When New Plays Get Old
Are you familiar with any of these plays? Stand-Up Tragedy. Daytrips. Romance Language. A Place With The Pigs. From The Mississippi Delta. Rebel Armies Deep Into Chad. Pill Hill. Messiah. In Perpetuity Throughout The Universe. A few? None? Don’t feel bad, because to my knowledge, none of them have received a major production in years. Yet they were all new plays that received prominent productions from the mid 80s to the early 90s. Some had New York runs, both long and short. I saw them all, and worked on several.
Of the playwrights, some remain active in the theater, others moved on to television, I don’t know what’s up with a few, one passed away recently, another several years ago. They are, in order, Bill Cain, Jo Carson, Peter Parnell, Athol Fugard, Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Mark Lee, Samuel Kelly, Martin Sherman, and Eric Overmyer. Certainly a few of those names are familiar.
So why do I single out these relative obscurities? Because I think they are the barest tip of an enormous iceberg: plays that were once perceived to display value and talent, but never achieved a level of recognition to have become standards, let alone classics. They were hot new plays that grew cold for any number of reasons, and now languish somewhere in the catalogues of companies like Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service like orphans, forever hoping someone will notice them, but always being passed over for the younger, newer, more conventionally attractive.
I should acknowledge before I go on that new plays are essential to the lifeblood of the theater, and I champion the opportunities created for authors to develop and premiere new work, as well as to see it go on to second, third, or tenth productions, whether in New York or Peoria. I hope that new works don’t suffer from the “premiere”-itis that swept regional theaters in the 1980s, when everyone pursued the first production of a new play, but then that work found itself abandoned, for any number of reasons: a bad first production, the fact that it was no longer a “virgin” work that could attract grants, having not attracted the “right” critics to hoist it to the next level, that its subsidiary rights were already encumbered. I love the discovery of new work and nothing herein should suggest otherwise.
But I keep thinking about these orphaned plays, which were in fact once loved. Where do they fit in the new play lifecycle of American Theater? After all, I was not alone in appreciating them in their day, and I was hardly the only person to see them. I know that these weren’t necessarily perfect pieces, but they were effective and evocative, and part of our theatrical heritage as surely as well-known classics.
I think often and fondly of Stand-Up Tragedy, a play I fell in love with upon reading its very first page, when a Catholic priest stated his desire to, in his next life, work for a religion that “doesn’t use a dead young man as its logo.” Only pages later, the same character posited the tenets of all great religions—“Who made the world? What went wrong? What do we do now?” Surely these ideas remain pertinent, as does the central story of an idealistic young man who discovers that his altruistic ambitions may not be enough to save troubled inner-city youths. And Bill Cain, after a stint in television, is back writing plays with a vengeance, with premieres of Equivocation, Nine Circles, and How To Write a New Book of the Bible coming in rapid succession. Whatever the perceived flaws of Stand-Up Tragedy, it is a seminal work by a committed and talented playwright that deserves second, third, and fourth looks.
Not to focus on plays rooted in Catholic theology, but I was also deeply struck recently when I attended a reading at The Public Theater of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, a play which premiered when I was nine years old, but which I knew had been a landmark play from the early days of the Mark Taper Forum. I saw it primarily because a friend was playing the role of the author, Father Daniel Berrigan. I went expecting agitprop theater that had dated poorly; I came away with a lesson in a Vietnam War-era protest and a soaringly beautiful finale, all the more remarkable for having been fashioned from the transcripts of the trial that gave the play its name.
In a field where only the most dedicated academics and literary managers know much of American playwriting before O’Neill, and where the growth of regional theater made up for the reduction in Broadway venues during the 1960s and 70s, perhaps it's unsurprising that there is now a body of abandoned plays. Perhaps we simply cannot be expected to produce not only the accepted canon of Western dramatic literature and essential new work and also to perpetually reexamine work from the recent past. But surely there is some compromise position. While New York’s Second Stage began with the mission of reviving overlooked plays from not so long ago, it is now best known for showcasing new work; Signature Theatre Company in New York, with its focus on a single playwright each season, has at times revitalized overlooked works from playwrights’ oeuvres. But the companies here in New York that focus on largely forgotten plays of the past, The Mint Theater and Peccadillo Theater, look back at least fifty, if not seventy-five years for their material. Has much of the playwriting of the 70s and 80s gone the way of the leisure suit and disco, the skinny tie and the Mohawk haircut, and must it wait another thirty to fifty years before it gets another chance?
I wonder whether the not-for-profit theater is guilty of what we accuse “popular culture” of doing, that is to say, constantly embracing the new and abandoning anything that can be accused of being “so five minutes ago” (as is that particular phrase). Do we lionize only the true hits and consign the vast body of literature engendered by and created for our stages to the dustbin of history? Yes, you can browse for them at the Drama Book Shop in New York or the Samuel French shop in Los Angeles, but beyond that, they require archeological hunts, facilitated by sites both commercial (Amazon) and altruistic (the dizzyingly thorough Doollee.com). But how many never even saw publication, relegating them to permanent anonymity? And while I’m speaking mostly of plays, I would be remiss in pointing out that the same fate befalls new musicals too, especially those that aren’t recorded, since so few people can or are even willing to read a score or have it played aloud for them.
What’s fascinating is that whenever someone does have the vision to revivify a somewhat lost work, they are hailed for doing so. Though older than the plays I’ve previously cited, Arena Stage had enormous success with Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind. MCC Theater in New York is poised to resuscitate the musical Carrie, which is likely to prove either folly or inspired, and both critics and fans await it with bated breath. Although I’m citing a work of French origin from the 60s, when the long-forgotten Boeing Boeinghit West End and Broadway pay dirt a few seasons back, non-profits across the U.S. rushed to program it, and soon Roundabout will stage its even less familiar sequel, Don’t Dress for Dinner. There is life, and ticket sales, left in so many pieces.
I know that these weren’t necessarily perfect pieces, but they were effective and evocative, and part of our theatrical heritage as surely as well-known classics.
The modern American playwriting tradition is, arguably, only about a hundred years old, but it has certainly boomed, with countless theaters and training programs encouraging ever more plays (and yes, there are more plays than there are theaters to produce them; it was perhaps ever thus). But I worry that its growth has created an overamped Darwinian ecology which eats too many of its young and narrows its focus to the prize winners and nominees, to the works that become hits straightaway, to those that end up on critical “best of year” lists without giving them all time to be considered and mature before they are, by some unspoken consensus, deemed no longer worthy. I think we owe it to our field to not just support playwrights and their new plays, but to maintain the pulse of their body of work and the work that came before them, so there is a true continuum in American dramatic literature, not just a series of that which, in its time, was deemed the very best. Is it possible? Yes. Practical? Maybe not. But I think it’s a worthwhile goal. Who knows what we may find, barely breathing, but ready to be loved and speak to us once again, perhaps as it never could before.
To once again quote Stand-Up Tragedy, “I don’t have all the answers. I just want to ask better questions.”