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About this book

An essential introductory textbook that guides students through three hundred years of American plays, as well as their remarkable engagement with texts from across the Atlantic. Divided into seven historical periods, Jacqueline Foertsch offers unique overviews of 38 American plays and their reception, from Robert Hunter’s Androboros (c.1714) to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015). Each historical section begins with an overseas play that proved influential to American playwrights in that period, demonstrating to students an astonishing dialogue taking place across the Atlantic.

This is an ideal core text for modules on American Drama – or a supplementary text for broader modules on American Literature – which may be offered at the upper levels of an undergraduate Literature, Drama, Theatre Studies or American Studies degree. In addition it is a crucial resource for students who may be studying American Drama as part of a taught postgraduate degree in Literature, Drama or American Studies.

Table of Contents

Part I

Un-American Origins (1714–1798)
Abstract
In many remarkable respects, “American drama” is an oxymoronic concept whose terms have repelled and attracted each other since national inception. Foremost among the cultural institutions fled by the Puritans in their early-seventeenth-century sojourn in the New World was the English theater, where immoral behaviors proliferated, including offenses as specific as pickpocketing and prostitution and as generally questionable as relaxation and merrymaking. Worse yet was the stage’s obvious emphasis on the mystification, deception, sensationalism, and lavish display all long associated with Puritanism’s theological arch-nemesis, Catholicism, and all threatening to steal thunder from the performative qualities (dare we say the entertainment value?) of the Puritan minister’s own sermonizing (see also Davis, “Plays and Playwrights,” 220–21). As the English Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell created strict laws to rein in the popularity of the English theater, so the Protestant factions controlling various regions in the New World made life difficult to impossible for its budding theater troupes: the earliest known staged theatrical in the colonies, Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe (1665), comes down to us not in the play itself, now long lost, but in the legal transcripts describing the grounds on which the players accused of presenting this play were hauled into court.
Jacqueline Foertsch

Part II

The Rise of Melodrama (1798–1870)
Abstract
It was not the American Revolution of the 1770s, but the French Revolution of the 1790s, that finally disrupted the dominance of the English classics— and the elite dramatic tendency toward highborn characters speaking in clever aphorisms or blank verse—on the American stage. In his 1843 introduction to some collected works by the revolutionary French dramatist René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt, Charles Nodier describes Pixérécourt’s new genre, the “melodrame,” as “the only popular tragedy befitting the period in which we live” (xi) and as purposefully staging “the morality of the revolution.” Specifically, melodrama featured the plights of common persons, intensifying its moods of pathos, danger, or tragedy with emotion-laden musical cues and assuredly delivering its virtuous hero/ine from the clutches of evil by the final curtain. Notably, melodrama was identified by Nodier as little less than a modern religious experience, a uniquely edifying influence on newly liberated French peasants who had never been “better behaved morally” and among whom “crime has never been more rare” (xii), thanks to melodrama’s resounding assertion that it simply does not pay. From the Puritans’ fear of theaters as dens of vice and depravity, we shift to Nodier’s declaration that “[e]vil-doers would not have dared to show themselves in a place of amusement where everything spoke to them of harrowing remorse and inevitable punishments” (xii); it was exactly melodrama’s tendency, however sensationalized, toward moral uplift that American managers such as P. T. Barnum, profit-motivated showman extraordinaire, latched onto in their efforts to market theatrical entertainment among the religiously or otherwise moralistically oriented middle classes as the nineteenth century wore on. For Nodier, post-revolutionary theater enabled a decidedly post-Christian populace to renewed communion with the traditional values of sexual continence, honesty, humility, and nonviolence, and the melodramatic form itself “lends a skillful and powerful helping hand to providence by demonstrating its working through facts!” (xv).
Jacqueline Foertsch

Part III

An Explosion of Entertainments—and the Emergence of Realism (1870–1916)
Abstract
Following the Civil War, various versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin cast black actors in the role of Uncle Tom or employed them as extras in the “double mammoth” productions that took to the highways and byways of rural America. Closely resembling their lowbrow siblings the circus and the revival meeting—including a lavish parade that heralded their arrival in town and big-top tent settings during the summer months—the traveling Tom show trafficked in the evermore outsized and over-produced; African American actors and musicians built up the ranks of these traveling troupes—dozens in the parade marching bands and sometimes hundreds in the production numbers that enlivened each outdoor scene in the play. Ironically, this mass inclusion of African American performers into American theater history came at the expense of whatever historical accuracy and political integrity the original dramatizations once sought after: even the play’s most lugubrious moments, including the sale of Tom at auction and his arrival at the plantation of dreadful Simon Legree, were kicked off with rousing song-and-dance routines by a large body of more or less choreographed black actors. The play’s more and more prominent backdrop of happy slaves conflicted disorientingly with the tragic violence that remained an emotional staple at other points in the production; only during the death of Little Eva, when distraught slaves crowded the stage behind her deathbed in reverent silence, did the mood coincide with the business at hand, though again it perpetuated the notion—embodied always most forcefully by Tom himself—that white lives and deaths mattered more to nineteenth-century African Americans than their own ever could.
Jacqueline Foertsch

