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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,

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

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