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Saturday, November 22, 2014

November 22-23, 2014: AmericanDrama: Five More

[In this week’s series I AmericanStudied some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. As always, I left out more than I was able to include, so in this weekend post I wanted to highlight five other works/authors that certainly deserve their own posts as well (and hopefully will get them sometime). I’d still love to hear your thoughts and dramatic highlights too!]
1)      Langston Hughes’s Mulatto (1935)
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Friday, November 21, 2014

November 21, 2014: AmericanDrama: Depression Drama and Odets

[A series AmericanStudying some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. I’d love to hear your responses to these posts and/or other dramatic works, authors, and trends you’d highlight!]
On activist drama, in- and outside of its approved spaces.
Among the more unique and impressive of the Depression-era New Deal programs was the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Created in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Project included a number of innovative and compelling initiatives: the nation-wide Negro Theatre Project (NTP), including the famous New York Negro Unit that featured plays by Orson Welles, Arna Bontemps, and Countee Cullen (among others); the experimental, political, and controversial Living Newspaper productions; and more. In an era when it would have been easy to withdraw federal support for theatrical and creative works and performances, the FTP, like the WPA more broadly, instead made a compelling case for the communal and social value of such works.
In the same year that the FTP was created, New York’s innovative Group Theatre company staged the first production of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting for Lefty (1935). Set amongst a group of New York cabdrivers taking part in a fictional strike, and featuring multiple moments in which characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, imploring them to take social and political action, Odets’ play is a thoroughly and strikingly activist work, one described in an early negative review as “a very dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory.” Many of the FTP’s productions, especially the Living Newspaper performances, were without question political and activist—but Odets’ play, with its endorsements of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and other socialist moments, to my mind went further than any FTP productions did or (given the difference between federal and private theatre companies) likely could.
It’d thus be easy, and not inaccurate, to see Odets and the Group Theatre in competition with, or at least offering a distinct alternative to, the FTP productions—and, again, to extend that comparison to make a broader distinction between federally supported and truly outsider theater. But at the same time, it’s pretty amazing to think of all that took place in New York City drama in 1935-6: with Odets’ play opening, the first New York Negro Unit productions (including both Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth and Bontemps and Cullen’s The Conjur Man Dies) mounted, the initial Living Newspaper performances (such as the Dust Bowl drama Triple-A Plowed Under) ongoing, and more. All innovative, all activist, and all artistically challenging and engaging, these works complemented and were in conversation with each other at least as much as they contrasted, and reveal the impressive state of Depression-era American drama.
One more dramatic post this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

November 20, 2014: AmericanDrama: Angels in America and Rent

[A series AmericanStudying some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. I’d love to hear your responses to these posts and/or other dramatic works, authors, and trends you’d highlight!]
On the popular musical that helped change our national conversations.

When it comes to a controversial or difficult social and cultural topic, one of the more interesting lenses through which we can analyze the issue is to consider when and how overtly popular representations of it developed. I’m not talking about explicitly or centrally political or statement-making representations, but rather images of the issue in entertainments intended first and foremost to be popular, to be successful, to attract and affect a broad audience. So with an issue like interracial relationships and marriages, one could point for example to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967); certainly the film has a definite and even in the final scenes a pedantic message, but on the whole it tries to be a successful drama, one that will keep its audience interested and entertained throughout.  Or if Spencer Tracy’s final speech makes the film too political to fit this category, one could look just a few years down the road, at the many episodes of All in the Family (and then its spin-off The Jeffersons) that prominently featured an interracial couple (the Willises) who unsettle both Archie Bunker and George Jefferson; those episodes are, as the show always was, played first and foremost for laughs, without losing any nuance in their representations of the thorny issue itself.

