Modern American Drama: Playwriting in the 1930s

Edited by Anne Fletcher
Methuen Drama

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Modern American Drama: Playwriting in the 1930s

This earliest volume in the Decades undertaking, covering American drama between 1930 and 2009, focuses on what might arguably be the most tempestuous 10 years in the country’s history.

The decade is bookended by The Wall Street Crash of 1929, which inexorably led to The Great Depression and the period’s end witnessed the commencement of The Second World War. It may therefore be no surprise that three of the four writers chosen as exemplars have radical, left-wing leanings.

Once again, the structure follows that of all of the books in this series, which make them invaluable resources for those interested in American drama but also social history. While the more recent decades might literally be in living memory, the overview of American and global history that prefaces sections devoted to the theatre are a helpful introduction.

The book’s editor Anne Fletcher is to be congratulated on a fine overview of American theatre during the decade, inadvertently allowing us to realise that many of the most prominent playwrights are now little more than footnotes in stage history, if that. It cannot have been easy to choose four playwrights to represent a decade that was dominated in Britain by drawing-room comedies of Noël Coward.

The final quartet could prove controversial, since the mainstream is largely ignored and readers might wonder who would have made the cut had theatre aficionados of the time been able to vote. It might, for example, have been fascinating to learn more about Robert Sherwood, who garnered in fewer than three of the 10 Pulitzer Prizes awarded for drama between 1930 and 1939.

Equally, it is a shame that George S Kaufman, as popular as any of his peers today largely due to collaborations with Moss Hart, is probably regarded by academics as too populist, along with S N Behrman.

Instead, the lucky winners are led by Gertrude Stein, a selection that might come as a surprise to those today who will not even realise that she was a playwright. In fact, rather than plays, two of the three works used to demonstrate her prowess are libretti, that seemingly owed a large degree of their success to the accompanying compositions of Virgil Thompson.

Laura Luise Schultz writes a good biography that can read like an academic thesis and feels somewhat out of context. She does her best to support the inclusion of a celebrity and aesthete who spent most of her life in exile. From the brief extracts of the writer’s work, Gertrude Stein comes over as either a pre-Beckettian genius or purveyor of meaningless gibberish.

Adrienne Macki contributes the section on Langston Hughes. He was also a polymath as well as a political activist and, while not necessarily one of the best four playwrights of the decade, represents an important movement as an African-American with strong political principles. Arguably, his finest moment in this book is in one of the documents, lauding and promoting the qualities of “Negro” art.

Clifford Odets is still revived on a regular basis today both in the United States and the United Kingdom, having been resurrected after bowing to the pressures of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Christopher J Herr does his subject proud, helped by the fact that between 1935 and 1940, working with the legendary Group Theater, Odets had no fewer than five major plays appear including Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing and Golden Boy.

Lillian Hellman also found herself facing the Committee but stood her ground. However, she is also somewhat reviled, Anne Fletcher reporting that her work is often criticised as “well made” (is that such an insult?) and melodramatic. Even so, The Children’s Hour and the Little Foxes, both of which fall squarely into this decade, are still going strong today.

Anne Fletcher concludes with an Afterword that briefly but comprehensively covers the lives and work of the four artists before, during and after the 1930s.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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