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.

a cover of a play
The Stand-Up Tragedy
cover.  
Photo by Samuel French. 

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.”

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As an independent theatre director (or as I prefer to call myself, a journeyman director), there is no greater pleasure for me than to find and read a play unknown to me. I keep a stack by my laptop and read a scene from one of them as a break from the day-job. I really appreciate this article and all your comments because it's like a huge treasure hunt list for me. Thank you!

First, thanks Howard for the article and some good references. I was in a production of 'The Trial of the Catonsville Nine' years ago (a critical and financial success), and your mentioning it not only sparked fond memories but brought home the importance of remember and indeed searching out our playwriting heritage. A potentially daunting task as there are so many quality plays produced and published, let alone unpublished, that I'm certain merit attention. I keep waiting for NY Broadway producers (I live just outside of NYC) to revive a production of 'Child's Play' by Robert Morasco 1970 I believe, which still holds up in my book as one of the best mystery/dramas [meaning it has substance and intelligence underlying the mystery plot elements], but to no avail. I very much appreciated what Bill Cain had to say and so look forward to reading 'Stand Up Tragedy'. The comment about the play being killed after a New York Times review, while not seeing the production nor reading the review, aroused saddness and a bit of dismay. Quite a bit of critique writing these days just seems so 'mean spirited', certainly containing a tone that is almost directly opposite to what Mr. Cain so beautifully referenced as 'Letting people know that they have been seen in all their hidden greatness'. Even if their are seemingly obvious or distinctive flaws in a play [as perceived by a critic] a critical perspective does not need to be mean spirited. While I hardly read all of Walter Kerr's reviews, I remember being in college, small town America, and looking forward to reading them. There was something imbued within them besides intelligence. It was his love and respect for the theatre. I seem to remember his critical comments were housed within a framework of this respect. Unfortunately I think it's probable in many instances that people pay too much attention to reviews by someone who supposedly should know. I even fall prey to this from time to time. After all theatre tickets are not inexpensive. I also appreciated David Copland's observations, especially 'Maybe North Americans have too little sense of our own history to duplicate what's done in a more highly subsidized theatre economy'. I think in many ways this is true. And it does take theatre companies (professional regional as well as community theatres) who have the passion, willingness, creative flexibility, funding, and courage to explore such possible risk taking ventures. Thank heavens some of them are.

Bill: thanks for writing that. Christian: why not here on howlround, I'm sure there could be some sort of open (ie unmaintained by staff) database/list in the opinions or ideas section (polly, what do you think?) that people could simply list their fave plays.

Of course, this gets me thinking about so many of my favorite plays and playwrights that are being neglected. Anyone interested in establishing a more formal place for all of us to post and share these ideas, in hopes of spurring others to dig back into the archives?

Having work on Stand Up Tragedy, first as a young actor and then as a older director, I have to say such play has been an innovating and inspirational piece of work for many years. It challenges audiences not only to listen but also be tolerant and calm. As a playwright, Stand Up Tragedy is on my list of my ten favorite plays of all times. Sherman and I discussed this a while back.

Now that Second Stage is no longer a second stage, maybe it opens up an opportunity for some other theater company, or many, to come along and take up that mantle. The mission did wonders for 2nd Stage, so maybe it will do the same for another company. It would be great for the theater community, and great for these plays, so we can only hope. Thanks for this post.

This article made me do an inventory of plays that were important to me in the 80's and 90's and even the early 10's, something I think we writers should do periodically and ask ourselves why about each. So thank you so much for that experience. Wouldn't it be a great field-wide project for non-profit theatre to take as many as possible unpublished but produced play manuscripts from the 60's through the 10's and put them into a great big digitized and well-tagged database with archival quality backups? But I'm afraid that our dependance on traditional copyright and the current business model for playwriting would tank such efforts. So to reframe your basic question: How can we better prepare tomorrow to remember the new plays of today? I personally don't think it can be by yesterday's methods.

An NYU production of IN PERPETUITY, followed the same year by HELIOTROPE BOUQUET at Playwrights Horizons, were 2 of the great theater experiences of my first year in New York.

Every playwright worth her salt that I know, has great respect/love/admiration for Overmyer's work, IN PERPETUITY and otherwise. None of it's remotely forgotten.

