example is The Drunkard; or,
The Fallen Saved (1844) by W. H. Smith. Temperance plays had American locations
and were staged frequently from the 1830s until the Civil War (1861-1865), though
they continued to be produced until passage in 1917 of an amendment to the U.S.
Constitution prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol. Most of these
plays included scenes of the acute stages of alcoholism; featured protagonists
who are lured into alcoholism by villains; and showed the victims losing everything
until the play’s climax, when they convert to abstinence and regain their
life and family. Because the formulas of the plays accommodated moral lessons
important to social crusaders and reformers of the period, temperance plays
attracted audiences formerly opposed to the theater.
Melodramatic comedy appeared frequently in the 1800s, while comedies of manners,
so popular in the previous century, were rare. A notable exception and one of
the most successful and well-written plays of the 19th century was Fashion (1845)
by Anna Cora Mowatt. Yet what most tellingly distinguished Fashion from earlier
American comedies, such as The Contrast, were its melodramatic subplot and its
heroine in distress. In the play, a newly wealthy woman attempts to marry her
unwitting daughter to a morally corrupt French count. While satirizing Americans
who imitate European manners, it also prescribed a cure for this so-called disease
of imitation through extended exposure to a rural environment. Like frontier
melodramas, the play urged Americans to resist British cultural models.
Racial, social, and economic tensions in American society before the Civil War
period found a way into popular drama, most successfully in stage adaptations
of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sentimental
versions of the novel filled so many professional stages that this material
was performed more often than any other American play of the time. An 1852 adaptation
by George Aiken was the most enduring version. Stage adaptations of novels proliferated
from the 1850s until motion pictures took over the tradition in the 20th century.
Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859), a stage adaptation of the novel
The Quadroon (1856) by Mayne Reid, is the most well crafted melodrama on the
subject of slavery and racism in the mid-19th century. It combines local color
from Louisiana, ethnic mixes, spectacle in the form of a burning steamboat,
and a tragic heroine whose ancestry (a black great-grandparent) prevents her
from marrying the man she loves.
A Shift Toward Realism Drama after the Civil War was marked by greater realism.
Playwrights created plays in three-dimensional settings with characters speaking
authentic-sounding dialogue. Beginning in the late 1870s European theater reached
profound levels of psychological realism, prompted by the work of Norwegian
playwright Henrik Ibsen. While melodramatic plots still prevailed in late-19th-century
American theater, several American playwrights began to move in the direction
of Ibsen. Shenandoah (1888) by Bronson Howard told the story of two friends
who attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point together, fought on opposite
sides in the Civil War, and loved the other’s sister. Despite the plot
complications, the play revisited the war with realistic detail and found enormous
popularity with audiences because of its combination of melodramatic tension
and comic romance. A master of melodrama in a realistic style was actor and
playwright William Gillette, who excited audiences with his own Civil War thrillers.
In Secret Service (1896), for example, Gillette played a Northern spy working
Other late-19th-century playwrights whose works marked the gradual move toward
realism included Steele Mackaye and William Dean Howells. In Hazel Kirke (1880)
by Mackaye, the title character defies her father by marrying the man she loves,
rather than the man he has chosen for her. A melodrama without a villain, the
play was also notable for its more natural dialogue. Howells, best known as
a novelist and critic, advocated realism in literature generally. Many of his
short comic plays, such as The Mouse Trap (1889), were set in Boston’s
Back Bay neighborhood, focused on a single incident involving a married couple,
and incorporated believable dialogue.
Howells also championed the work of other writers, including actor and playwright
James Herne, whose work came closest to Ibsen’s. However, Herne’s
Margaret Fleming (1890) upset too many American audiences with its harsh, raw
treatment of infidelity and marital distress, and its power was recognized only
by later generations. Herne had more success with gentler realism in such plays
as Shore Acres (1892), in which two brothers finally gain an understanding of
one another in old age.
The Modern Era: The 1900s
Realism continued to be a primary form of dramatic expression in the 20th century,
even as experimentation in both the content and the production of plays became
increasingly important. Such renowned American playwrights as Eugene O’Neill,
Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller reached profound new levels of psychological
realism, commenting through individual characters and their situations on the
state of American society in general. As the century progressed, the most powerful
drama spoke to broad social issues, such as civil rights and the AIDS crisis,
and the individual’s position in relation to those issues. Individual
perspectives in mainstream theater became far more diverse and more closely
reflected the increasingly complex demographics of American society.
