Broadway's Playing or Possum, or Is the Theater Really Dead?

By Pressley, Nelson | Insight on the News, April 24, 1995 | Go to article overview

Broadway's Playing or Possum, or Is the Theater Really Dead?


Pressley, Nelson, Insight on the News


Maybe Neil Simon, maybe David Mamet. But Terrence McNally? His Love! Valour! Compassion! is the drama on every theater insider's lips, though it is playing to 75 percent of capacity on Broadway.

Tony Kushner? His Tony-winning epic, Angels in America, lost money in two years on Broadway, and his new play, Slavs!, remains obscure. Then there's John Guare (Six Degrees Separation), Sam Shepard Fool for Love) and August Wilson (The Piano Lesson)

Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman, is still hard at work. But the national awareness of top writers such as Miller and the late Eugene O'Neill arid Tennessee Williams has faded, says playwright Christopher Durang. "Only Edward Albee, due largely to [Who's Afraid of] Virginia Woolf, has slipped under the wire."

Broadway offers few dramas these days, although that doesn't mean today's writers are untalented. "We've got more good younger-generation and middle-generation playwrights than we've ever had," says Albee, whose lauded Three Tall Women is now on in New York and London. But according to some critics, the drama is shrinking, physically and thematically Tighter production budgets and escalating costs drive writers to create single-set, three-character plays. Identity politics compels writers to address evermore-narrow demographics.

Playwrights "would get more size and scope if they felt they had an audience that represented the American people," says Amer, probably the most famous living American playwright. "In the sixties, the audience atomized, and the young audience turned away and went into highly experimental plays that were fragmentary They felt they were speaking to their own peers, but not to the great unwashed." Adds Miller about his generation, "We had the illusion - and it probably was an illusion - that we were addressing America. And when that illusion died, playwriting got smaller."

Some of the theater's more charismatic performers and rigorous thinkers have turned in recent years to solo performance, where they can unburden their consciences to audiences without the distraction of storytelling. "But that's coming around again," Miller says. "There are characters again, and some possibility of audiences empathizing with characters instead of just observing them."

The arrival of wider cultural perspectives on the American stage is seen almost universally as invigorating, although James Magruder, resident dramaturge at Baltimore's Center Stage, maintains that there is a far greater variety of plays today than any nameable "golden age" of American theater, even if genre pieces continue to glut the market. …

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