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The History of Southern Drama

The History of Southern Drama

Copyright Date: 1977
Edition: 1
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The History of Southern Drama
    Book Description:

    Mention southern drama at a cocktail party or in an American literature survey, and you may hear cries for "Stella!" or laments for "gentleman callers." Yet southern drama depends on much more than a menagerie of highly strung spinsters and steel magnolias.

    Charles Watson explores this field from its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century roots through the southern Literary Renaissance and Tennessee Williams's triumphs to the plays of Horton Foote, winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. Such well known modern figures as Lillian Hellman and DuBose Heyward earn fresh looks, as does Tennessee Williams's changing depiction of the South -- from sensitive analysis to outraged indictment -- in response to the Civil Rights Movement.

    Watson links the work of the early Charleston dramatists and of Espy Williams, first modern dramatist of the South, to later twentieth-century drama. Strong heroines in plays of the Confederacy foreshadow the spunk of Tennessee Williams's Amanda Wingfield. Claiming that Beth Henley matches the satirical brilliance of Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, Watson connects her zany humor to 1840s New Orleans farces.With this work, Watson has at last answered the call for a single-volume, comprehensive history of the South's dramatic literature. With fascinating detail and seasoned perception, he reveals the rich heritage of southern drama.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4999-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Prologue: Definitions and Preliminaries
    (pp. 1-9)

    An unknown story waits to be told. For more than two hundred years, southern Americans both white and black have chosen the literary form immortalized by Shakespeare to tell about their region. In the course of that time the South has undergone drastic changes; southern literature has reached world-class status; and southern drama has revealed the impact of nationalism, sectionalism, modern realism, the artistic standards of the Southern Literary Renascence, and the civil rights movement.

    From the early nineteenth century till the end of the Civil War, the theater was above all a political platform in the South, and the...

  5. 1 Nationalism and Native Culture in Virginia
    (pp. 10-24)

    Dramatic writing in the South began in Virginia, where there was far less Puritan prejudice against the theater than in New England. Theatrical activity there began early; the first recorded performance of a play in America wasYe Bar and ye Cubb,presented by three citizens of Accomac County at Cowie’s Tavern in 1665. When English acting companies toured the new settlements, Virginia was often the first destination. Lewis Hallam’s company performedThe Merchant of Venicein Williamsburg on September 15, 1752, before moving on to other colonial towns. David Douglass’s popular American Company toured Virginia from 1758 to 1761...

  6. 2 Prolific Playwriting in Charleston
    (pp. 25-47)

    Following its scattered beginnings in Virginia, southern drama took on a much clearer focus in Charleston, capital of the colony (and later of the state) of South Carolina, with the formation of a small but dynamic theatrical center. Although Richmond became the cultural as well as the political capital of Virginia when theatrical seasons began in 1784, it fostered no group of native dramatists. The Virginia playwrights had valuable comments to make on politics at local, national, and international levels, but they had no sense of belonging to a coherent movement. In Charleston, on the other hand, a vigorous tradition...

  7. 3 The Dramatist as Humorist in New Orleans
    (pp. 48-63)

    As population moved westward, theatrical activities in the South expanded in that direction as well. With the French opera and numerous theaters, New Orleans became the second theatrical center in the nation after New York. In this polyglot city an English language theater ran concurrently with the French stage. Native drama accurately reflected western humor, frontier violence, and a political transition from nationalism to sectionalism in defense of slavery, the cultural institution that would shape southern plays irrevocably as well as the South itself.

    In the Mississippi Valley the theater became a mcyor civilizing force—even though it had its...

  8. 4 Drama Goes to War
    (pp. 64-84)

    In the next phase of southern drama, politics dominated the stage. Before the Civil War the argument over slavery sparked a raft of answers toUncle Tom’s Cabinand debates over such issues as the Free Soil controversy. Climactically, the war itself inspired the organization of an independent southern theater, complete with original plays celebrating Confederate victories and featuring heroines and heroes both fictional and real.

    The most flagrant examples of sectionalism to appear on pre-Civil War stages were the dramatizations ofUncle Tom’s Cabin(1852). Serious adaptations, which became popular in the North, were prohibited in the South—where...

  9. 5 The Modern Drama of Espy Williams
    (pp. 85-98)

    For a time after the traumatic end of the Civil War, playwriting in the South virtually disappeared except for stray amateur pieces. Some of these, with significant titles such asThe Tyrant of New York: A Drama by an ExConfederate Officer(printed in Atlanta, 1873) reflected the political sectionalism that remained dominant in the South during Reconstruction.¹ Drama recovered much more slowly than fiction and poetry. George Washington Cable and Sidney Lanier led the resurgence of southern literature, and the sentiments of the Old South could still be expressed in tales by Thomas Nelson Page but not broadcast from a...