Before World War I: 1900-1914 Realism reached new levels in the prewar work
of David Belasco and Clyde Fitch, both of whom directed their own plays. Belasco’s
The Girl of the Golden West (1905) sentimentally recreated a rural California
town of the mid-19th-century Gold Rush days, while Fitch’s The City (1909)
explored the evils of shady business deals and drug addiction. Realistic portrayals
of sensational subjects also flourished in many plays of this era. For example,
The Easiest Way (1909), by Eugene Walter, dramatized the situation of a kept
woman whose acceptance of financial support from one man leads to her rejection
by the man she loves.
Social tensions in the United States began to preoccupy dramatists in the years
leading up to World War I (1914-1918). An early example of this was The Great
Divide (1906) by William Vaughn Moody. The story of a New England woman’s
move to Arizona, the play juxtaposed a Western, rural sensibility against an
Eastern, urban one. The most prolific of prewar playwrights with a social agenda
was Rachel Crothers, who addressed such issues as society’s double standard
for men and women in A Man’s World (1909). The New York Idea (1906), a
social satire by Langdon Mitchell, managed to entertain while commenting meaningfully
on divorce. The American family, and its development and disintegration, was
a recurring theme of playwrights at this time, and it would dominate much American
playwriting for the rest of the 20th century.
From World War I to World War II: 1914-1939 With World War I, European developments
in modern drama arrived on the American stage in force. A host of American playwrights
were intent on experimenting with dramatic style and form while also writing
serious sociopolitical commentary. From this time forward Britain’s influence,
although never absent, became much less important to American drama.
One of the first groups to promote new American drama was the Provincetown Players,
founded in 1915 in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The play Trifles (1916) by Susan
Glaspell, a subtle study in sexism, was among its first productions. Glaspell’s
husband, George Cram Cook, headed the company but its star was Eugene O’Neill,
the most experimental of American playwrights in the 1920s. O’Neill’s
The Hairy Ape (1922) was one of the first plays to introduce expressionism in
America. Expressionism was a movement in the visual, literary, and performing
arts that developed in Germany in the early 20th century, in part in reaction
against realism. Expressionism emphasized subjective feelings and emotions rather
than a detailed or objective depiction of reality. The Hairy Ape depicts a rejected
ship laborer who feels he belongs nowhere until he confronts an ape in a zoo.
He sets the caged animal free only to be destroyed by it.
American expressionism was distinguished from its German forebears by a searching
focus on the inner life of the central character, whose detailed depiction is
in stark contrast to all other characters. The most famous example of American
expressionism is The Adding Machine (1923) by Elmer Rice, a play that focuses
on the emotional journey of the leading character, Mr. Zero, after he is replaced
at his job by an adding machine. Rice was the first playwright to demonstrate
silent film’s influence on theater in On Trial (1914), which borrowed
the flashback technique. Some of the most novel expressionist experiments employed
collage-like scenic effects and cacophonous musical and sound techniques to
explore social issues. Such plays include Processional (1925), a depiction of
a West Virginia miners’ strike by John Howard Lawson, and Machinal (1928),
a bleak study by Sophie Treadwell of the destruction of a young woman.
The Glory Days The 1920s was the most prolific decade for professionally produced
plays on the New York City stage. During the so-called glory days of the 1920s
and early 1930s audiences saw incisive and exciting American drama. What Price
Glory (1924) by Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson was set in France during
World War I. Its portrayal of two soldiers’ behavior satirized the often-romanticized
vision of warfare. Anderson tried to reinvigorate drama in verse with such plays
as Winterset (1935).
During this period O’Neill reached for greatness with vast five-hour plays.
Strange Interlude (1928), a nine-act play, explored through its leading female
characters the way in which hidden psychological processes affect outward actions.
It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1928. Mourning Becomes Electra
(1931), a trilogy, was a powerful adaptation of three ancient Greek tragedies
by Aeschylus that told the story of Orestes and are known as the Oresteia. Set
in New England after the Civil War (which replaces the Trojan War of the Oresteia),
Mourning Becomes Electra recounts the moral, emotional, and physical destruction
of two generations of the Mannon family, emphasizing the far-reaching consequences
of adultery, incest, jealousy, and vengeance. Both plays capture O’Neill’s
lifelong investigation of the human condition and the forces that plague humankind.
