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Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Top Ten Most Important American Plays: A Futile (But Fun) Endeavor

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I'd like to welcome you to Theater is a Sport.  What once started out as a daily blog, has, unfortunately, become more of a "every other day or so" blog, but it is still my little writing on the vast wall of the internet, and I enjoy it very much.  I hope you will, too.

Just for kicks, I recently Googled "Top Ten American Plays", and the very first result I got was an article from the Denver Post in 2010 called "The 10 Most Important Amercan Plays".  The article admits it gathered its results from an informal survey of theatre professionals.  Their results were as follows:

1.  Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
2.  Angels in America by Tony Kushner
3.  A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
4.  Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill
5.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
6.  Our Town by Thornton Wilder
7.  The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
8.  A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
9.  The Crucible by Arthur Miller
10.  Fences by August Wilson

If you would like to read more about the way this list was determined, here's the link to the article:  http://www.denverpost.com/ci_14385361

If you want to wait and read the rest of what I have to say first, that's cool, too. 

So...

I'm not going to lie--- it's an impressive list of plays, no doubt about it.  However, as I looked at it, I couldn't help but feel there were some glaring gaps, which made me question what the word "important" means to the people who were surveyed.  

For example:  are there no important American comedies?  Really?  Kaufman and Hart were just hacks because they tried to make us laugh?  The Man Who Came To Dinner is just a piece of fluff, even though it has been an inspiration to just about every future comedic playwright? 

Speaking of comedies, is it TRULY fair to disregard one of America's most financially and crowd-pleasing playwrights of all-time?  Of course I'm talking about Neil Simon, who, more than once in his career, had multiple hit plays running on Broadway at the same time.  Now, I suppose the argument might be that "commercial" success does not mean that a writer is "important".  I can buy that.  But, to be honest, Mr. Simon has justifiably become a part of the Broadway culture, not only from a fiscal standpoint, but also in terms of what it means to be a "lauded" playwright.  He's won three Tonys, a Pulitzer, and was awarded the Mark Twain Award.  Not to metion that his autobiography Rewrites should be required reading for anyone thinking about becoming a writer. 

Another glaring absence I was struck by was the absence of musicals.  Granted, the title says most important American plays, but, when reading the article, many of the people voting did mention how certain musicals would probably be recognized in years to come, so I figured that opened the door for me to talk about them.  Carousel is a great American musical, adapted from the play Lilliom by Molnar (who was very happy with the adaptation).  Not to mention the few musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize, like How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (of course, this has a double whammy against it--- musical and comedy), Sunday in the Park With George, A Chorus Line, and Next To Normal (the most recent musical to win the coveted award), just to name 4 of the 8 musicals that have won. 

Gosh, "important" is such a tricky word.

I think what shocked me the most was the fact that only one woman was represented on the list, Lorraine Hansberry for A Raisin in the Sun.  Perhaps a good number of people will say that the great female playwrights are still too young to be included, we need to see if they'll stand the test of time.  Try saying that to Lillian Hellman, Gertrude Stein, Marsha Norman... all, who, I think, have done well hanging around.  Same with Paula Vogel, Pulitzer winner for How I Learned to Drive, a brutal yet human play about incest, or Suzan Lori-Parks, author of wonderful plays like Venus and Topdog/Underdog, another Pulitzer Winner (Ms. Lori-Parks is also a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient). 

Yes, I can understand avoiding more modern plays for the list, I can, really, even pretty good ones like August:  Osage County by Tracy Letts or Doubt, American Buffalo, etc., etc.

Etc., Etc.

However, it became less of a forgivable mistake when you look at the playwrights who are doubled on the list.  No one is going to say that Arthur Miller is not a great American writer.  He is.  But so was Clifford Odets, and where the hell was he on the list (even though his movement with the Group Theatre really changed the way theatre was perceived).  Yes, Miller is great, and even other plays of his could have been on the list, particularly A View from the Bridge.  But a list like this is too short for people to be repeated.  

Yet I forgive the two by Miller more than the ones by Williams.  I can deal with A Streetcar Named Desire, in fact, I even agree with it.  It's a searing drama by a passionate writer.  But I would argue that there are HUNDREDS of plays that deserve to be on this list more than The Glass Menagerie, a slightly annoying memory play with a character it is difficult to root for because she doesn't do a damn thing to help herself. 

And yeah, I would call The Skin of Our Teeth Thornton Wilder's masterpiece, but I suppose I'm in the minority on that one... Our Town has become a staple of community theatres that play it as a simple Americana drama as opposed to the satire it really is. 

