The Twentieth Century turned out to be a heyday for American drama. The theater had languished for a long time under a bad reputation and worse publicity. American playwrights didn't do themselves any favors, either. Think about those guys in the 18th Century -- remember any of them? There's a reason for that.
But after World War I, America changed, dramatically speaking. It loosened up a bit. It began to realize the artistic value of live theater, and theater began to attract some lively minds.
The first of these was Eugene O'Neill (photo at right, thank you Library of Congress). O'Neill is hard to classify, so we won't try -- his work is insightful, deeply true to human psychology, and sometimes borders on the surreal. His play The Emperor Jones was one of the first times a literary white person used black people in serious drama. His 1920 play Beyond the Horizon won a Pulitzer Prize. Other successes included Desire Under the Elms, Ah, Wilderness!, A Moon for the Misbegotten, and Long Day's Journey Into Night.
For generations, high school students have been forced to read and over-analyze Tennessee Williams' play The Glass Menagerie, and perhaps have missed the depth and power of this playwright. Williams created plays that stood on the strength of their characters and the subtle tensions that require the audience to pay attention. Many of his plays were made into wildly successful films, and they include A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (my favorite), Suddenly Last Summer, and Camino Real.
Among the great tragedies of American Literature is the death of Lorrainne Hansberry of cancer at the age of 34. This talented playwright created A Raisin in the Sun, a play loosely based on
her family's experience of trying to move into an all-white Chicago neighborhood. The title comes, of course, from Langston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred," and could be used to describe the attitude of the family matriarch, Lena Younger, as she determinedly makes a down payment on a house in a neighborhood that she believes will be happier for everyone. Hansberry was the first African-American on Broadway, with a black producer and a black cast, which included Sidney Portier playing Walter Younger. The play was a huge success, and has been adapted for film several times, once starring Danny Glover.
Arthur Miller unwittingly provided the view of the Salem witch trials that everyone remembers. His play, The Crucible has been made into a film, and his characters have superseded the historical ones in almost every way. If you don't believe me, remember how convoluted the discussion of the witch trials was last fall, as we tried to sort out what was history and what was Miller. He also wrote Death of a Salesman, and other plays that have since been made into films. Miller wrote drama for the radio, a challenging medium, since the plot had to be carried by voice alone -- no movement, appearance, facial expression, or stage direction.
Drama continues to be a fertile field for American writers. There's something about live performances, with their potential for great success or merely great suckage, that draws audiences. In a movie, everything has been smoothed out and made perfect; in a live performance, the chemistry (or lack of it) is happening right before you -- you're watching something be created in the moment. Long live live theater!