In 1936 O’Neill became the first American playwright to win a Nobel Prize
Also in the 1920s and early 1930s, comedies of manners made a comeback through
delightfully glib, lightly satirical plays such as Philip Barry’s Holiday
(1928), about a man who decides to enjoy his newly made fortune while he is
still young. In a later comedy of manners, End of Summer (1936) by S. N. Behrman,
a flighty, middle-aged socialite pursues both fascist and left-wing men in an
attempt to remain a player in a world quickly passing her by.
African American characters became more visible in plays of this period. In
the play In Abraham’s Bosom (1926) by Paul Green, the main character,
whose father is white and mother is black, works to help his black community
but is defeated by the racial prejudice of both whites and blacks. In Abraham’s
Bosom won the 1927 Pulitzer Prize for drama. White playwrights wrote most of
the plays featuring black characters from this period, while black playwrights
remained on the margins of the theater world until the 1950s.
Even the musical was overhauled in the bustling theatrical activity of the 1920s
and early 1930s. Most notably, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II and composer Jerome
Kern teamed up to create Show Boat (1927), a musical production adapted from
a novel of the same name by American author Edna Ferber. This was the first
American musical to fully integrate a musical score with meaningful and consistent
dialogue and lyrics.
The Great Depression
American theater attendance declined severely in the 1930s and after, primarily
as a result of new sound technology that gave motion pictures a voice. But films
were not the only drain on theater attendance. The economic collapse of the
Great Depression of the 1930s closed many theaters permanently. The austerity
of the 1930s inspired a new wave of hard-edged drama that tackled economic suffering,
left-wing political ideologies, fascism, and fears of another world war. European
agitprop techniques, which used literature and the arts for political propaganda,
animated many plays about the working class. The most famous of these plays
is Waiting for Lefty (1935) by Clifford Odets. In the play taxi drivers decide
to go on strike, but the true concern of the play is a more abstract debate
over the pros and cons of capitalism. Odets also wrote one of the finest expressions
of 1930s anxieties, Awake and Sing! (1935), in which a Marxist grandfather commits
suicide for his family’s financial benefit, and his grandson ultimately
dedicates himself and the life insurance money to helping his community rather
than seeking better opportunities elsewhere.
The plays of Lillian Hellman also displayed a social conscience. Hellman’s
The Children’s Hour (1934), in which a child’s vengeful anger causes
the downfall of a school and the two women who run it, explored the devastating
effects of evil in an intolerant society. Langston Hughes paved the way for
acceptance of African American drama with his successful play Mulatto (1935),
about the complexity of race relations. The global scale of fears in the 1930s
was reflected in the plays of Robert Sherwood, whose satirical attack on weapons
manufacturers in Idiot’s Delight (1936) predicted the impending world
cataclysm of World War II. It was awarded the 1936 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Postwar Drama: 1945-1960
During World War II (1939-1945) little drama of note appeared that was neither
escapist fare nor wartime propaganda. With the end of hostilities, however,
two playwrights emerged who would dominate dramatic activity for the next 15
years or so: Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Miller combined realistic
characters and a social agenda while also writing modern tragedy, most notably
in Death of a Salesman (1949), a tale of the life and death of the ordinary
workingman Willy Loman. Miller’s The Crucible (1953), a story about the
17th-century Salem witch trials, was a parable for a hunt for Communists in
the 1950s led by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.
Tennessee Williams, one of America’s most lyrical dramatists, contributed
many plays about social misfits and outsiders. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947),
a neurotic, impoverished Southern woman fights to maintain her illusions of
gentility when forced to confront the truth about her life by her sister’s
working-class husband. Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), which
won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, similarly focused on pretense and its destructiveness
and destruction in an unhappy family.
The 1940s also launched lighthearted musicals, most notably a series with lyrics
and score by the productive partnership of librettist Oscar Hammerstein II and
composer Richard Rodgers. Their first collaboration, the love story Oklahoma!
(1943), set the style for musicals until the 1960s with its thorough integration
of text and music.
