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American Drama

American Drama is the drama which is written by American playwrights


about all issues related to the American nation and American people. It appeared
nearly in the second half of the seventeenth century. American drama witnessed
great developments throughout its history and till the present day. The changes in
dramatic works in America were related to the changes that took place in the nation
itself. In the preface to his book, The American Dramatist, Montrose J. Moses
admitted the importance of the American drama; he confessed that American drama
was influenced by certain social and economical factors. He said, "The American
drama is a fact; it has a body, whatever the value of its spirit. In its local sense, it is a
reflection of local condition and type characteristics; in its technical sense, it exhibits
special mannerisms, and shows itself subjected to special influences. The American
dramatist has evolved from certain social factors, and his product the American
drama has developed by reason of theatrical economics" (p. viii).
Many writers tried to give a delicate definition to the term "American drama"
according to their points of view. For example, Bronson Howard, who is considered
the Dean of the American drama, once said: "By the term I should mean any play
that is written by an American, or in America by a foreign resident, that is produced
here, and that deals with any subject using America in the sense of the United States.
The phrase, American drama, if extended to a full description, would be Plays
written in the United States, chiefly in the English Language" (Moses, p. 12). But
Augustus Thomas said that "the American drama is written by Americans upon
American subjects, and is stamped with peculiar humor and distinct characterdrawing" (Moses, p. 12). Montrose J. Moses summarized the definition when he
said, "We often hear it said that drama is a reflex of life; hence, that American drama
is a reflex of American life" (Moses, p.19).
American drama faced a certain problem, that of neglect and dismissal as a
legitimate literary form. It is a fact that the literary critics neglected the American
drama for so long time. First of all, it is neglected because of the dominance of
poetry and prose. Secondly, the American critics themselves were not interested in
analyzing American plays or criticizing the American playwrights. In his essay,
"Why American Drama is literature", Christopher Bigsby asserted that American
drama has been given bad treatment in comparison with other literary genres by the
American academic critics, in his own words, "by those concerned with the
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intellectual and literary life of the nation" (Debusscher & Schvey, 1989, p.3). Again,
few years later, Bigsby announced that any account of American drama must begin
by noting the casual disregard with which it has been treated by the critical
establishment. There is no single history of its development, no truly comprehensive
analysis of its achievement. In the standard histories of American literature it is
accorded at best a marginal position. (Bigsby, Modern American Drama: 19451990, 1992). The evidence is that "the first book on Arthur Miller was published in
England, the first on Albee in Belgium, the first on Mamet in England" (Debusscher
& Schvey, p.8). This neglect led Susan Harris Smith to announce that "for too many
critics and historians American drama is still American literature's unwanted bastard
child, the offspring of the whore that is American theatre" (p. 10).
This neglect of American drama put the historians and literary critics, later, in
a big dilemma. They became unable to give the definite date of its emergence. So, as
Bigsby mentioned, it became hard to literary critics to follow the traces of the
development of American drama. They failed, also, to mark out the first American
play. Some opinions suggested that the first American playwright is Sir William
Berkeley, Governor of Virginia with, possibly, his play The Lost Lady which was
written in 1641(See Meserve, 1965). But Annie Marble thought that "probably the
first attempt at drama written on American soil was Cornelia, by Governor William
Berkley, of Virginia, which was acted in London in 1662, but probably not printed
(p. 236). Other opinion said that "the earliest play written by a native of this country,
of which we have any knowledge, was "Gustavus Vasa," acted by the students of
Harvard College in 1690. Its author, Benjamin Colman, was born in Boston in 1673
and died there in 1747" (Hornblow, 1919).
