Once, about 25 years ago, I interviewed the conductor John Mauceri when he led the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and our talk turned to the state of new musical theatre—which then, in the early 1990s, was in a parlous state that is hard to imagine now, in the era of Fun Home and Hamilton, but whose apparent decline, even certain doom, seemed conventional wisdom then. I’m paraphrasing now, but I distinctly remember him saying something to the effect of: Are people in the Netherlands fretting over the state of Dutch painting, hoping that more of their storied “masters” will emerge? Do Italians worry that they aren’t producing any new Puccinis? His point was clear: Maybe the Golden Age—or whatever you want to call the convergence of talent, inspiration, and opportunity that forged the American musical as we know it—has passed, and that’s all right.
I think of that exchange often, and not just because it’s thankfully clear now that reports of the musical’s death were greatly exaggerated. I flash back to it because the state of our contemporary theatre is often on my mind, and not only its beloved cash-cow musicals but its hardy, taken-for-granted plays too. Ours is a theatre culture purportedly obsessed with and overly obsequious to the classics of yore, though TCG statistics don’t bear this out at all; our data show, in fact, that significantly more new plays are being produced now than old ones. Oh, we’re told, but the contemporary drama no longer occupies the center of our cultural dialogue as it did when, say, Eugene O’Neill was on the cover of Time magazine (four times between 1924 and 1946, if we’re counting). Fair enough, I guess—though, with all due respect to Henry Luce’s nonagenarian baby, how much does a Time cover mean these days anyway? Isn’t that bellwether, like the mythic Age When Important Plays Mattered, as historical as the now over-romanticized American monoculture—the days when Broadway, Hollywood studios, three TV networks, and a handful of magazines, newspapers, and book publishers set the cultural agenda? Clearly we’ve lost something along the way, but we are always losing things. What might have we gained, if anything, in the meantime?
For one, the counterintuitive claim, which I’ve heard from a number of quarters (even from a few otherwise reliably grouchy critics), that we’re actually in a golden age of playwriting right now, feels both perverse and sneakily true—true when I take stock of the quality of writers working today, but perverse when I think of the scant return these writers receive for their troubles, both in remuneration and in respect, and not only from that mythic “larger culture” but even within our own theatrical circles.
As a matter of critical best practice, I think it’s usually best to refrain from labeling any present time a “golden age.” But I’m all for enthusiasms, hobby horses, big-picture takes, however provisional—which is why we commissioned the brilliant, clear-eyed critic Helen Shaw to write our centerpiece essay on the current state of the American play as part of a series of stories on the theme. While Shaw hammers home the central point that the academicization of playwriting has been both a blessing for the craft and a curse for the content and context of theatre, we have reports on two places where both may be reshaped, in Sarah Hart’s story on “development houses” like New Dramatists, the Lark, the Playwrights’ Center, and Chicago Dramatists, and Bill Hirschman’s survey of new-play activity at the nation’s far-flung resident theatres. We’ve also got Eliza Bent’s lively Q&A with playwright/teacher Mac Wellman, who in addition to producing his own alien oeuvre has nurtured generations of form-breaking major playwrights (and who adds his voice to the now-is-the-best-time-for-playwriting chorus), and Allison Considine’s kaleidoscopic report from one of the nation’s warmest new-play incubators, the Contemporary American Theater Festival. These features accompany our annual season preview, with our “top” play and playwright lists, plus a survey of new works the nation’s clued-in dramaturgs and literary managers are most looking forward to. In all, we’ve striven to muster as thorough a case for the present tense of playwriting in the U.S. as could be managed.
In case it’s not entirely persuasive—and I’m as skeptical toward overpraise of any current moment as I am of unearned nostalgia for a halcyon past—there is this to chew on, as I think back on my formative years as a playgoer and critic in the 1990s and early aughts. At the time it seemed like a jagged, improvised, piecemeal, underfunded, reactionary era for theatre, let alone for the culture at large. But you know whose work was literally being minted before my eyes in those years? Nobody much—just Tony Kushner, August Wilson, Anna Deavere Smith, the Wooster Group, Danny Hoch, Culture Clash, Justin Tanner, Kenneth Lonergan, Paula Vogel, Chay Yew, Roger Guenvuer Smith, Tracy Young, Conor McPherson, Mary Zimmerman, Suzan-Lori Parks, David Henry Hwang, Chuck Mee, Tracy Letts, Erik Ehn. Was that a golden age? I’ll leave it to the history books. But I’m grateful I was there for it, and that it helped form me. If we open our eyes to the abundance around us now, we may have a list as good or better than that in 20 years.
A version of this story appears in the October 2016 issue of American Theatre.
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