Rather than simply deplore the "forgottenness" (temporary, one hopes) of many good plays from all over the world, let's recognize that we have an ever-growing mass of material from many decades and productions from which to draw new seasons. This is one of the reasons dramaturgs were invented -- to remind various levels of producers that there are alternatives to chasing the latest LORT hit, that an older play is not automatically a dated play, and that dramatic virtue is not limited to brand-new American plays and Shakespeare.

I admire the British habit of bringing back older plays as a matter of course. Not because they are masterpieces, but because they are plays that work on stage in some fashion and which strike a relevant note in a particular time, and because they are part of a long-standing theatrical tradition of respect and curiosity about what has gone before. Maybe North Americans have too little sense of our own history to duplicate what's done in a more highly subsidized theatre economy, but I think it's worth a try. Many years ago, I saw Anthony Hopkins in a revival of Heywood's A WOMAN KILLED WITH KINDNESS. It's not a great play, and Sir Anthony's exquisite fur hat is all I really remember about the show, but I was impressed that it was done at all.

Jonathan Miller once said, "Plays can die, but they die leaving skeletons." Whether these skeletons can be resurrected, re-fleshed, infused with new life, and shared with audiences who have been educated to be ready for anything when the curtain goes up, is the question that I think Howard is asking. Ultimately, it depends on a theatre's imagination and its courage. There's gold in them thar archives.

STAND-UP TRAGEDY remains on my list of all time favorite plays. It is the reason I work in the theater. As a young undergraduate at Georgetown (where the teacher character in the play also went), I saw the mesmerizing production at Arena Stage and arranged to do a unofficial student production as part of a class I was taking. The play's humanist themes resonated deeply with me and the values taught as part of my Jesuit education. And the questions the play raised about our responsibility to society were embraced by my fellow students.

I had never seen a Latino character portrayed on stage, nor thought that our stories were "important" enough to be told. It was life changing. It was the type of theater I wanted to be part of and I'm happy to say that 20 years later, I'm doing just that.

Thank you, Bill Cain, for your beautiful play! I hope to see a major revival of it in my lifetime.

The odd thing about Stand-Up Tragedy isn’t that it has vanished but that it ever was.

The only reason it ever came to be was because people like you, Howard, had such enthusiasm for it and I remain grateful.

My agent, Beth Blickers, still can’t believe that an over-the-transom un-agented first play got picked up for a workshop by the Mark Taper Forum.

Bob Egan – who picked it up - is still astonished that it went from workshop to second stage to mainstage at the Taper in a year. And then to San Francisco to D.C. to Hartford and to Broadway.

And I still can’t believe that after doing so well in those places that one review in the New York Times could kill it so dead.

It took me 20 years to write another play – though writing for television – a critic-proof medium - in the meantime was a very great joy.

I was deeply ashamed of the short Broadway run.

And it took me a long time to get over that.

Two things eventually addressed the shame – one, immediate – one, over the long haul.

The immediate help was that Stand-Up didn’t just teach me how to write; it also taught me why I should write.

On opening night at the Taper in Los Angeles – a wonderful night – one of the young teachers on whom the main teacher was based – had flown himself out to see the show. I was very nervous to hear how it had affected him. When I found the courage to ask, he didn’t say that he had liked it or not. He said something much simpler. He said, “I didn’t know anybody had seen me.”

When the show opened on Broadway – also a wonderful night at least until the review came out – the boy who was the model for the central student was there and I was terrified of his response. He said something similar. He said, “I’m the hero, aren’t I?” And I said, “Yeah – you always have been.”

They taught me what writing is about.

Letting people know that they have been seen in all their hidden greatness.

It was a big thing to learn.

And a new way to evaluate success and failure of a work that took years to write.

The more long term healing element was discovering that the show wasn’t dead. Over the years, having people come up to me and say “I got started in Stand-Up” has been a very great and surprising joy. Just the other night at 9 Circles in Los Angeles in a talkback, a young actor said that seeing Stand-Up had been a starting place for him. I asked him if he had seen the Taper production. He said no, he had seen it in Virginia. Who knew?

Gordon Davidson said to me after opening in Los Angeles, “Now the play goes out and does its work.”