Paul Leicester Ford suggested that the first play to be printed in America was
a farce in three acts entitled "Androborus" (The Man Eater). It was written by Robert
Hunter, colonial governor of New York, with the assistance of Lewis Morris, a
native New Yorker and chief justice of the New York colony. This piece was printed
in New York in 1714 by William Bradford and bearing the fictitious imprint of
"Monoropolis" (Fool's Town, meaning New York). It was a satire on the political
conditions of the day, and was doubtless put out to check the meddling of Trinity
Parish officials in the affairs of the colony. From the viewpoint of dramatic
construction it was not without merit. "The play," says Paul Leicester Ford, "was
seemingly never intended for stage production, for a part of the plot turns on so
filthy an incident as to preclude its performance even in the coarse and vulgar time
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of its writing. The piece is dramatic, however, despite its politics and lack of
women's parts, the characters are admirably drawn and it abounds in genuine humor.
The trick played on Androborus, of making him believe himself dead, is both quaint
and effective, and the part of Tom of Bedlam is notable in its Mrs. Malapropisms"
(pp. 67387). Few opinions went to say that The Prince of Parthia, written in 1759
by Thomas Godfrey, was, probably, "the first play written by an American to be
performed in America by a professional company of actors" (Quinn, Representative
American Plays, p. 3). Also, some said that the first play to treat a native subject was
Ponteach or The Savages of America (1766) by Robert Rogers.
In spite of the critics' variance about the beginning and development of
American drama, they agreed that there was rare to find good native American
drama before the second half of the nineteenth century. Arthur Hornblow announced
that "Up to the year 1830, America had no national drama. there had been some
desultory writing done for the stage by native authors, but nothing had been
produced characteristic and vital enough to deserve being classed as national
drama." Most of the plays written throughout this period were historical and
directed against the political regime in that days. In those plays, the dramatists were
interested in their political issues more than the excellence of the dramatic elements.
"The American historical plays of this period were strictly patriotic, as the titles will
imply; they were heroic, bombastic, and, as Lancaster has noted, filled with
'romantic traditions, local annals, individual eccentricity, temporary sensation,
spread-eagle patriotism, and redskin melodrama.'It is enough to record the heroic
measures of Hugh Henry Brackenridge's "The Battle of Bunker Hill" (1776), or the
same author's dramatic elegy on "The Death of General Montgomery at the Siege of
Quebec" (1777). James Nelson Barker wrote "The Indian Princess" (1808) and
"Superstition" (1823), and M. M. Noah tried his hand at "Marion; or, The Hero of
Lake George." There is no end to the plays based on incidents of the Revolution or
of the War of 1812" (Moses, p. 45). Moreover, the American plays of this period
were influenced by the German drama "not only with the plays of Schiller, but more
particularly with the prolific Kotzebue's (1761-1819) examples of melodrama"
(Moses, p.47).
In addition, Walter J. Meserve concludes in his work, An Outline History of
American Drama, that many eighteenth century American plays indicate little
dramatic talent and were written more to criticize and to propagandize than to create
a work of art, but the passion of some exhibited in these plays often strikes a spark
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of real life" (p. 38). Given this, Meserve means that the play's form and its dramatic
elements are less important than its implicit political message, which leads to the
conclusion that early American drama is merely a political mouthpiece. But, he adds
that the dramatic works of this period were finally works of art, and hence, they
must be read as dramatic pieces. He gives Royall Tyler's play The Contrast, which is
considered the first comedy in, American drama, as an outstanding example of the
eighteenth century literature, combining political issues with formidable art.
Montrose J. Moses also supported some playwrights of that period who introduced
good, acceptable dramatic art, he said; "We do not repudiate the development of
American drama before 1870, but we do not rank it as high. We revere the names of
Booth and Barrett, of Jefferson and Holland, of Davenport, Gilbert, and Clarke, of
Laura Keene and Charlotte Cushman. But the drama in those days developed under
peculiar social and economic conditions which are over; the type, the form, and the
manner are over" (Moses, p. 58). Also, Arthur H. Quinn offers a partial list of more
than fifty plays mounted between 1826 and 1860, most of which have not survived.