Realism continued strongly in the 1950s with character studies of society’s
forgotten people. Come Back, Little Sheba (1950) by William Inge told the story
of the unfulfilled lives of an alcoholic doctor and his wife. O’Neill’s
painful autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), considered
his masterpiece by many critics, premiered after the playwright’s death
in 1953. The play chronicled a day in the life of the Tyrone family, during
which family members inexorably confront one another’s flaws and failures.
In the late 1950s African American playwriting received a tremendous boost with
the highly acclaimed Raisin in the Sun (1959), the story of a black family and
how they handle a financial windfall. Written by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin
in the Sun was the first Broadway production to be directed by an African American,
Lloyd Richards. Also at the end of the 1950s the semiabsurdist plays of Edward
Albee, starting with Zoo Story (1959), caught the American imagination with
their psychological danger and intelligent dialogue. Albee’s Who’s
Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) depicted the destructive relationship of a
married couple primarily through their verbal abuse.
The Mainstream Redefined: The 1960s to the 1990s
The civil rights movement and antiwar protests of the mid-1960s exploded in
drama as regional and experimental theaters proliferated and many talented new
dramatists came to the fore. Experimental theater companies, including the Living
Theater and the Open Theater, experimented with group dynamics by placing performers
and audience members in the same physical space. The Serpent (1968) by Jean-Claude
Van Itallie, which used this elimination of physical barriers between actors
and audience, recreated Biblical stories through the depiction of modern, often
politically charged, events and images, for instance the assassination of John
F. Kennedy. Megan Terry’s plays, such as Calm Down Mother (1965), experimented
with traditional dramatic structure through actor transformations, wherein one
actor in any given piece would be playing multiple roles and would switch between
characters without apparent transition. Terry, and other feminist playwrights,
challenged contemporary social codes of behavior in their presentation of different
points of view, giving voice to traditionally disenfranchised members of American
culture—for example, lesbian women. Many African American voices had a
confrontational edge. In his violent Dutchman (1964), Amiri Baraka portrayed
white society’s fear and hatred of an educated black protagonist. The
autobiographical Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) by Adrienne Kennedy addressed
the difficulties of being an American of mixed racial ancestry. Horror stories
of the Vietnam War (1959-1975) found their way into drama for several decades,
most notably in Indians (1969) by Arthur Kopit, Streamers (1976) by David Rabe,
and Redwood Curtain (1993) by Lanford Wilson.
Small-scale musicals, such as the modern romance The Fantasticks (1960), written
by Tom Jones with music by Harvey Schmidt, and the antiwar rock musical Hair
(1967), by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, became long-running hits and continued
to influence plays in the late 20th century. Plays that dealt openly with homosexuality
also found large audiences, starting in the 1960s. They included Boys in the
Band (1968) by Mart Crowley, Torch Song Trilogy (1981) by Harvey Fierstein,
and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995) by Terrence McNally. Neil Simon emerged
as the premiere playwright of comedies for several decades with such works as
The Odd Couple (1965), about two bachelors living together, and the autobiographical
Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), about a lower middle class Jewish family.
Sam Shepard and David Mamet loomed large in American drama of the 1970s, much
as Miller and Williams had in the 1950s. Shepard’s hard-edged drama, which
explored the American family and the often-destructive myths of the American
West, was most biting in Buried Child (1978) and True West (1980). Buried Child
won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Mamet created a darkly comic style that
imitated the fragmented speech of the inarticulate and employed profanity as
nearly every part of speech. Mamet’s American Buffalo (1975) used a Chicago
junk shop as a symbol of American capitalism, and his Pulitzer-Prize winning
Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) depicted the moral decay brought about by the win-at-all-costs
ethic of the American salesman.
The movement known as postmodernism found expression in the American theater
chiefly through staging and direction, rather than through the plays themselves.
Postmodern staging and design tended toward the minimal and sometimes incorporated
images from earlier plays and productions. Postmodern directors sought to uncover
multiple layers of meaning in a play. Feminist playwrights sometimes effectively
appropriated these approaches. Fefu and Her Friends (1977) and The Conduct of
Life (1985), both by Maria Irene Fornés, used spatial experiments, such
as moving the audience from room to room instead of changing stage scenery.
Wendy Wasserstein more safely explored the complex social issues raised by the
women’s movement in Uncommon Women and Others (1977) and The Heidi Chronicles
(1988), which won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
In the late 1970s Lanford Wilson had success with realistic ensemble pieces,
which had large casts and no one central character. His works, such as The Fifth
of July (1978), perpetuated the ensemble tradition of Odets, Williams, and Inge.