I am very grateful to be a part of that process – both as a writer and an audience member.

Nobody talks about Chips With Everything or No Strings – but they continue to work in me and I am grateful.

...

Thank you, Howard, for bringing all of this to mind.

Thank you for writing for television--I still have VHS tapes of the whole run of Nothing Sacred. Thanks to the kindness of tv critic friends, I even have a tape with the unaired episodes. I said last spring and I say again, beautiful work, sir.

But that's not why we're here. So thank you for coming back to the theatre. I'm looking forward to reading Nine Circles and How to Write a New Book...

I so fervently believe repertory is the key to all our theater problems. Maybe a play from the 80's has been seen too much in the past to maintain excitement for a long run all on it's own but you could put it in rep and let it have one or two showings a week while your new play has a couple and your classic has a couple. And how glorious if all three plays furthered a similar conversation. This is also a way for playwrights to see long runs of their plays (something so few of us get). We need long runs to know how our plays work. Rep!

Samuel French is doing an enormous rollout of e-plays but in the meantime, Monica, you CAN buy "Stand-Up Tragedy" on Amazon. You'll just have to hold the acting edition in your hands instead of your Kindle.

And Dan, if you want the Bill Cain who uses drama to hold a mirror up to society, to paraphrase his "Equivocation," I'd suggest you start with that play and then move on to "9 Circles."

Thank you Howard, for encouraging all of us to return to the plays that inspired us in our youth or that perhaps slipped by us. There are many works with a suprising relevance to our times even if they were written in earlier decades.

Beth

What an engaging and provocative piece; it makes one optimistically envision a theater ecosystem vibrant enough to foster viable productions of both new plays and old(er) neglected ones, the unearthing of which can sometimes feel even more gratifying.

My interest piqued, I just put in a request for the script of Stand-Up Tragedy through my public library.

I think making plays available as e-books would go a long way towards building a continuum. I can read plays in an hour on my Kindle. If Stand-Up Tragedy were available on Amazon, I'd go download it right now; instead, I have to take Howard's word for it that it's a good play...and forget about it.

E-books, everyone. E-books.

I did a production of Stand-Up Tragedy during my second year at PCPA Theatrefest in 1994. If its not a seminal play in the cannon of theater then it is in my growth and maturation as an artist. It was a production where I first worked with the people who have become my long time collaborators in our Hip Hop theater collective Felonious (www.feloniouslive.com). It was produced in the round, in a black box, with towers in all four voms so we could hang out while we weren't in the scenes, like we were in the burned out buildings that would surround the action. The play was produced with such imagination and skill that it showed me the possibility of how theater can be relevant to me. Right now. Right then.

To my knowledge it was one of the first plays to use hip hop and rap to further the narrative arc of the story. For that reason alone it inspired me to think that the verse a rapper spits at the mic was no different than the monologue a character spoke at the footlights. But unfortunately, It's also the play that most theaters tried to use when they wanted to hire young actors of color and for that reason its usually despised by the same people it was trying to include.

Im glad to see that Bill Cain is back writing for the theater but I don't see him writing this type of play anymore. And yes it is in the hands of people like me (and younger) to represent and articulate what America has become. Unfortunately, for the most part, while I see theaters wanting the new, wanting the next, in my opinion they are just too afraid to risk putting these voices on the main stage. And most times when they think they are supporting something new it really just looks like the same old same old to me.

The rest of us fight to have our scripts produced but all too often they become school tours or are celebrated in festivals for being under the radar. That isn't enough for me. For us. Yes yes, I know it costs money to develop plays, yes yes, we have amazing writers in this country. Yes yes economic downturn, blah blah but if, as reported, even Tony Kushner can't make a living writing plays, then what do you have to lose? If we don't commit to really exploring what theater can become then how can we complain when young writers are writing scripts for online venues, movies and video games cause thats where the dough is?

I used to go to book stores and read plays and look at the cast list and author by-line and dream about what it meant to be written into theater history, in black and white in the front of a published play. What could be better than that? Now as the book stores close and more and more plays languish in obscurity I can only paraphrase the Priest from the beginning of Stand-Up Tragedy and ask 'Where the fuck were you when we were dying?'