Among the most interesting are Briar Cliff (1828), Putnam, the Iron Son of '76
(1844), Love in '76 (1857), and Horseshoe Robinson (1858). Indeed, the most
popular successful works of such plays tended to be lighthearted pieces merely set
against the background of the war. (See Quinn, 1927)
By 1870, American drama witnessed great developments. The American
drama of the nineteenth century paralleled with the development of the American
nation itself. It was evident that the historical, cultural and social events affected
dramatic writing. Thus, nineteenth century American plays can be seen as historical
documents of the social, economical, and political issues within America during this
period. The nineteenth American drama dealt with topical matters such as slavery
and the Civil War. By its very nature, the Civil War remained of supreme interest to
American playwrights. Probably the first important Civil War drama was Dion
Boucicault's commercially unsuccessful Belle Lamar (1874). Its story established a
pattern to be portrayed in many of the dramas that followed. In fact, the fundamental
issues to the war; such as, slavery, slave economics, and secession were passed over
in favor of romantic and melodramatic themes that employed the war itself largely as
background. Belasco's May Blossom (1884) was a further avant-grand of the
outpouring of Civil War themes that were dealt with in later plays like Held by the
Enemy (1886), Shenandoah (1889), Secret Service (1895), The Heart of Maryland
(1895), and Barbara Frietchie (1899). The later years of the nineteenth century

American drama were characterized by the rise of the literary movements of realism
and naturalism, and the beginnings of social drama and melodrama.
The most important playwright in this period is Bronson Howard (1842
1908). Howard is called the dean of the American drama, and he is generally
considered the first American dramatist to earn a living entirely by playwriting.
"There are very definite reasons why Bronson Howard is rightfully considered the
Dean of American Drama, a rightful title according to seniority, but more especially
because of his fight in the seventies and eighties for American interests in American
drama for the American people" (Moses, p. 22). Howard's plays are important in the
development of American drama because, as Arthur Quinn wrote, "Howard so well
illustrated...the development of American playwriting during the period of his
creative achievement from 1870 to 1906, that his work becomes of such
significance (Bordman, 2004). Howard's first successful play was Saratoga, a
farcical comedy produced in 1870. Then, he wrote 12 subsequent plays, including
the comedy of manners Diamonds (1872), the drama Moorcroft (1874), and the
romance The Banker's Daughter (1878), which remained popular for many years
and convinced Howard to abandon newspaper work as drama critic. Afterwards, he
wrote Young Mrs. Winthrop (1882), one of the first American dramas of social
criticism; One of Our Girls (1885), The Henrietta (1887), a satiric comedy on
business practice; and by far his most popular play, Shenandoah (1888), a Civil War
drama, first unsuccessfully produced but revived the following year with great
success. Throughout his dramatic career, Howard fought to have American themes
made more welcome on stage and to secure the position of the American playwright.
After the First World War, American playwrights needed a drama that could
reflect the effects that war had on their society. They resorted to what is known
today as modernism. Moreover, the influence of 19th century naturalism and realism
as well as expressionism was entirely obvious in their writings. With realism,
dramatic authors accurately depict life and its problems. The critic, Emory Elliott
admitted that realism, as a literary movement, not only depicted American society
after World War I accurately and unbiasedly, but also tried to find the solutions
brought upon by the suffering created by the war (see Elliott, p. 705). The realists
tried to give a real picture of the whole situation in America, portraying the
American society with its different classes, manners, and stratification of life. In
addition to the influence of the three literary movements, American dramatists found
inspiration in the intellectual "arguments" of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and
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Herbert Spencer and especially the psychoanalytical concepts of Sigmund Freud and
Carl Jung.