If we turn to one of the most difficult and controversial issues in American society in the 1980s (and beyond), the AIDS epidemic, I’d say it’s pretty tough to pin down when that kind of popular representation really emerges. A case could definitely be made for Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America (1991), which despite calling itself A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and focusing almost entirely on gay characters is in many ways a big-budget blockbuster award-winning (including the Pulitzer Prize) kind of drama, featuring scenery-destroying descending angels, hallucinations of long-dead American historical figures who exchange witty banter with the play’s characters, and some of the foulest and funniest dialogue I’ve ever read (mostly spoken by the play’s fictionalized version of Roy Cohn). Or maybe the answer would be the Academy Award-winning hit film Philadelphia (1993), which starred two of Hollywood’s most prominent actors (Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington), featured musical contributions from legendary rock stars (including a great tune by some dude named Bruce), and relied on one of the oldest thriller plot devices, the courtroom drama, for much of its very effective creation of suspense and entertainment. And certainly both of these works, along with Magic Johnson’s much-publicized 1991 announcement of his own HIV-positive status, contributed to a sea-change in public consciousness about the illness in the early 1990s.

But for my money (and it’s gotten plenty of it over the years), I think the first truly popular entertainment to grapple with AIDS is Jonathan Larsen’s rock musical Rent (1996). It’s hard to argue with any measure of the musical’s popular successes: it was when it closed in 2008 the 9th longest-running Broadway show in history, at 12 years and over 5000 performances; it spun off into dozens of national tours and foreign productions, as well as a 2005 movie version featuring almost all of the original cast members; it grossed almost $300 million and won a Tony for Best Musical; and the list goes on. But in keeping with the show’s mantra, “No Day but Today,” I’d say you don’t need any of those facts or statistics to assess the show’s popular success: all you need to do is go see it somewhere if you get the chance, or watch a video of the production, or even just listen to the soundtrack (which features virtually the whole production, since there’s very little non-sung dialogue). The play pretty much literally has it all—it’s funny and angry, hugely emotionally affecting and cynical and smart-ass, big and sentimental and intimate and realistic, has a perfectly constructed circular structure (it starts and ends on Christmas Eves one year apart and uses New Year’s to bridge the two Acts), includes almost every genre of popular music in one or another of its songs, is based in great detail on a 100 year-old opera (Puccini’s La Boheme) and yet grounded in 1990s New York City and America in every way, and just plain sings, all the way through and by any measure. And at the same time it is deeply engaged at every moment—and politically engaged in many crucial ones—with the issue of AIDS and its many different communities and identities, causes and effects.

Larsen died, unexpectedly and tragically, of a brain aneurysm on the day the play was to make its Off-Broadway premiere, and an entirely different and equally rich analysis could connect to great artists who died too young and the masterworks they left behind. But if Rent is any indication, Larsen would want his legacy to be precisely his achievement in finding that perfect combination of popular and political, successful and social, and thus contributing more (I believe) than any other single work to bringing AIDS out of the shadows and into the mainstream of American culture and consciousness. Last drama tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November 19, 2014: AmericanDrama: Wilson’s Ambition

[A series AmericanStudying some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. I’d love to hear your responses to these posts and/or other dramatic works, authors, and trends you’d highlight!]
On how literary ambition transcends success or failure.

One of the more interesting literary debates entails whether the true masterpieces are (to cite one significant dichotomy) those texts that work with a relatively tight focus and purpose and do everything perfectly or those that are much more ambitious in their aims and don’t entirely succeed. A particularly good case study for this is William Faulkner: Faulkner’s close-to-perfect novel is unquestionably The Sound and the Fury (1929), one of the most tightly structured and written texts in American literary history; but his most ambitious is (I believe) just as unquestionably Absalom, Absalom! (1936), a book that grapples with many of the most significant American themes and events and issues, including (among other focal points) two centuries of Southern history, the legacies and mythologies and realities of race and slavery and miscegenation and the Civil War, the Haitian revolution, fathers and sons, the American Dream, storytelling and history, and both individual and communal self-awareness and –deception. Every word in Sound works, but it’s not impossible to argue that it adds up to mostly just its own stylistic perfection; most every word in Absalom infuriates, but it’s not impossible to argue that it’s America’s most morally powerful novel. Your mileage may vary—hence the debate—but I suppose it’s already clear that I’m an ambitious failure type.