American musicals also enjoyed experimental developments in the work of composer
and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. His romantic A Little Night Music (1973) was
written entirely in three-four times, and his Into the Woods (1987) refashioned
traditional fairy tales for adults.
By the 1980s many American playwrights found themselves tied to topics of current
interest. The Normal Heart (1985) by Larry Kramer confronted the devastation
wrought by the AIDS crisis. ‘Night Mother (1983) by Marsha Norman discussed
the question of when suicide might be justifiable. In his M. Butterfly (1988),
David Henry Hwang artfully examined the famous opera Madama Butterfly (1904),
by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, and the ways in which Western civilization
feminizes Eastern civilization.
In the 1980s two new playwrights repeatedly took audiences into new territory,
while expressing themselves in language as far apart as their subject matter.
August Wilson set about creating a history of the African American experience
in the 20th century in narrowly focused domestic dramas. Fences (1983) portrayed
conflicts between father and son as the result of their coming of age in different
eras. The Piano Lesson (1990) focused on conflicts between a brother and sister
over selling a family heirloom to buy the land that they work and that their
ancestors worked as slaves. Both plays won Pulitzer Prizes. Eric Overmyer harnessed
sophisticated language, satire, and vibrant theatricality to dissect a corrupt
social and political infrastructure in On the Verge (1986) and In Perpetuity
Throughout the Universe (1988).
A central event in drama of the 1990s was the two-part Angels in America by
Tony Kushner. The two parts, titled Millennium Approaches (1991) and Perestroika
(1993), won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993; Tony Awards for best play followed in
1991 and 1994. Angels in America follows eight characters over a six-year period,
chronicling the effects of AIDS on their lives. Through its subject matter,
bright humor, and visual theatricality Angels in America inspired audiences
across the country.
The 1990s also saw the return of exciting domestic drama by playwrights assumed
by many to have finished their careers: Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass (1994)
and Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women (1994) received popular and critical
acclaim. Younger established playwrights continued to challenge audiences, mostly
in small or regional theaters. Mamet’s Oleanna (1992) investigated sexual
harassment. Overmyer’s Dark Rapture (1992) combined crime, greed, and
sex in the style of motion-picture thrillers. Wilson’s Seven Guitars (1995)
revisited the black experience in 1940s America. Wasserstein’s An American
Daughter (1997) looked at gender politics in Washington, D.C. Sondheim’s
musicals became darker in his treatment of presidential assassination in Assassins
(1990) and out-of-control love and guilt in Passion (1994).
Recent Trends The direction of American drama presented troubling questions
as the 20th century drew to a close. Economic woes of regional and experimental
theaters resulted in a multitude of plays with a single setting and no more
than two or three characters, which made them less expensive to produce. The
aging of American theater audiences and competition from other forms of entertainment
also endangered drama’s future. Theaters were rejecting many large-scale
plays as too risky and unlikely to draw big enough audiences to cover production
expenses. Consequently, musicals, which were reliable crowd-pleasers, and revivals
dominated Broadway theater seasons. Almost all nonmusical plays originated in
regional theaters. The expense of touring productions meant that most new plays
reached a geographically diverse audience only if they were adapted to motion
pictures or television. Many playwrights appeared to write with a film or television
adaptation in mind, a tendency accentuated by the fact that motion-picture companies
owned many theaters and producing organizations.
Although experimentation continued and poignant subject matter was still addressed
in some quarters, many playwrights worried that American theater had become
too conservative in its mainstream and too specialized in its smaller venues.
The chief concern as the 20th century ended was whether the 21st century would
provide enough opportunities for strong new dramatic voices.
Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), English playwright and poet, recognized in
much of the world as the greatest of all dramatists. Shakespeare’s plays
communicate a profound knowledge of the wellsprings of human behavior, revealed
through portrayals of a wide variety of characters. His use of poetic and dramatic
means to create a unified aesthetic effect out of a multiplicity of vocal expressions
and actions is recognized as a singular achievement, and his use of poetry within
his plays to express the deepest levels of human motivation in individual, social,
and universal situations is considered one of the greatest accomplishments in
A complete, authoritative account of Shakespeare’s life is lacking, and
thus much supposition surrounds relatively few facts. It is commonly accepted
that he was born in 1564, and it is known that he was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon,
Warwickshire. The third of eight children, he was probably educated at the local
grammar school. As the eldest son, Shakespeare ordinarily would have been apprenticed
to his father’s shop so that he could learn and eventually take over the
business, but according to one account he was apprenticed to a butcher because
of declines in his father’s financial situation. According to another
account, he became a schoolmaster. In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway,
the daughter of a farmer. He is supposed to have left Stratford after he was
caught poaching in the deer park of Sir Thomas Lucy, a local justice of the
peace. Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had a daughter in 1583 and twins—a
boy and a girl—in 1585. The boy did not survive.
Shakespeare apparently arrived in London about 1588 and by 1592 had attained
success as an actor and a playwright. Shortly thereafter he secured the patronage
of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The publication of Shakespeare’s
two fashionably erotic narrative poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape
of Lucrece (1594) and of his Sonnets (published 1609, but circulated previously
in manuscript form) established his reputation as a gifted and popular poet
of the Renaissance (14th century to 17th century). The Sonnets describe the
devotion of a character, often identified as the poet himself, to a young man
whose beauty and virtue he praises and to a mysterious and faithless dark lady
with whom the poet is infatuated. The ensuing triangular situation, resulting
from the attraction of the poet’s friend to the dark lady, is treated
with passionate intensity and psychological insight. Shakespeare’s modern
reputation, however, is based primarily on the 38 plays that he apparently wrote,
modified, or collaborated on. Although generally popular in his time, these
plays were frequently little esteemed by his educated contemporaries, who considered
English plays of their own day to be only vulgar entertainment.
Shakespeare’s professional life in London was marked by a number of financially
advantageous arrangements that permitted him to share in the profits of his
acting company, the Chamberlain’s Men, later called the King’s Men,
and its two theaters, the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars. His plays were
given special presentation at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James
I more frequently than those of any other contemporary dramatist. It is known
that he risked losing royal favor only once, in 1599, when his company performed
“the play of the deposing and killing of King Richard II“ at the
request of a group of conspirators against Elizabeth. In the subsequent inquiry,
Shakespeare’s company was absolved of complicity in the conspiracy.
After about 1608, Shakespeare’s dramatic production lessened and it seems
that he spent more time in Stratford, where he had established his family in
an imposing house called New Place and had become a leading local citizen. He
died in 1616, and was buried in the Stratford church.
Although the precise date of many of Shakespeare’s plays is in doubt,
his dramatic career is generally divided into four periods: (1) the period up
to 1594, (2) the years from 1594 to 1600, (3) the years from 1600 to 1608, and
(4) the period after 1608. Because of the difficulty of dating Shakespeare’s
plays and the lack of conclusive facts about his writings, these dates are approximate
and can be used only as a convenient framework in which to discuss his development.
In all periods, the plots of his plays were frequently drawn from chronicles,
histories, or earlier fiction, as were the plays of other contemporary dramatists.
Shakespeare’s first period was one of experimentation. His early plays,
unlike his more mature work, are characterized to a degree by formal and rather
obvious construction and by stylized verse.
Chronicle history plays were a popular genre of the time, and four plays dramatizing
the English civil strife of the 15th century are possibly Shakespeare’s
earliest dramatic works (see England: The Lancastrian and Yorkist Kings). These
plays, Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III (1590?-1592?) and Richard III (1592-1593?),
deal with evil resulting from weak leadership and from national disunity fostered
for selfish ends. The four-play cycle closes with the death of Richard III and
the ascent to the throne of Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty, to
which Elizabeth belonged. In style and structure, these plays are related partly
to medieval drama and partly to the works of earlier Elizabethan dramatists,
especially Christopher Marlowe. Either indirectly (through such dramatists)
or directly, the influence of the classical Roman dramatist Seneca is also reflected
in the organization of these four plays, especially in the bloodiness of many
of their scenes and in their highly colored, bombastic language. The influence
of Seneca, exerted by way of the earlier English dramatist Thomas Kyd, is particularly
obvious in Titus Andronicus (1594?), a tragedy of righteous revenge for heinous
and bloody acts, which are staged in sensational detail.
