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The States of American Playwriting

By Todd London

This article is the transcript of the second address to the Scandinavia On Stage conference, NYC, April 19, 2001.
Todd London is the Executive Director of American New Dramatists, New York

[1] Intro
[2] State One: The Great American Playwright is Dead; Long Live the Great American Playwrights
[3] State Two:America as Many Americas
[4] State Three: Dramatic Form as the Search for From
[5] State Four: Theater Everywhere and Not a Lot of Ink
[6] Might America be a Figment of America's Imagination?

I want to begin by apologizing. I know it's bad form to apologize for what you say before you say it, but I hope you'll understand. I'm here under false pretenses. I've been asked to compare the state of Scandinavian playwriting with that of American playwriting, but I know nothing about Scandinavian playwriting. I've scanned some critical summaries over the past couple of weeks, I've read and now heard Monna Dithmer's compelling, incisive account just now. But basically, you know what I know -- more, if you knew anything coming in the door. That's half of my apology. Here's the other half. I work in a 50-year-old community of playwrights that numbers in the hundreds; this job brings me into contact with the work of hundreds of playwrights a year. I swim in plays, which I have the honor to encounter in all stages, partial drafts, rough firsts, and everything on the way to produced, revised, and published versions.

I have no distance from this profusion -- this plenty -- of dramatic writing. I lack, therefore, the critic's confidence, the objectivist's gumption to draw conclusions conclusively. Ranking playwrights' accomplishments runs counter to everything we do to build community among writers. I stand before you hesitantly, therefore, bothered by competing thoughts and impressions, afraid to say much of anything, especially to those of you just being introduced to our nation's playwrights. They are -- for me, at least -- too many, too varied, too artistically, geographically, and generationally far-flung to gather together in a definitive embrace, I'm here, then, rather absurdly, to compare something about which I know nothing with something I know too intimately to make sense of. (I also come nursing a bias, but I'll save that for later.) If Monna was a pathfinder, I can only be a tentative tour guide, sharing a jumble of impressions, making some passing observations, pointing out a few salient features in a landscape too vast and glutted to take in at a glance. I can't promise to deliver the state of American playwriting, but together we might visit some states on the map.

State One: The Great American Playwright is Dead; Long Live the Great American Playwrights

Looking over the papers of our Scandinavian counterparts for playwright names I recognize after Ibsen & Strindberg, I noticed what seemed like a critical impulse to identify their successors and call attention to the lack of such giants. At this moment it is impossible to describe American playwriting in this way, according to the accomplishments of the few. I need, instead, to sketch our world according to the attempts of the many.

First, I'm convinced that the very notion of a Great American Playwright is a thing of the past. And though I doubt many of our critics or other makers of reputations will agree with me, I believe the decline of this idea of greatness has been a long time in the making. Eugene O'Neill, the "Father" of American playwriting, is also its haunted son and restless ghost. If O'Neill gave birth to our nation's theatre and died for it, as Tennessee Williams eulogized, he also defined the experimental possibilities of that theatre more broadly than anyone before or since. On the way to his realistic, confessional, autobiographical masterworks, he wrestled with myth, masks, Greek tragedy, expressionism, boulevard romantic comedy, the seafarers ballad, psychoanalysis, and his own murderous furies, among many other adversaries. For us, O'Neill grew as Strindberg might have had he, in middle age, become Ibsen, in the period ofhis major prose plays.

But O'Neill was pure American, born in the dressing room of a barnstorming actor-manager, ever the immigrant's son, pen loosed by drink, coming of age with the radicals on the coast of Massachusetts and then, avant-garde, in Greenwich Village. O'Neill stands as the troubled Johnny Appleseed of the American Theatre, ripping up more earth and sowing more seeds than appears humanly possible, moistening the soil with his own blood.

After him a couple of others were admitted into our native pantheon, notably Tennessee Williams, who walked the edge of poetry and pathology O'Neill had cut, and Arthur Miller, who further integrated the classically tragic and the contemporaneously American, and dramatized individual conscience at the place it meets social consciousness.

And then something changed. Simultaneous with the anti-authoritarian sixties, with the liberation-seeking, experimental ethos of the times, something began to change in the relationship of artists to the idea of greatness in the theatre. I think about Edward Albee's career. Albee the Broadway master, was, arguably, the last great American playwright; Albee the experimental playwright and pioneer! Off Off Broadway, on the other hand, seemed to disavow the mantel ofhis own greatness by refusing to stay in one place, by giving free rein to his own restless experimentalism. He did the opposite of what O'Neill did, by moving from the domestic, argumentative absurdism of, say, "The 1 Zoo Story" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof;" towards the stranger terrors of "Tiny Alice or Seascape"--leaving the trappings of naturalism farther behind. Albee's artistic rebellion proved many things, among them the limitations of the Broadway theatre, the arrival at which had previously been requisite for greatness. Now the Great White Way, ever in decline, seemed an eternally pale thing, unable to make room for anything but the most naturalistic drama. Even Albee's recent triumphal return -- twenty odd years later -- is taking place Off Broadway.

