Modern American Drama: Playwriting in the 1970s

Edited by Mike Vanden Heuvel
Methuen Drama

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Modern American Drama: Playwriting in the 1970s

The 1970s was a decade of financial and political upheaval, especially in the United States.

While theatre aficionados might initially recall it as rather a bland time, Mike Vanden Heuvel whets the appetite when he boldly proclaims that in the process of the breakup of the national political consensus, “the result was an exciting moment of reconfiguration and a dynamic period of expansion and change as everything from funding and audiences to aesthetics could be rethought.”

While Broadway unimaginatively thrived on “Neil Simon comedies, mega-musicals and British transfers”, those seeking more adventurous work looked to off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and resident (regional) theatres, all of which had their moments, sometimes developing work that would eventually make it to the Great White Way.

Indeed, Vanden Heuvel takes the view that this is the decade when Broadway finally lost its prime position as an American creative force, although others including the editor of the previous volume in this epic series might be tempted to suggest the change had taken place considerably earlier.

As always, there are four playwrights whose work in the decade is highlighted.

As Jon Dietrick identifies and explains, David Rabe wrote a powerful trilogy about Vietnam vets, which really caught the contemporary zeitgeist, turning a critical eye on a war that might have started in the previous decade but rolled on for far too long.

Sam Shepard is probably the pre-eminent playwright of the decade and his chapter is written by Vanden Heuvel himself. This covers a trilogy of claustrophobic family plays that cleverly mixed realism with something more fantastical and have much to say about America of the period. Later in the book, the editor also explores the playwright’s remarkable, tempestuous but sparkling career, starting out in the avant-garde, moving into playwriting but then becoming a screenwriter, movie actor, prose writer and celebrity.

Neal A Lester gets the job of explaining why Ntozake Shange comes into the category of playwright. She is best known as a poet and creator of the choreopoem form. Her status remains high and will be enhanced next year when there is a Broadway revival of her key work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Regardless of the nature of her output, Ms Shange’s presence on Broadway was deeply significant, given her race and gender and desire to empower those who shared either or both.

The last “playwright” is Richard Foreman, a name that may mean little to even the keenest of British theatre aficionados but clearly a darling of academics such as Geoffrey King and Craig Werner. They write what amounts to an abbreviated thesis summarising the philosophy and work of a man who “had displaced any notions of an Aristotelian dramatic arc, opting for a ‘meaningless’ event in a field of experience”.

This is more than borne out by the chapter on the founder of Ontological-Hysteric Theater and its analyses of three representative works from the period, each of which applied a philosophy that frequently used amateur performers who were told not to act in plays where the text was literally incoherent and the look as significant as the words or more so.

If anyone is still in doubt about whether Foreman’s 1970s work may be a hard sell, learning from King and Werner that it “was simpatico with the minimalist aesthetic of that era. Which could also be deemed the right-to-bore era” might tip the balance.

The documents accompanying this volume are directed at specific aspects of each writer’s work in the '70s.

For David Rabe, the Vietnam War, his take on it and the controversy when a proposed TV version of Sticks and Bones was censored out of existence at the last minute show the extent to which his finger was on the pulse of the nation. Shepard and myth are closely connected and his work is considered in the context of an unlikely trio of Antonin Artaud, Bob Dylan and Arthur Miller, amongst others. For Ms Shange, the documents explore key issues of feminism and race, along with the distinction and overlap between performance and theatre.

The Foreman section includes purposefully unintelligible extracts from the man’s own writings, together with an assortment of attempts to explain his work, which prove that this really is a darling of the academics, if less frequently the general public.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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