Modern American Drama: Playwriting 2000–2009

Edited by Julia Listengarten & Cindy Rosenthal
Methuen Drama

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Modern American Drama: Playwriting 2000-2009

This volume is part of a mammoth Decades undertaking covering American drama in the 80-year period commencing in 1930.

The structure follows the successful formula used to view the British theatre scene. Thus, Modern American Drama: Playwriting 2000–2009 starts with a well-constructed overview of American society during a period of war, economic disaster and general flux. This is entertainingly but instructively themed and provides helpful background.

The second chapter, written by co-editor Julia Listengarten, attempts to run through American theatre in the 2000s. Perhaps inevitably, it commences with the response to 9/11 before looking at a number of themes that emerged and became significant. These include site-specific and immersive work, musical theatre on Broadway and beyond and interdisciplinary and experimental productions.

However, perhaps the most informative section relates to New Writing, which often struggled during this decade, when Broadway producers were frequently more comfortable with straight plays imported from the United Kingdom and Ireland rather than taking advantage of homegrown produce.

Bearing in mind how recent the times are, one inevitably finds it quite terrifying and disturbing to discover that, in the 25-year span commencing in 1985 and running through the period under consideration, in each year, only between 12% and 17% of produced plays were written by women.

Pleasingly, the balance has now changed significantly, although it may take time to reach parity once theatres reopen after the ravages of the pandemic are finally overcome and the entertainment world is put to rights, whenever that may be.

The heart of each of the books in the series is an in-depth analysis of the work of a quartet of playwrights who are deemed by the editors to be the most significant or representative of their specific era. In each case, an academic presents a portrait, accompanied by summaries of three major works.

This is supplemented by a series of 'documents', comprising fascinating and highly informative interviews between co-editor Cindy Rosenthal and each of the featured playwrights, as well as an angry essay written by Teresa Rebeck in which she rounds on critics who apparently believe that there is no overlap between writing that audiences appreciate and that which they deem to have high artistic merit.

It would be unfair to reel off a list of high-profile names of those that did not make the cut, although British readers might be surprised at the final selection, given that two of the four are virtually unknown on these shores.

Charles Mee writes highly experimental work and, with the exception of the production of Big Love at the Gate 15 years ago, has barely registered in Britain.

Scott T Cummings helps to explain both the attractions and difficulties of an individualist who unusually is happy to create plays then hand them over to directors to do with what they wish, often encompassing dance at the expense of text.

Lynn Nottage has made a big impact on British audiences and, while Sweat lies outside the period under consideration, many in this country will have seen each of the plays featured, Intimate Apparel, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine and Ruined. On that basis, they will thoroughly enjoy Cindy Rosenthal’s view of the playwright and her work.

Teresa Rebeck has been prolific as a writer for both stage and screen and, from the overview presented by Dorothy Chansky, there is every chance that British viewers would enjoy her theatre work, although to date they have rarely had the chance to do so, although Seminar, which was too late for this book, did appear at Hampstead in a production by Terry Johnson.

Sarah Ruhl, who is also not afraid to experiment, completes the set and each of the plays selected by Wendy Arons, Eurydice, The Clean House and In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play have each been seen on this side of the Atlantic.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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