Around the same time, the decentralization of our theatre was picking up speed. From the total dominance of the Broadway commercial theatre in New York -- with an extensive national network of theatres to house Broadway tours -- the centers of activity began to shift -- to a woollier, more adventurous Off Broadway and a collectively energized, impoverished Off Off Broadway, as well as to a burgeoning constellation of regional, nonprofit companies, many originally envisioned in the image of subsidized European theaters resident companies and a rotating repertoire of classic and new plays. I don't know what was cause and what effect. Maybe changing dramatic forms followed the diversification of venues or maybe politics, catalyzed by the struggle for American Civil Rights, led at that moment of explosion and flux. Maybe the art came first and places to stage it followed.

Whatever the cause, anew era in playwriting began here: an age not of authority or hierarchy, so much as an era of influence, of democratic spread. This shift -- and I believe we're somewhere in the second generation of it -- is still being felt. For the first time, many of the most significant voices in the American theatre were voices that would never be heard on Broadway. Some would rarely if ever find a hearing in New York. Others -- no less singular or artistically significant -- would live for decades in the land of hundred-seat houses with black walls and xeroxed playbills. Now, forty years after Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun" and Albee's "Virginia Woolf" changed the look and feel of Broadway, we still have canonized-or, at least, highly anthologized-playwrights. (I'm thinking of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, and most recently, Tony Kushner, who are, without question, world-class playwrights with the capability of reaching mainstream audiences and with one or more plays vying for a place on everybody's lists of must-reads.) Surrounding them, though, is a whole world of writers whose power, influence and theatrical vitality make them every bit as deserving of enthusiasm and attention.

State Two: America as Many Americas

I'm about to start throwing names at you. For our Scandinavian colleagues, these are certain to be unfamiliar names, which, I hope, will prove my point. Contrary to the impression that America exports its culture "blockbuster-style, I believe that even the American mainstream is unaware of the writers shaping its theatrical culture from the trenches. Furthermore, the culture-shapers, though choosing to work in unusual places and ways, have every right to stand beside our equally talented, international successes. Mostly, I'm dying to turn you on to as many playwrights as I can, even knowing that the litany of their names and qualities will be an incomprehensible barrage and that for everyone I name, there'll be scores I leave out.

You will notice that many of the names I cite, while I talk about influence and democratic spread, have a racial or ethnic component. I'll refer to the vibrant community of Hispanic writers working in our theater, the lineage of contemporary African-American writers revising our history, and the growing influence of Asian-American writers. This is not, I believe, the result of any conscientious inclusion on my part. The world of American playwriting I live in does not operate by quotas, though I fear our producing theaters do. I am merely describing what I see. And I see a profession of playwriting whose unprecedented vigor has come, over the past 15 years or so, from the sound of voices that had previously been The generative moment for this vigor, I believe, happened in the 60's and early 70's, with the wild proliferation of Off Off Broadway playwriting-in clubs, cafes, garages, spaces. Though its energy has changed, we still feel the repercussions of that explosion, that turning point when all at once writers of skin tones and nationalities and sexual persuasions who had never been acknowledged or supported by the monochromatic. Broadway theater started to throw work on the stage with a vengeance.

The aftershocks have included a slow-motion blowing apart of the myth of a singular, homogeneous America. Our writers have been on the front lines. They've changed the sound and subject matter of the American theater in part by dedication, mutual support, and numbers. While a quarter century ago, you would have been hard pressed to locate the work or a Cuban -- or Mexican -- or Chinese-American on an American stage, we now have two generations of each, arguing, elaborating, advancing -- even completing -- each other. When I began teaching 19 years ago, I had to hunt to find plays by women in anthologies; now bookshelves lining my office are chockfull of them, as are the lists I have tacked to my bulletin board -- indispensable playwrights, playwrights whose work I love. In maybe 15 years' time, Black playwrights have not only transformed the theater, but radically revised our nation's history. The prime example of this is August Wilson's monumental play cycle, charting the lives of African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century in a blues-inspired choral idiom- an achievement whose scope and brilliance rivals any in the annals of our theater. Meanwhile, in other idioms altogether-poetic, formalist, expressionist, confessional, satirical, naturalistic-a generation of African-American writers is moving through the doors Wilson blew open. In a recent "New Yorker" magazine, Wilson's current director, Marion McClinton, himself a gifted playwright, named nearly a dozen writers who've benefited August Wilson's flying wedge.
I imagine that, given the demographics of Scandinavia, few of these plays will translate to your stages. I wish I could impress on you, though, how important and expanding they've become to our theater -both in terms of subject and form - challenging our ideas about what makes experience universal and about what makes a play dramatic. Moreover, they've proven absolutely that America is, in fact, many Americas, that the American Dream - a subject of our national obsession for at least a century -is many dreams and nightmares.