So, I'm going to put myself on the line and make my own list.  It is a futile endeavor, and one that I probably won't even be completely satisfied with, but I will do it anyway, and I will try to explain my choices.  Please feel free to leave comments telling me what glaring mistakes I have made.  I won't mind. 

1.  Awake and Sing by Clifford Odets, because he took the family drama to new, naturalistic heights in his attempts for realism on stage.
2.  Long Day's Journey Into Night, another family drama so passionate and personal that O'neill didn't even want it produced until he had been dead twenty years.
3.  The Crucible, by Arthur Miller.  I choose this over Salesman, even though Salesman is Greek Tragedy for the working man, because it is important for Americans to see how we repeat ourselves with our witch hunts and hysteria.
4.  The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, more than Virginia Woolf, because Virginia Woolf, while brilliant, in the end proves that the greatest "truth" we've been following was actually an illusion, while The Zoo Story, in about one hour, captures the desperation and exile of the American transient, aching with loneliness and a desire to connect in a city where connection feels damn near impossible.
5.  Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, because it is the wild work of a young man, Arthur Kopit, bringing the absurdism and tragicomedy of the French to an American viewpoint.  Not to mention its send-up of sex, class, motherhood, and so much more.  Most shockingly, it delivers a message how people will often choose oppression over freedom if given the choice, a wonderful message for the decade in which it was written (the 1960s)
6.  Joe Turner's Come and Gone, by August Wilson.  I prefer this to Fences for the passion and the grand epiphany at the end.
7.  How I Learned to Drive, because it tackles a heartbreaking subject in such a human, but theatrical manner.  Vogel also has a gift for dialogue and creating characters who are relatable.
8.  Burn This, by Lanford Wilson.  Wilson never wanted to be known for writing "gay plays" but plays about human beings.  Burn This is just that.  Love this play.  Love it, love it, love it.
9.  The Odd Couple, by Neil Simon.  While this is not my personal favorite of Simon's (that would be one of his darker comedies), I consider it an important American play because it went way beyond the wildest notion of success for a playwright.  It permeated the culture, even with the term "odd couple".  I will also add that within this play, Simon truly begins to show he is a writer who can derive humor from characters with humanity, and not just from one-liners.  It is an important play in his growth as a writer.
10.  I have to go with Next To Normal, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt.  I had the pleasure of seeing this on Broadway at the Booth Theater with the original cast (although J. Robert Spencer's understudy was on the night I saw it, but he was amazing, too).  We return to the family drama, only, this time, it is a modern twist, somewhat relatable to O'Neill, but, instead of addiction, it tackles mental illness and its effect on a family.  Brave, daring, with a rocking score and a tight script, Next To Normal has perhaps, for me anyway, set a standard for musical theatre that will  be very difficult to live up to.

Okay, there's my list.  Again, feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments. 

In the meantime, thanks for checking it out, and I hope you come back to my blog, because... well... theater is a sport, and why not celebrate that?

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8 comments:

  1. Pretty good list, but Skin of Our Teeth can be a dreadful read. I've never seen it, though. Joseph Campbell thought it little more than an obvious rip-off of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

    I like that I know and have read almost all of them.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond.

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  2. Their list is better than yours. The Crucible is a bore and Odd Couple is inane. Try harder.

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    1. My first response was a bit over-sensitive, so I deleted it.
      Instead, I will just say thank you for reading my blog and having an interest in the subject.
      I assure you, though, I am trying the best I can.
      And, of course, I could go into deep detail about why I chose what I did, bit I will refrain.

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  3. Hey, what's the deal? Where's "Epic Fail by Bradley Hayward" on this list?!

    But seriously...

    If a play makes an impact on any one person, for whatever reason, then I consider it important. I personally don't like quite a few of the plays on their list or yours, but they do and you do, which is reason enough for me to include them.

    I don't have a list of my own (although you may see one pop up on my blog now that you've given me the idea), but here are several that are important to me: Bus Stop, The Little Foxes, On Borrowed Time, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, Cabaret, Noises Off, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Off the Map.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Don't know which of your plays I would include (although, I guess technically you are a Canadian playwright)--- but, as you know, I think you are one of the best playwrights in my field!
      I almost included "Little Foxes", especially after making a point about Lillian Hellman...
      10 is such a small number!
      Yeah, it was a futile exercise, but I did have fun thinking about it and do stand by my list... Even if people disagree, I do think they are titles that dramatists should be familiar with as part of their theatre education...
      Let me know if you make a list... I would like to read it.
      Thanks for your comment!

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  4. I just saw the Kentucky Cycle it it's better than half the plays on both of your lists.

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    1. I'm quite fond of the Kentucky Cycle, too. Where did you see it?

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