Shakespeare’s comedies of the first period represent a wide range. The
Comedy of Errors (1592?), a farce in imitation of classical Roman comedy, depends
for its appeal on mistaken identities in two sets of twins involved in romance
and war. Farce is not as strongly emphasized in The Taming of the Shrew (1593?),
a comedy of character. The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1594?) concerns romantic
love. Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594?) satirizes the loves of its main
male characters as well as the fashionable devotion to studious pursuits by
which these noblemen had first sought to avoid romantic and worldly ensnarement.
The dialogue in which many of the characters voice their pretensions ridicules
the artificially ornate, courtly style typified by the works of English novelist
and dramatist John Lyly, the court conventions of the time, and perhaps the
scientific discussions of Sir Walter Raleigh and his colleagues.
Shakespeare’s second period includes his most important plays concerned
with English history, his so-called joyous comedies, and two of his major tragedies.
In this period, his style and approach became highly individualized. The second-period
historical plays include Richard II (1595?), Henry IV, Parts I and II (1597?),
and Henry V (1598?). They encompass the years immediately before those portrayed
in the Henry VI plays. Richard II is a study of a weak, sensitive, self-dramatizing
but sympathetic monarch who loses his kingdom to his forceful successor, Henry
IV. In the two parts of Henry IV, Henry recognizes his own guilt. His fears
for his own son, later Henry V, prove unfounded, as the young prince displays
a responsible attitude toward the duties of kingship. In an alternation of masterful
comic and serious scenes, the fat knight Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur reveal
contrasting excesses between which the prince finds his proper position. The
mingling of the tragic and the comic to suggest a broad range of humanity subsequently
became one of Shakespeare’s favorite devices.
Outstanding among the comedies of the second period is A Midsummer Night’s
Dream (1595?), which interweaves several plots involving two pairs of noble
lovers, a group of bumbling and unconsciously comic townspeople, and members
of the fairy realm, notably Puck, King Oberon, and Queen Titania. Subtle evocation
of atmosphere, of the sort that characterizes this play, is also found in the
tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice (1596?). In this play, the Renaissance motifs
of masculine friendship and romantic love are portrayed in opposition to the
bitter inhumanity of a usurer named Shylock, whose own misfortunes are presented
so as to arouse understanding and sympathy. The character of the quick-witted,
warm, and responsive young woman, exemplified in this play by Portia, reappears
in the joyous comedies of the second period.
The witty comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1599?) is marred, in the opinion of
some critics, by an insensitive treatment of its female characters. However,
Shakespeare’s most mature comedies, As You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth
Night (1600?), are characterized by lyricism, ambiguity, and beautiful, charming,
and strong-minded heroines like Beatrice. In As You Like It, the contrast between
the manners of the Elizabethan court and those current in the English countryside
is drawn in a rich and varied vein. Shakespeare constructed a complex orchestration
between different characters and between appearance and reality and used this
pattern to comment on a variety of human foibles. In that respect, As You Like
It is similar to Twelfth Night, in which the comical side of love is illustrated
by the misadventures of two pairs of romantic lovers and of a number of realistically
conceived and clowning characters in the subplot. Another comedy of the second
period is The Merry Wives of Windsor (1599?), a farce about middle-class life
in which Falstaff reappears as the comic victim.
Two major tragedies, differing considerably in nature, mark the beginning and
the end of the second period. Romeo and Juliet (1595?), famous for its poetic
treatment of the ecstasy of youthful love, dramatizes the fate of two lovers
victimized by the feuds and misunderstandings of their elders and by their own
hasty temperaments. Julius Caesar (1599?), on the other hand, is a serious tragedy
of political rivalries, but is less intense in style than the tragic dramas
that followed it.
Shakespeare’s third period includes his greatest tragedies and his so-called
dark or bitter comedies. The tragedies of this period are considered the most
profound of his works. In them he used his poetic idiom as an extremely supple
dramatic instrument, capable of recording human thought and the many dimensions
of given dramatic situations. Hamlet (1601?), perhaps his most famous play,
exceeds by far most other tragedies of revenge in picturing the mingled sordidness
and glory of the human condition. Hamlet feels that he is living in a world
of horror. Confirmed in this feeling by the murder of his father and the sensuality
of his mother, he exhibits tendencies toward both crippling indecision and precipitous
action. Interpretation of his motivation and ambivalence continues to be a subject
of considerable controversy.