The spread of artistic influence, through the African-American playwriting community, for instance, is about more than opportunity, it's about the writing itself. I think of some of my personal favorite playwrights and can't envision them emerging full-blown without the example of the ones who came before. The brilliant Suzan-Lori Parks reconstructs American history by probing the absence of African-American history-what she in "The America Play" called, "the great hole of history"(that play featured a black man dressed as Abraham Lincoln and known as "the foundling father"). Parks and the politically passionate, linguistically vivacious Kia Corthron are two important contemporary playwrights who couldn't exist -- artistically speaking -- without the precedents of Amiri Baraka's politics and jazz poetry or the intense subjectivity of Adrienne Kennedy's theatrical hallucinations.

In every realm of dramatic writing here, you can see the chains of influence between writers barely separated by time. Young comedic writers like Nicky Silver, Charles Busch, and David Lindsay-Abaire seem to have drunk of the spirits of such slightly older writers as the ever-imaginative raconteur John Guare, the anarchic Christopher Durang, the manic Harry Kondoleonrand, who died too young, and the late Charles Ludlam, our own gender-bending Moliere. There is no Arthur Miller school of playwriting, but it's hard to imagine serious playwright-thinkers like Jon Robin Baitz, Marsha Norman, Emily Mann, or Donald Margulies without him, just as it's hard to imagine such dark satirists of macho capitalism as Keith Reddin or Howard Korder without Mamet. And so it goes: David Henry Hwang, by bringing Chinese-American life to our stages, begets Chay Yew, who is even more violently contemporary and sexual, and Diana Son, who takes the ethnic mix of America for granted and leaves her Korean heritage out all together.

You can see the influence, too, of playwrights teaching playwrights. Perhaps the most influential American playwriting teacher of the past quarter century is Maria Irene Fomes, a Cuban-born New Yorker whose spare, essentials body of work, begun and sustained almost entirely Off Off Broadway, is one of the unsung treasures of the late 2nd-century American stage. As a teacher, Fomes' emphasis on body-centered, subconscious writing has changed the lives of dozens of our finest playwrights, including nearly every Hispanic playwright working. From the Chekhovian family comic dramas of Cuban-American Eduardo Machado to the violent machismo of Chicano writer Octavio Solis's Broadway plays to the improbable love stories of Puerto Rican-born Edwin A Sanchez to Nilo Cruz's art-object-like imaginings of loss and longing, Fomes hasn't put her stamp on the plays, so much as provided inspiration to their authors. Two other playwright-teachers have, like Fomes, set this generation of playwriting minds on fire, rather than inducting disciples into a theatrical style: Paula Vogel, whose formally playful work-including "How I Learned to Drive" and "The Baltimore Waltz" -- has lured audiences into the dark waters of incest, AIDS death, and domestic violence, and Mac Wellman, one of our most frankly experimental writers, whose satires of American culture- featuring giant pandas and intergalactic fur-balls --revel in language, language as landscape, language as event.

State Three: Dramatic Form as the Search for Form

I'm struck by how unruly they are, our playwrights. They refuse to swim in schools, even as they show their influences. Maybe the passage from a theater of Broadway greats to this dramaturigical motley is typically American -the breakaway nation always in rebellion against mother country and father time. Maybe the difficulty of summarizing current playwriting stems from the deep-seated individualism of the American enterprise. In playwright after playwright I've found evidence of an aversion to writing in established forms that I haven't noticed in other countries. Treplev's youthful cry in "The Seagull" for "New Forms" seems to have taken root in the American artistic heart.

I've formed one impression during five years of overseeing a playwright exchange with London's Royal National Theater. It's this: British playwrights tend to write out of and against tradition or convention and have lately succeeded on the world stage a partly because of it. Recent efforts by Martin McDonagh, Mark Ravenhill, and Jez Butterworth, for instance, rely on dramatic structures recognizable from, say Hitchcock or Tarantino films, or linguistic ones from Mamet or Scorcese. They wreak changes on their models and on their models' morality, certainly, but they still work within categories that audiences and critics recognize as "dramatic" -- that is, conflictual, confrontational, repetitive, and violent.