Part IV

O’Neill, His Cohort, and the Legitimate Stage between the Wars (1916–1945)
Abstract
The advent of modern American drama coincides not surprisingly with the predominance of the literary, artistic, and performative modernism that defined the cultural experience in Europe and America between the World Wars. In the words of David Krasner, “To be a modern American dramatist was to be an experimenter … [and Eugene] O’Neill often became immersed in the modernist movements of his time” (“Eugene O’Neill,” 145). O’Neill famously incorporated expressionist effects (in The Emperor Jones [1920] and The Hairy Ape [1922]); Jungian masks (in All God’s Chillun Got Wings [1924], The Great God Brown [1926], and Lazarus Laughed [1928]); Nietzschean philosophy (again, in The Great God Brown); Freudian-style voiceovers speaking the conflicted subconscious (in Strange Interlude [1928]); and neoclassical revivalism shaped along Freudian-Oedipal lines (in Mourning Becomes Electra [1931]).
Jacqueline Foertsch

Part V

American Drama’s Golden Age (1945–1959)
Abstract
A canon of serious American drama, inaugurated by O’Neill, Wilder, Hellman, and others in the early twentieth century, was significantly strengthened by the contributions of two giants of the post-WWII stage, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Williams, the gay Southerner, invested in the sweeping romance of grand dreams, betrayed hope, and failed escape; and Miller, the Jewish New Yorker combining realism and experimentation to challenge complacent mid-century audiences, both approached their vocation from divergent standpoints but shared the ability to enthrall audiences with their dramatic output throughout the golden age of American drama in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Jacqueline Foertsch

Part VI

Albee, Others, and the American Absurdist Tradition (1959–1980)
Abstract
Though he famously denied the association, the influence of the Irish-born master dramatist Samuel Beckett on the career of the first major playwright of the American contemporary era, Edward Albee, is plain. Often linked with his European contemporaries Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, it is Beckett who has most effectively provided the American theater scene its transformative encounter with the theater of the absurd, and his deservedly renowned Endgame (1957) is the Transatlantic Touchstone for this part therefore. Absurdist theater comprised the uniquely postwar (indeed post-nuclear) dramatic response to a humanity that many left-wing intellectuals were sure had come unhinged, had sacrificed its last semblance of commitment to self and other in the catastrophic instances of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki; the Vietnam War; and the many assassinations, riots, and revolts of the late 1960s. Beckett’s absurdism confronted its audience with a bleak, ruined setting; equally deteriorated and deranged (though often darkly comic and clownish) characters; and stringent mockery of any pretense to hope, survival, or fellow-feeling. In Waiting for Godot (1953), the Chaplinesque tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, famously await “Godot”—widely interpreted as a god figure—who never arrives, then endlessly insist to each other that they both “go,” though neither ever does.
Jacqueline Foertsch

Part VII

Diversity and Social Change (1980–present)
Abstract
The contemporary scene in American drama includes major contributions from a diverse array of gay authors (who now write openly on gay themes; see also Roudané, “Plays,” 404), playwrights of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, and an improving representation of women from all groups. Not surprisingly, the goal of many underrepresented writers is to bring their story to the American stage, developing dramatic work from the unique perspective of their personal/contemporary and collective/historical experience. Many continue tapping into the absurdist tradition established by Beckett and others, and many mix dark humor with implicit or explicit violence per the genre-blending tendencies of the wider contemporary stage. As have the dramas, so the stages themselves have continued to diversify beyond the bounds of Broadway; important regional theaters such as the Magic in San Francisco, the Mark Taper in Los Angeles, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, the Goodman and Steppenwolf in Chicago, Yale Repertory Theater New Haven, and the McCarter Center in Princeton have sponsored plays by many of the artists represented in this part; the Public Theater’s Joseph Papp (in New York), Yale Rep’s Lloyd Richards, and McCarter’s Emily Mann are cited as key mentors to these writers in their early and mid-careers, as are important playwriting teachers such as Marie Irene Fornés and Paula Vogel, who directs the playwriting program at Brown. Theatre Communications Group is an active publisher of contemporary American plays and a sponsor of theater-related research; its American Theater and BOMB are two online magazines with frequent updates regarding theater news and interviews with contemporary playwrights.
Jacqueline Foertsch
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