A century of american theatre: research and writing from theatre history survey

American theatre director Anne Bogart says, “I decided to conduct a roots search to find my place in the continuum of the history of the American theatre. I wanted to actively remember the past in order to use it . . . I wanted to feel the past and its people in the rehearsal room with me and allow them to influence my choices as a director.” As American theatre artists we benefit from aninterest in the narratives of our own theatre history that help us embody our diverse cultural heritage. This semester in Theatre History Survey we have attempted to actively remember the history of the twentieth century American theatre. We began the semester studying the birth of the modern American theatre with Susan Glaspell, Jig Cook, Djuana Barnes, and Eugene O’Neill as they found their voice with the Provincetown Players. This seminal group of theatre artists were the catalyst for the American theatre’s entrance onto the world stage. As the Provincetown Players grew and changed, a New Stagecraft emerged from its remains. Under the visionary guidance of Sheldon Cheney, Robert Edmund Jones, Kenneth McGowan, and Eugene O’Neill, the New Stagecraft revolted against the nineteenth century commercial theatre and sought to formulate a new aesthetic of community collaboration and a theatre that spoke to and for the common people. Their anti-commercial collaborative experiment was reinvented by Harold Clurman and the Group Theatre during the politically and aesthetically turbulent 1930s. Plays by Clifford Odetts, Lillian Hellman, and Maxwell Anderson, produced by the short-lived Group Theatre, and the living newspapers, produced during the short-lived Federal Theatre Project, reflected the persistent cultural angst that was the hallmark of the Great Depression. The following decades were marked by an renewed interest in the American naturalism begun by the Group Theatre’s interpretations of Konstantin Stanislavski’s Method. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Horton Foote, and the final plays of Eugene O’Neill tell the story of a people consumed with the American Dream. No one was immune to the alluring complexities of the American Dream, and Loraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, August Wilson, and Suzan Lori-Parks gave Black America its own narratives about dreams sought and dreams deferred. Our studies this semester have given us an entrance into the narratives that tell our American story—a story of destruction and creation, of revolt and rebuilding, of idealism and disillusionment.

Come to Performance Hall lobby during the final week of the 2015-2016 season to see MA presentations on the American Theatre. Here's the line-up:

Monday, April 25: The Birth and Death of the Theatre: Creation and Destruction Meta-narratives in the American Theatre

Janie Board—Dead or Alive: Destruction and Creation in the American Theatre

The theatre is dying–or so it seems. A close look at the craft of theatre and its plays reveals an important narrative of destruction and creation. The craft of theatre requires destruction before any creation can occur. The plays of the theatre, specifically Susan Glaspell’s The Outside, The Verge and Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown, further this narrative by speaking to the purpose of destruction. The objective of destruction must be growth and progress as opposed to autonomous self-preservation which cannot be sustained long-term.  It is this delicate yet necessary relationship of the theatre to destruction and creation that allows the theatre to ultimately survive and grow.

Rebecca Gossage—Passionate Idealists: The Group Theatre

Called “the bravest and single most significant experiment in the history of American theater” by Foster Hirsch, the Group Theatre was one of the most influential company of artists in the American theatre. Founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, and Cheryl Crawford, the Group was a tight knit ensemble of passionate idealists made up of directors, actors, and playwrights. Not more than ten years later the Group dissolved in 1941, but why did this tight knit ensemble of passionate idealist disintegrate? Out of all the books written on the Group Theatre, Clurman's autobiography The Fervent Years is the most revealing as he weaves the tale of the Group's creation and their eventual destruction. This essay reveals that the draw of Hollywood, excessive financial problems, and personal conflict in the company all worked towards the eventual dissolving of the Group Theatre. The history of the Group Theatre should function as a warning for present and future theatre artists.