Somewhat similar to Faulkner, at least in terms of having set a number of different texts within one geographically defined community (and including some of the same characters and families across those texts), but representing an even more complicated version of this question, is one of America’s greatest playwrights: August Wilson (1945-2005). Ten of the sixteen plays that Wilson finished before his tragically early death comprised one of the most ambitious dramatic and literary undertakings in American history: the Pittsburgh Cycle, ten plays that would cover African American life and experiences and identities in all ten decades of the 20th century. What makes Wilson’s case so complicated is that, by almost any measure, three or four of the first five Cycle plays (all published within a six-year period) are genuine masterpieces—I’m thinking especially about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987), and The Piano Lesson (1990), the latter two of which won the Pulitzer Prize; but Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) is likewise a great play in its own right—while the subsequent five (spread out over the remaining fifteen years of Wilson’s life) are much less consistently strong. Does that make the Cycle as a whole an ambitious failure? Does it diminish the astonishing successes—on their own individual terms, and as starting points for the Cycle—of the earlier ones? Or is the problem instead that Wilson’s early works simply raised expectations too high, and thus that we should recognize the greatness of his talents and career as a whole and not let the inevitable distinctions between individual works cloud that impressive whole?

These are not, of course, questions for which I have any definitive answers, and without getting too LeVar Burton on you, the most important answer I can give is that you should try to read (or, if you can, see—as these various links illustrate, YouTube has some great starting points for these works) Wilson’s plays and decide for yourself. But I do think that the very question of success or failure—a question, of course, that is especially prominent for playwrights, since their works are the most dependent on audience response of any authors—can elide two other and (to this AmericanStudier) particularly meaningful ways of analyzing and even judging works like Wilson’s. Both are related to history, on two distinct but interconnected levels: one of the most impressive elements of Wilson’s work in an individual play like Fences (for example) is the way in which, writing in the late 1980s, he populates a late 1950s world with characters who feel at once deeply tied to that historical moment and yet profoundly human and relevant to his own era and audience (and, I can say with authority having taught the play, our early 21st century moment as well); and similarly, one of the most unique and important qualities of the Cycle as a whole is its ability to conjure the sweep of a century, to consider both the continuities and the changes in a neighborhood, a city, a race, and a nation (among other communities) over those hundred years, without losing sight of the intimate identities and exchanges and events that are at the heart of any drama.

Like Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, and perhaps one or two other American authors, Wilson set out at an early point in his career to both critique and reinvigorate American mythologies, to grapple with some of the most defining national issues, across many decades of history and story, while creating powerful and impressive works of art in his chosen medium. The national and historical goals are not by any means required of a dramatic work (or any other literary text), but they can, whether in perfect or in partial success, help American audiences engage with and challenge and ultimately understand who and where and what we’ve been and are, and few projects are as ambitious or important as that one. Next drama tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November 18, 2014: AmericanDrama: Hansberry’s Husband and Wife