  10. 6 The Leadership of Paul Green
    (pp. 99-121)

    Scattered composition of local color plays filled the gap between the careers of Espy Williams and Paul Green. Contemporary with Williams was Lee Arthur (1870-1917), ajewish playwright who was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, moved to New York in 1893, and wrote successfully for the commercial theater. HisWe-Uns of Tennessee(1899), advocating reconciliation of the North and South, ran for twenty-three performances in New York. In 1906 he wrote a one-act play,The Last of the Hargraves,which recounts a mountaineers’ feud in Tennessee, but there is no record of its performance.¹ Dramatic pieces bristling with southern pride, copyrighted but...

  11. 7 DuBose Heyward’s Transmutation of Black Culture
    (pp. 122-132)

    The principal collaborator of Paul Green in fostering a renascence of southern drama after World War I was DuBose Heyward (1885-1940), the bearer of an old Charleston name. Lacking Green’s intellectual training (he did not complete high school), he suffered a series of major illnesses from 1903 to 1917 and sold insurance before embarking on a literary career at the age of thirty-nine. Known primarily as the author ofPorgyand the lyricist for Gershwin’s great operaPorgy and Bess,he played a significant part in advancing southern drama in the 1920s and 1930s. Even more than Green, Heyward succeeded...

  12. 8 The Southern Marxism of Lillian Hellman
    (pp. 133-143)

    Lillian Hellman (1905-84), the first important female dramatist of the South, stands out for her investigation of the New South from a Marxist perspective. Surpassing Paul Green’s examination inThe House of Connelly,which pits the Old against the New South, she composed two plays that trace the economic growth of the New South from its origin in the Civil War to its flourishing at the turn of the century. She perceived this historical event in human terms, grasping its transforming effect on the old society as well as on the new order of businessmen—represented chronologically inAnother Part...

  13. 9 Black Drama: Politics or Culture
    (pp. 144-159)

    From the outset the dramatic impulse has been strong among black southerners who found the stage a platform for protest and pride. From pre—Civil War times to the Second World War, three phases emerge: first, the era of early plays that denounce slavery but after the Civil War favor accommodation with whites; second, the literary renascence of the 1920s through the 1940s, in which folk plays and the shattering of stereotypes occur; and third, the celebration of black history. In the black drama of the twentieth century a constant tension has existed between politics and culture: between the effort...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 10 Randolph Edmonds and Civil Rights
    (pp. 160-173)

    The civil rights movement, beginning with the Supreme Court decision against segregated schools in 1954 and culminating with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963, produced two major changes in the black drama of the South. First, the political aim to achieve civil rights supplanted folk life as the primary concern. Second, overt but nonviolent efforts, such as sit-ins and bus boycotts, to end segregation in the South gave dramatists causes to befor,whereas before they had had only injustices to beagainst.This change made the plays more positive in tone. Previously the emphasis...

  16. 11 The Cultural Imagination of Tennessee Williams
    (pp. 174-191)

    Southern drama had been advancing steadily and impressively with the works of Green, Heyward, and Hellman, but reached its apex in Tennessee Williams (1911-83). The southern play attained its highest sustained expression in Williams’s work from 1945 to 1960. This ambitious, gifted dramatist, who attained the goals sought by many of his southern predecessors, became a Broadway success with a national audience, thus surpassing Green, who could never learn how to satisfy the New York critics. At the same time, he treated major themes of the South and created individual characters who incorporate universal qualities that are the stuff of...

  17. 12 Past and Present Cultures in Recent Drama
    (pp. 192-211)

    The emergence of important dramatists in the years following the success of Tennessee Williams attests to the continuing vitality of southern drama. Horton Foote, Beth Henley, Marsha Norman, Preston jones, and Romulus Linney have composed a substantial number of plays, carved out distinct places for themselves in the American theater, and added to the achievement of southern dramatists. All of them reveal the impact of the great writers of the Southern Literary Renascence, especially Faulkner, Williams, Welty, and O’Connor.

    After the great plays of Williams and the vigorous civil rights drama written by blacks in the 1960s, southern drama entered...

  18. Epilogue: Politics, Culture, and the Rise of Southern Drama
    (pp. 212-217)

    The choice between the political or the cultural play, faced by black dramatists of the 1920s, is the same one facing southern dramatists from the beginning to the present. Most often confronting the racial crisis, the southern political play has changed from defense of the status quo to advocacy of full change: that is, equality and justice for blacks. At first, dramatists such as Simms and McCabe sided with the majority, defending slavery to a man. In the modem period, southern dramatists joined the dissident minority in condemning lynchings, disenfranchisement, and segregation. Without exception, though with differing intensity, white dramatists...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 218-242)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 243-254)
  21. Index
    (pp. 255-259)