Kaitlyn Chisholm—The Federal Theatre Project: Structuring Powerful Theatre Within a Democracy

Hallie Flanagan served as the director of the Federal Theatre Project (F.T.P.) begun in 1935 as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The original purpose was to provide jobs in theatre for professionals on relief rolls and to present living theatre to regions of America previously unexposed to theatre. In its four years, the F.T.P. successfully created an educated audience of working-class Americans. One of the plays produced by the F.T.P., Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock, mirrors the history of the F.T.P. itself and points to the conclusion that theatre has unique power to influence a democracy. Despite both Cradle and the F.T.P. suffering from early ends, their success transcends death. While these events in America's history have been widely forgotten, the voices of the F.T.P. speak loudly to present Americans of theatre's responsibility in an educated democracy. 

Wednesday, April 27: Radicals and Marginals of the American Theatre


Meg Jones—The Drama Committee: The Reconstruction of a Culture through Theater

An overview on the three main objectives that led the NAACP’s Drama Committee to produce the plays they showcased. To begin, an explanation of the Drama Committee’s purpose in creating art for Black Americans as well as providing an institution for Black artists to create art. This is followed by a further exploration into the propaganda plays and the fight against the racial stigmas by creating a genre of theater art that would bring social change. Finally, the discussion will move on to the Drama Committee’s aspiration to fill the need of the Black aesthetic in theater by breaking down barriers of stereotyping and cultural ignorance. Through this paper one will be enlightened on the history of an important part of American and Black Theater and the challenges and triumphs of this movement.

Bethany Woodfin—Soda Shoppes and Witch Hunts 

Following the Allied victory in World War II, the widespread fear of Communist infiltration led the way for McCarthyism and the Red Scare of the 1950s. Before this incredible level of fear spread nationally, playwrights had both the freedom and the platform to make bold politically controversial statements. During the 1930s, playwrights such as Clifford Odets indisputably structured their writing around a political statement and protest. Following the heartless march of McCarthyism, however, playwrights were forced to either create subtle and cautious political parallels, or silence their opinion altogether. The dreadful effects of The Red Scare left an overwhelming number of artists with destroyed careers, as well as lives, and shamefully removed their basic American freedom of speech to peacefully protest through art. 

Friday, April 29: The American Theatre Goes Modern: Themes and Personal Narratives in the Plays of Eugene O’Neill


Stephanie Schlosser— The Unmasking of Dionysus: Friedrich Nietzsche and The Great God Brown

What affect could a German atheistic philosopher have on a depressed ex-Catholic American playwright? The answer: enough to permanently shape the history of American theatre. Eugene O’Neill is perhaps the most widely-recognized American playwright to draw inspiration from the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche; the influence is seen woven throughout many of O’Neill’s works. In Nietzsche’s book The Birth of Tragedy, the Apollonian and the Dionysian represent the two-part division of artistic impulses. We will review O’Neill’s play The Great God Brown and see how the external use of masks demonstrates man's internal struggle towards the Dionysian ideal.

John Cox—A Space Unfilled: Fatherhood in the Plays of Eugene O'Neill

Eugene O'Neill, perhaps the most influential American playwright, wrote more than 50 plays in three decades. His portrayal of a father figure is prevalent in many of his plays. I explore the evolution of this father figure throughout three of O'Neill's plays: Beyond the Horizon, Desire Under the Elms, and Long Day's Journey Into Night. These plays unveil a continuity within O'Neill's work: the father's absence, his omnipotent grip upon the generation he neglects, and that generation's unavoidable and unachievable need to fill that space the father's absence creates.

Rebekah Nason—Eugene O'Neill: Soul Poet

Eugene O'Neill used his own personal tragedies and search for meaning to cut through the fog of audience's preconceived ideas of life. Because his plays are semi-autobiographical, they are deeply personal and speak to the soul. He yearned to understand the unseen—the desire for something more, but dissatisfaction no matter what the outcome. His plays speak to the individual’s search for acceptance and purpose. In using his own heartache and pursuit for truth, the stories he wrote are infused with truth—a truth that is beyond the corporeal, and captivates the very soul.