From its debut in the 1890s as little more than a stage set for European operettas and light English comedies. The American musical evolved into a fully realized theatrical art form. In all that time, however, there was one glaring absence: There was no great American drama. The Great American Drama is an elusive creature. It is not simply any play that captures the essence of America in some unique way, but rather a specific type of play with distinct characteristics and conventions.
The Great American Drama takes on universal themes—love and hate, betrayal and jealousy, greed and avarice—but it focuses on characters that are distinctly American or explore some uniquely American setting. Like all successful plays, it will have a beginning, middle, and end; dynamic characters; a clear plotline; abundant conflict; and preferably some sort of resolution or message for its audience.
This article explores why the development of the Great American Drama took so long to appear on Broadway (and elsewhere), who were its early pioneers, what other theatrical forms came before it (farce, melodrama, domestic comedy), what other forms appeared alongside it (melodramatic realism), how it finally assumed such prominence (through collaborations between actors with similar aims)…and why it’s been oh-so-rare since then.
In the beginning of American drama, actors themselves were the playwrights. Since American theater evolved around traveling shows on the westward frontier, there was little need for a fixed theatrical community that included not only playwrands but also playwrights, actors, producers, and directors.
Quite simply, it was too hard to keep a show going in a wilderness that was too far away to be served by a single company of actors. In the East, cities were close enough together to allow for some shared actors and perhaps a traveling company or two that could act in a variety of venues. And yet if you were a traveling actor in the old days, there was a strong temptation to “ad-lib” in the middle of a play that was “stiff,” or not well-received by its audience. The natural solution was to write a play that was simple in plot and featured characters that were easy for actors to “slip into” and become.
Thus, the early American play was often a domestic comedy (a “comedy of manners”) or a farce. A domestic comedy featured some curious quirk of American life—a boarding house of “lodgers,” a strangely assorted family, a group of friends who were writers or poets or scientists. The play featured a series of complications, misunderstandings, and mistaken identities, and a final resolution at the end. The farce was a broad “slapstick” comedy in which a group of characters were usually trying to outwit each other in foolish ways.
The form of the Great American Drama began to take shape in the early part of the 20th century with the arrival on the theatrical scene of three groups. The first was the so-called “realists,” the second “naturalists,” and the third “domestic” playwrights. Each of these groups took an existing dramatic form—the domestic comedy, for example—but added a new element of “realism” to it. The realists interested in exploring the lives of ordinary people who were often on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
The realists’ plays were more reflective and contemplative than earlier dramas, with fewer “sitcom-esque” complications and misunderstandings. The characters were less likely to be oddball figures and more likely to be ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. The naturalists’ plays were often “slice of life” studies of the most unfortunate and downtrodden members of society—the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, the “submerged tenth” (the lowest tenth) of society.
The naturalists often explored the seamy side of life and the fears and anxieties of the “common man” during a time of enormous economic and social change. The domestic playwrights, who emerged slightly later, took the earlier domestic comedy and replaced the quirky characters with more “realistic” figures. The domestic playwrights were also interested in exploring the lives of the lower classes and often used a technique that came to be known as “symbolism” in which everyday objects—a piece of furniture, a particular kind of room—were used to represent the characters’ deeper feelings and thoughts.
As the Great Depression of the early 1930s kicked in, the theatrical trend swung from “melodramatic realism” back toward the “light comedy” of the earlier days. Such comedy, or “farce,” had been around since the earliest days of American theater but had been put aside for a time as naturalism and realism came to the fore.
The Great Depression was a time of “coping” and “staying afloat” and “keeping one’s head above water”—the themes that dominated the work of the so-called “domestic comedy” playwrights. Such comedies featured characters who were often middle-class people with middle-class problems—money problems, marriage problems, children problems—problems that were “everyday” and “realistic” but also “domestic” in nature.
1941-1945: War Changes Everything. Broadway
As the United States entered World War II, American drama again went through a dramatic and significant shift. The domestic comedy and melodramatic realism were put aside as playwrights focused on the war, its causes, and its effects on the American people.
The domestic comedy was now about women on the home front and about the “woman behind the man behind the gun.” In the 1940s, the drama of domestic comedy was often replaced by the documentary play. The documentary playwrights attempted to record and describe in an accurate and “realistic” way some aspect of life in wartime America.
The melodramatic realism of the 1930s, so suited to the war theme in its portrayal of the poor and downtrodden, was now put aside for the realism of “wartime drama.” This change was reflected in the shift from “documentary” to “propaganda” plays. Propaganda plays were more propagandistic (and “simplistic”) in their approach to the war issues. Propagandistic plays were designed to stir up patriotic emotions in the audience, to “rally the troops” behind the war effort.
By the end of the 1940s, the Great American Drama had come full circle, returning to its earliest forms: the domestic comedy and the farce. This was in part due to the return of the traveling company of actors to Broadway. It was also due to the nature of the postwar world that saw a growing middle class, a widening acceptance of technology, and a new preoccupation with prosperity and material success.
The theatrical climate of the postwar years became less concerned with the problems of the poor and more concerned with the problems of the middle class. The domestic comedies and farces of the postwar years often featured characters who were “ordinary,” “middle-class,” and “average” in all regards. The characters were people like you, people like me, “average” people who were not particularly special or extraordinary in any way.
The Great American Drama is an elusive creature. It is not simply any play that captures the essence of America in some unique way, but rather a specific type of play with distinct characteristics and conventions.
The Great American Drama takes on universal themes—love and hate, betrayal and jealousy, greed and avarice—but it focuses on characters that are distinctly American or explores some uniquely American setting. Like all successful plays, it will have a beginning, middle, and end; dynamic characters; a clear plotline; abundant conflict; and preferably some sort of resolution or message for its audience. It will be a dramatic “event