[A series AmericanStudying some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. I’d love to hear your responses to these posts and/or other dramatic works, authors, and trends you’d highlight!]
On Lorraine Hansberry’s realistic, flawed, and deeply moving young married couple.
Walter and Ruth Younger, the young husband and wife at the center of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), are perhaps the least sympathetic of the Youngers, the drama’s major characters. To be sure, as in the case in any great dramatic work, all the characters have their flaws: but while the overly proud, widowed Mama (Lena) is also struggling to keep her family together; self-centered elitist Beneatha is impressively going to school to become a doctor; and na├»ve young Travis is just trying to grow up; Travis’s parents Walter and Ruth are defined mostly by their hot-and-cold marriage and Walter’s foolish and destructive get-rich-quick schemes. Some combination of those factors, Walter’s individual pipe dreams and the extremities to which their marital problems drive them both, could be said to lead to most of the family’s worst arguments and problems throughout the play.
That could be said, but it’d be wrong, as the play’s final scenes reveal a much more systematic and significant culprit, putting the Youngers in the center of a broad and crucial biographical and historical context: the racial “covenants” that made it so difficult for African American and other minority families to move out of cities like Chicago and into suburban neighborhoods in the decades after World War II. While not as regimented or all-encompassing as the South’s system of Jim Crow segregation, the covenants did an equally thorough job of segregating their respective urban and suburban worlds, and proved a powerfully difficult impediment to the dreams of families like the Youngers. Systems like the covenants don’t explain away all of Walter’s irresponsibilities or Ruth’s enabling—again, no dramatic work as impressive as Hansberry’s treats its characters as mere ciphers—but they certainly better reveal the world in which these characters are trying to survive and succeed, and to an open-minded audience render Walter and Ruth significantly more sympathetic as a result.
But in the final scene Hansberry takes the couple, and her play, one step further still. The Youngers have been approached by a representative from the neighborhood association of the suburban community into which they hope to move, a man who is offering them money in exchange for their withdrawing their purchase of that suburban home. In one of the play’s most traditional moments, not only in terms of gender roles but also because it embodies the spirit of Walter Sr., the family’s departed father, both Mama and Ruth allow Walter to make the decision; and Walter rises to the occasion, saying no to the lure of easy money and rejecting the offer. He gains a great deal of respect from Mama in the process, but perhaps even more significant is Ruth’s response: she seems to see in her husband for the first time in years the man she married, a man who can model for Travis a strong, proud, resilient African American identity and manhood in the face of some of the worst their society can throw at them. The moment and scene are tremendously moving for many reasons, but certainly at the top of the list is seeing the reconnection between this flawed and troubled but likewise resilient and impressive couple.
Next drama tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Monday, November 17, 2014

November 17, 2014: AmericanDrama: Provincetown and Trifles

[A series AmericanStudying some important and impressive moments and works in the history of American drama. I’d love to hear your responses to these posts and/or other dramatic works, authors, and trends you’d highlight!]
On the moment, community, and play that signaled a dramatic shift.

Despite the way us English profs like to structure survey classes—and I’m as guilty of this one as anybody—literary history doesn’t tend to break up into neat or orderly time periods and movements. Other than the very explicitly self-identifying and –defined movements, like the Harlem Renaissance, for the most part these categories and trends comprise instead precisely our scholarly efforts to look back at complex and overlapping collections of writers and texts and styles and focal points and assemble them into more easily digested (and, yes, taught) bits. Doesn’t mean that the bits aren’t without value or can’t help us see our literary and cultural history, just that they can be pretty reductive or limiting, especially in how we see a particular author or text. But having said that, sometimes the moments when literature shifts from one style or movement or another are more overt and striking; when I had the chance to teach American Drama a few years back, I realized that the early 20th century, and even more exactly the founding of the Provincetown Players in the mid-1910s, represents exactly such a transitional moment.

Up through the end of the 19th century, American drama had been dominated by the melodramatic—the over-the-top villains, the doomed love stories, the comic relief characters, the big musical cues, the swordfights on stage, etc. European drama had been evolving into something much more socially realistic for some time, spearheaded by folks like Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, but as far as I can tell, that trend hadn’t reached our shores by the turn of the century. But in the summer of 1915, a group of young playwrights and performers vacationing in Provincetown, Massachusetts, led by a married couple, George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell—all of whom having experienced rejection and frustration in the mainstream theatrical world of the era—began sharing their works with each other; the following year Cook and Glaspell made the impromptu gathering into an official theatrical community, the Provincetown Players/Playhouse. The Players quickly became best known—and are still most significant in American literary and cultural history—for introducing the works of Eugene O’Neill, who is in many ways the poster child for the shift to a new social and psychological realism in American drama. But while his first plays debuted with them in the late 1910s, and his first hit (The Emperor Jones) in 1920, it is a one-act play of Glaspell’s from 1916 that truly to my mind signals the literary sea-change represented by Provincetown.

