Creating the Self in the Contemporary American Theatre

Creating the Self in the Contemporary American Theatre

Creating the Self in the Contemporary American Theatre

Creating the Self in the Contemporary American Theatre


Combining his skills as both a professional reviewer of theatre and a literary critic, Robert J. Andreach finds himself in a unique position to provide coherence to what most observers perceive as an unrelated welter of contemporary theatrical experiences. Exploring the theatre from the 1960s to the present, he shows the various ways in which the contemporary American theatre creates a personal, theatrical, and national self.

Andreach argues that the contemporary American theatre creates multiple selves that reflect and give voice to the many communities within our multicultural society. These selves are fragmented and enclaved, however, which makes necessary a counter movement that seeks, through interaction among the various parts, to heal the divisions within, between, and among them.

In his examination of the contemporary theatre, Andreach demonstrates that the plays and the performance art of the feminist, African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and Native American theatres are equal to the works created within the dominant Eurocentric culture.

He then turns to comparable works created within the culture of what performance artist Karen Finley calls the "one male god", works that reflect the breakup of an old order. He discusses the experimental theatre, which turns to the imagination to reveal the nature of the self, and concludes with an examination of recent American works, pointing out in each either the presence or absence of resolution within the divisions of self.


In the mid-1980s, I was twice given the opportunity to review theatre for a New Jersey newspaper. Interested in contemporary theatre ever since my graduate-school days in English at New York University, when I discovered Off-Off-Broadway and the works of such European innovators as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, Bertolt Brecht and Jean Genet, I welcomed each opportunity despite not having taught the subject. I always taught other courses, and twentieth-century drama in any English department of which I was a member was thought of as modern, not contemporary, which meant plays by Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, and other playwrights born in the nineteenth century. Although on the East and West coasts one could see plays by Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard, for example, inside academe their names were known only to those who went to the theatre and only to avant-garde or experimental, as opposed to commercial, theatre.

As it turned out, not having taught the subject was an advantage. With the exception of O'Neill, I had not written on any American playwrights, and I had been able to maintain interest by never being far from New York City and other theatre centers. I was teaching at the University of Rhode Island, for instance, when the Trinity Repertory Company was establishing itself in Providence. By not having taught the subject, I did not seek confirmation for theories I entertained but took the assignments because I enjoyed going to the theatre.

Gradually I became aware of the contemporary American theatre as a distinct experience, the creation of which is the subject of this book.

The artists creating the experience are culturally more diverse than the artists of the first half of the twentieth century. I am not suggesting that the earlier period was culturally monolithic, but with the exception of Lillian Hellman, the principal American playwrights were white males. Karen Finley--a discussion of whose work opens this book--is a woman who performs, not acts in, her original theatre pieces, not plays, that attack the exclusive culture whose sole deity is "one male god." Now consider these names, so different from Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, William Inge, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams . . .

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