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The American Play

The American Play: 1787-2000

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The American Play
    Book Description:

    In this brilliant study, Marc Robinson explores more than two hundred years of plays, styles, and stagings of American theater. Mapping the changing cultural landscape from the late eighteenth century to the start of the twenty-first, he explores how theater has-and has not-changed and offers close readings of plays by O'Neill, Stein, Wilder, Miller, and Albee, as well as by important but perhaps lesser known dramatists such as Wallace Stevens, Jean Toomer, Djuna Barnes, and many others. Robinson reads each work in an ambitiously interdisciplinary context, linking advances in theater to developments in American literature, dance, and visual art.

    The author is particularly attentive to the continuities in American drama, and expertly teases out recurring themes, such as the significance of visuality. He avoids neatly categorizing nineteenth- and twentieth-century plays and depicts a theater more restive and mercurial than has been recognized before. Robinson proves both a fascinating and thought-provoking critic and a spirited guide to the history of American drama.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15612-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    The American Playtraces the development of American theater from the end of the eighteenth century, when Royall Tyler and William Dunlap produced the first stageworthy native-born dramas, to the end of the twentieth century, when Wallace Shawn and Suzan-Lori Parks were among the many writers overturning long-held ideas of “drama” and “stageworthiness.” As these names suggest, my history is not exhaustive. Hoping to fulfill the purpose but elude the limits of the genre, I have instead aimed to create a hybrid of panoramic overview and close textual criticism. In each of the book’s self-contained chapters, I map the landscape...

  5. 1 Envisioning the Nineteenth Century
    (pp. 25-64)

    Among eyewitnesses to nineteenth-century American theater, Henry James has few rivals in appreciating the stage’s visual pleasures. The first volume of his autobiography,A Small Boy and Others(1913), is in fact a chronicle of theatergoing in the 1850s, less valuable for its descriptions of plots and interpretations (of these there are few) than for its record of this particular spectator’s consciousness as he anticipates, admires, and memorializes a series of pictures animated by time. James’s implicit conviction that theater is a visual art before it is a literary or even a performing art grows more persuasive as he betrays...

  6. 2 Staging the Civil War
    (pp. 65-105)

    In “Years of the Modern,” published just after the Civil War’s last battle flared and died, Walt Whitman turns to the theater for an image of the country’s mood of mournful anticipation. The poem also has something to teach those who take its metaphor literally. Both the nation and the nation’s theater, Whitman recognizes, have exhausted traditional structures and mythologies without discovering replacements appropriate to the disorienting new times. His opening lines are animated by his typical oracular exuberance, as he envisions a post-1865 America of “august dramas” and “force advancing with irresistible power on the world’s stage.”¹ But after...

  7. 3 Realism against Itself
    (pp. 106-156)

    In his story “Manacled” (1899), Stephen Crane distills to a single harrowing image the American theater’s uneasy relation to realism. The sketch is usually read as an attack on the cult of authenticity limiting artists’ (and spectators’) imaginative freedom. Such confinement, in this narrative, is literal. Crane’s protagonist is an actor bound in handcuffs and anklets during the climactic prison scene of a hoary melodrama. The play’s archaism—the hero says “curse you” with a straight face—contradicts its allegiance to the socalled Theatre Nouveau producing it. No less confusing is the realistic stagecraft imposed on an unapologetically artificial narrative....

  8. 4 The Borders of Modernism
    (pp. 157-213)

    A little-noted exhibition of stage designs that opened at New York’s 291 Gallery in December 1910 didn’t convince anyone that “human character changed”—Virginia Woolf’s famous verdict on that month’s cultural significance—but it may have been the first sign of changes to dramatic character and of other theatrical upheavals to come. The show, sponsored by an indifferent Alfred Stieglitz under pressure from Edward Steichen, displayed etchings by the visionary English director and designer Gordon Craig, of which the most important were a series of twelve “movements”—abstract, idealized settings for unnamed plays, populated by performers unaffiliated to recognizable characters....

  9. 5 Between the Acts
    (pp. 214-256)

    Weightless, austere, and remote, Wallace Stevens’s playThree Travelers Watch a Sunriseseems, on a first reading, hardly capable of holding its own in performance, much less of anticipating and distilling a generation’s theatrical obsessions. Despite its brevity—seventeen pages when it first appeared in 1916 inPoetrymagazine—it moves among many places, periods, and styles. The setting is eastern Pennsylvania; the title characters are Chinese who arrive in “European” clothes; their attendants are black; a corpse, revealed at the end, is Italian. A stage direction places the action in the present, but when the three travelers put on...

  10. 6 Changing Decorum
    (pp. 257-309)

    Historians seeking the hallowed ground of postwar theatrical experiment could do worse than start at the former Central High School of Needle Trades in New York City. The virtues suggested by the school’s name—practicality, respect for patterns, stoicism before the pinprick of danger and pain—underpinned the performances it hosted for a single night in November 1946: two new ballets by George Balanchine, the more radical of which was the now-landmarkFour Temperaments. The ballet’s protagonists suggest rhythmic and gestural correspondences to the humors—melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguinic, and choleric—yet a skeptical, affectless corps, intercepting the soloists at their...

  11. 7 Returning to Neutral
    (pp. 310-354)

    In a series of articles published in theVillage Voiceafter the 1961 New York premiere ofThe Blacks, the ground gives way beneath the American theater. Here the play’s most prominent defender is no more able than its most eloquent detractor to accept Jean Genet’s challenge to established theatrical practices. Norman Mailer, burning with conviction in the first essay, frequently interrupts himself to warn against the playwright’s lack of conviction. He praises Genet for his “unrelenting sense of where the bodies are buried” in the “haunted canyons of the cancer-ridden city,” yet mocks him for “adoring any perfume which...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 355-390)
  13. Index
    (pp. 391-405)