That play, Trifles, focuses on an event as melodramatic as they get: the murder of a rural farmer, found strangled with a noose in bed next to his sleeping wife; the wife denies any knowledge of the crime but is of course the principal suspect in her husband’s death. That Glaspell based this event on an actual crime that she had investigated and written about during a stint as a journalist in Iowa makes the play’s focus real but not necessarily realistic; she certainly could have created a melodramatic text from this starting point. But while the play does feature the murder mystery at its core, it does so in a profoundly realistic and powerful way: it is set solely in the farmhouse’s kitchen, and so the three male characters who are ostensibly investigating the crime (two local law enforcement representatives and the neighbor who found the body) are looking elsewhere and fruitlessly for most of the play; the two female characters, the wives of the sheriff and of the neighbor, stay in the kitchen and, through their informal investigations there as well as their conversations and developing understandings, unravel the details of the crime (and a great deal else). When the male neighbor says early in the play that “women are used to worrying over trifles,” he is thus not only entirely wrong about whose focus and knowledge are ultimately validated, but also ironically helping Glaspell communicate a central thesis of her new, realistic dramatic style: that it is in the trifles, the small details of (for example) a farmhouse’s kitchen, that life’s most central questions and identities and relationships can unfold and be captured.

As with all the literary works on which I’ve focused in this space, the value of Glaspell’s play extends well beyond just scholarly conversations or even classrooms. For one thing, it’s an engaging and often engrossing character study and murder mystery, an example of how political art can also be appealing and popular (and in multiple iterations, as Glaspell later turned it into a great short story, “A Jury of Her Peers”). But it’s also a really striking reflection of a moment when American drama was changing, when a group of American artists recognized the significance of the far from trifling realities and lives and communities that had often been excluded from our literature, and began to create enduring works focused on them. Next drama tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other works, authors, or moments you’d highlight?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

November 15-16, 2014: Crowd-sourced Veterans Days

[In honor of Veteran’s Day, this week’s series has focused on cultural and historical moments and issues related to that sizeable and growing American community. As always, this crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and perspectives of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
First, I’ll highlight three additional Veterans Day posts of mine that were published this week on the great new We’re History site: on Chinese Americans in the Civil War; African American Civil War veteran Parker David Robbins; and the post-World War I Bonus Army.
My We’re History colleague Heather Cox Richardson also published a Veterans Day post, on the recent posthumous Medal of Honor awarded to Alonzo Cushing.
On Facebook, Paige Swarbrick shares that her grandmother, Mary E. Dess, “wrote a story about her husband [Paige's grandfather], and the time when they were stationed in Korea and she helped open a school. It was featured in Chicken Soup for the Military Wife’s Soul.”
AnneMarie Donahue writes, “My father and his father both enlisted in the United States military forces. My grandfather served in the theater of Pacific and never saw a day of action. My father signed up to serve in Vietnam and was deployed to Germany for three years, finishing his tour in Kansas. But the veteran I want to write of is my maternal grandmother, Imelda Fitzgerald (Smith after marriage). She and her community of only 400 families had been moved from their homes in Placentia Bay to an area closer to St. John's Bay to make room for the American Naval Base. My grandmother then went and enlisted as one of the ladies of the call center. She was not an American, and she wasn't even a Canadian at the time (it was technically the Dominion of Newfoundland... no seriously that was the name of it, look it up!). She, and the other young women, learned code, technical mechanics of the phone system, assisted in landings as needed, and watched as some of the finest pilots America would see ‘puddle hopped’ to Europe. What makes her extraordinary is that this woman lost her home, farm, livestock, fishing business and way of life to the lend-lease program, a program that she did not benefit from, nor even understand. But she signed up to work for ‘the states,’ these loud, pushy people who ate and spoke at the same time, yelled everything they said, and had no idea what ‘thank you’ meant. She loved them. She would then move (uhm... illegally) to this land and make a home for herself, her husband and her 16 (anchor) babies. We owe a great deal to the people who stand on lines, and face an enemy, but we owe a debt to the people who stand behind them and fight in their own way.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Any other veterans texts, moments, or issues you’d share?