Othello (1604?) portrays the growth of unjustified jealousy in the protagonist,
Othello, a Moor serving as a general in the Venetian army. The innocent object
of his jealousy is his wife, Desdemona. In this tragedy, Othello’s evil
lieutenant Iago draws him into mistaken jealousy in order to ruin him. King
Lear (1605?), conceived on a more epic scale, deals with the consequences of
the irresponsibility and misjudgment of Lear, a ruler of early Britain, and
of his councillor, the Duke of Gloucester. The tragic outcome is a result of
their giving power to their evil children, rather than to their good children.
Lear’s daughter Cordelia displays a redeeming love that makes the tragic
conclusion a vindication of goodness. This conclusion is reinforced by the portrayal
of evil as self-defeating, as exemplified by the fates of Cordelia’s sisters
and of Gloucester’s opportunistic son. Antony and Cleopatra (1606?) is
concerned with a different type of love, namely the middle-aged passion of Roman
general Mark Antony for Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Their love is glorified by
some of Shakespeare’s most sensuous poetry. In Macbeth (1606?), Shakespeare
depicts the tragedy of a man who, led on by others and because of a defect in
his own nature, succumbs to ambition. In securing the Scottish throne, Macbeth
dulls his humanity to the point where he becomes capable of any amoral act.
Unlike these tragedies, three other plays of this period suggest a bitterness
stemming from the protagonists’ apparent lack of greatness or tragic stature.
In Troilus and Cressida (1602?), the most intellectually contrived of Shakespeare’s
plays, the gulf between the ideal and the real, and both individual and political,
is skillfully evoked. In Coriolanus (1608?), another tragedy set in antiquity,
the legendary Roman hero Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus is portrayed as unable to
bring himself either to woo the Roman masses or to crush them by force. Timon
of Athens (1608?) is a similarly bitter play about a character reduced to misanthropy
by the ingratitude of his sycophants. Because of the uneven quality of the writing,
this tragedy is considered collaboration, quite possibly with English dramatist
The two comedies of this period are also dark in mood and are sometimes called
problem plays because they do not fit into clear categories or present easy
resolution. All’s Well That Ends Well (1602?) and Measure for Measure
(1604?) both question accepted patterns of morality without offering solutions.
The fourth period of Shakespeare’s work includes his principal romantic
tragicomedies. Toward the end of his career, Shakespeare created several plays
that, through the intervention of magic, art, compassion, or grace, often suggest
redemptive hope for the human condition. These plays are written with a grave
quality differing considerably from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, but
they end happily with reunions or final reconciliation. The tragicomedies depend
for part of their appeal upon the lure of a distant time or place, and all seem
more obviously symbolic than most of Shakespeare’s earlier works. To many
critics, the tragicomedies signify a final ripeness in Shakespeare’s own
outlook, but other authorities believe that the change reflects only a change
in fashion in the drama of the period.
The romantic tragicomedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1608?) concerns the painful
loss of the title character’s wife and the persecution of his daughter.
After many exotic adventures, Pericles is reunited with his loved ones. In Cymbeline
(1610?) and The Winter’s Tale (1610?), characters suffer great loss and
pain but are reunited. Perhaps the most successful product of this particular
vein of creativity, however, is what may be Shakespeare’s last complete
play, The Tempest (1611?), in which the resolution suggests the beneficial effects
of the union of wisdom and power. In this play a duke, deprived of his dukedom
and banished to an island, confounds his usurping brother by employing magical
powers and furthering a love match between his daughter and the usurper’s
son. Shakespeare’s poetic power reached great heights in this beautiful,
Two final plays, sometimes ascribed to Shakespeare, presumably are the products
of collaboration. A historical drama, Henry VIII (1613?) was probably written
with English dramatist John Fletcher (see Beaumont and Fletcher), as was The
Two Noble Kinsmen (1613?; published 1634), a story of the love of two friends
for one woman.
Until the 18th century, Shakespeare was generally thought to have been no more
than a rough and untutored genius. Theories were advanced that his plays had
actually been written by someone more educated, perhaps statesman and philosopher
Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare’s patron.
However, English writer Ben Jonson and others who saw in him a brilliance that
would endure celebrated him in his own time. Since the 19th century, Shakespeare’s
achievements have been more consistently recognized, and throughout the Western
world he has come to be regarded as the greatest dramatist ever.