For many of their contemporaries in America, I suspect, form equals the search for form. It's something a writer discovers in the process of writing. It is immanent. Think, for example of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." The "fantasia" style is a kind of non-binding structure, allowing Kushner's imagination to go where it wants, to digress, to elaborate, to move forward and back, like progress itself, one of the play's main themes. The play dreams itself into being. And then the second part, "Perestroika," dreams itself another way.

This a-traditionalism or setting-out-to-points-unknown feels distinctly American to me. It's the way the country has grown, by brash, intuitive, violent improvisation, inventing itself and discovering itself simultaneously. It's little wonder, then, that improvisational comedy has established itself as a boom industry in the US It's little wonder, either, that American audiences, fed on the dramatic conventions of the old Broadway and the everlasting Hollywood, would find new American writing somewhat alien and hard to recognize or that our reviewers and our producers would dismiss as lacking in drama or quality that which is merely new to them.

Stage Four: Theater Everywhere and Not a Lot of Ink

I've arrived then, as I warned you I would, at my bias, my complaint: America has not yet created theaters worthy of its artists.

Our theatrical community is, I believe, in the midst of a long and wide-spread transition, from the centralized, commercialized, conventional world of mid-20th-century Broadway to who knows what. But because we're a young work-in-progress in a savagely under-subsidized field, the progress has been led by people with a talent for fundraising and outreach. Institution builders have been our pioneers, as opposed to artistic visionaries or champions of the difficult or new. Specifically, I believe that the American theater -- commercial and institutional, in New York and across the country -- has not yet developed theaters that can make sense of American playwriting. As a result, we are in the painful state of living amidst a profusion of talent and a scarcity of homes for that talent. The theaters are there -- the buildings -- but the singularity of vision that gifted writers cultivate by instinct and the diversity of vision that this community of writers has grown to -- these accomplishments are betrayed by a theater that has created itself in the very homogenous image it set out to overthrow. Moreover, with the exception of small experimental ensembles and a few Shakespeare Festivals, we have no acting companies large or long-lived enough to develop the collective vernacular that serves a company playwright. When New York lost the Circle Repertory Theater a decade ago, which had nurtured Lanford Wilson and, later, Craig Lucas, among others, we lost, perhaps the last mature company to marry acting style to playwriting vision.

Harold Clurman, a founder of the influential Group Theater in the 1930s and one of America's most important directors, critics, thinkers and, especially, inspirers in the, middle of the century gone by, describes in his memoir a conversation with the novelist : Andre Gaide. "The problem with the theater," aide remarks, "is finding great plays." "The problem with the theater," Clunnan counters, "is creating a theater." I hope my friends on today and tomorrow's panel will persuade you that I'm wrong, but I believe that Clunnan has proved prescient.

And so we await and hope for the theaters to come. And the playwrights' eyes are fixed on smaller theaters and newer ones and local ones -- the idiosyncratic and passionate, the possible and impossible theaters.

Stage Five: Might America be a Figment of America's Imagination?

One final thing. I've charted a jump-around, loosely historical path through the playwriting profession today. What I haven't done is locate thematic threads, a way of talking about the "amounts" of contemporary writing. Monna did this so intriguingly with her discussion of interior and exterior space. Moreover, she tried to do with five countries what I seem unable to do with one, that is track the shared spirit or distinctive characteristic of place. I'm aware that our attempts to sum up or essentials our cultures for each other are like those conversations you have when you travel, over beers with tourists from other countries -- "the thing about America is. .." In our attempts to overcome cultural distinctions we earnestly engage in drawing them.

Still, every time I think I've put my finger on what seems like a distinctive thread of American playwriting -- the fluidity of identity, for example -- it slips out of my grasp. This month, for instance, I've read dozens of plays -- satires of corporate behavior in California; painful hyper-real portraits of Generation X-ers as lost in themselves as they are in America; a slippery, thoroughly bent sex farce based on Molnar's The Guardsman; a Pinteresque interrogation play centered around an ailing, bed-ridden Proust character; a play featuring a serial killer who finds Jesus on death row; and more.

The framework I keep returning to, my personal attempt to make the strongest connection between the largest number of plays, is that of the making of America itself. America, it constantly occurs to me in light of the plays I read and see, is a made-up thing, a figment of its own imagination. It's always been so, a place as an idea of a place, refuge, home, wilderness, possibility and prison, a nation proclaimed to be indivisible but, we now know, as easily divided as can be. And so I return to the thought that our writers -- maybe like the writers of every country -- are continually rediscovering, remaking, constructing and deconstructing, dreaming of and waking to their homeland. Maybe this self- and national-definition that occurs everywhere is at the heart of the American project and its theatrical expression. Maybe our playwrights are always in the process of discovering America and of making it up as they go along. Where they'll land, nobody knows. [NYTW]

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