The bridge between the pre-war and post-war world in the American
theatre is provided by a single man His name was Eugene O'Neill (Bigsby, 2000,
p.14). Eugene O' Neill (1888-1953) is the leading foremost dramatic figure of
modern American drama. The critic, Christopher Bigsby, classified O'Neill as
"America's first great playwright" (Bigsby, 1999, p. 5). Also, he has been called "the
father of Modern American drama, not only because he was the first major
American playwright, but also because of the influence of his work on the
development of American theatre and other dramatists" (Magill, p.1782). O'Neill is
credited with raising American dramatic theater from its narrow origins to an art
form respected around the world. O'Neill's career as a playwright consisted of three
periods. His early realist plays utilize his own experiences, especially as a seaman.
In the 1920s he rejected realism in favor of expressionism. His expressionistic plays
during this period were influenced by the ideas of philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche,
psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and Swedish playwright August
Strindberg.
During his final period, O'Neill returned to realism. His late dramatic works
were very realistic in which he portrayed characters whose dreams contrasted with
their real world. In addition, he introduced psychological realism in his plays. From
the start, O'Neill was interested in the inner drama of his characters more than their
physical or social world, and he evoked psychological states through powerful
metaphorical settings. William R. Thurman claimed that "the essence of O'Neill's
dramatic output is the grim futility of human existence, cursed by alienation from
self, society, and the Source-of-all-life, and made bearable only by illusion." The
greatest works of Eugene O' Neill included Beyond the Horizon (1920); Anna
Christie (1922); Desire Under the Elms (1925), Strange Interlude (1928); The
Iceman Cometh (1940), and Long Day's Journey Into Night (1957). O'Neill was
awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936. After Shakespeare and Shaw, O'Neill
became the most widely translated and produced dramatist.
The post Second World War witnessed the appearance of two of the most
important and best dramatists that America has ever produced: Tennessee Williams
and Arthur Miller. Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) was a very successful dramatist,
who was able to achieve critical acclaim in his lifetime. The work of Tennessee
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Williams is highly autobiographical. His plays contain links to his own life; some of
the most recognizable characters in his works are people he encountered in his life.
The most autobiographical play written by Williams was The Glass Menagerie.
This play based on the true story of Williams, his sister, and his mother. Spoto
quotes Dakin Williams -Tennessee Williams' brother- as saying that:
The events of The Glass Menagerieare a virtually literal rendering
of our family life at 6254 Enright Avenue, St. Louis, even though the
physical setting is that of an earlier apartment, at Westminster Place.
There was a real Jim O'Connor, who was brought home for my sister.
The Tom of the play is my brother Tom, and Amanda Wingfield is
certainly mother. (p. 114)
Moreover, Williams derives his themes from psychoanalysis, conferred upon
American drama by the influence of Freud's theories. Williams' great plays are The
Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), The Rose Tattoo (1951),
and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).
Arthur Miller (1915-2005) is recognized as an important and influential
American playwright who was plunged into the influence of realism. Arthur Miller
is an interesting author in the sense that many of his plays reflect or are a product of
events in his life. His success began with his masterpiece, All my Sons in 1947. This
play was followed by a number of remarkable dramatic works; such as, Death of a
Salesman (1949); which put "Miller into the front rank of American dramatists"
(Helterman, p. 95), and The Crucible (1953) which was written in an historical style,
marking a shift in Miller's preferred writing style from the "naturalistic dialogue of
the American middle class" (Helterman, p. 95) in his first three plays, to a formal,
New-England-Puritan style. The Crucible concerns the dilemma of "making moral
choices in the face of community pressure and about the irrational basis of that
pressure" (Helterman, p. 95).
Both Williams and Miller were able to express the feelings and depression of
the American people after World War I. They also succeeded in portraying the
American society during the period of the Great Depression which led the
Americans to self-awareness and evoked the sense of uncertainty to the American
drama. The drama of Miller and Williams portrays action and dialogue that reflects
recurrent post World War II American themes: the dissolution of the American
family, the failure of the American Dream, and the collapse of capitalism in
American economics. The protagonist was no longer an idealistic "doer" who
ventured out to "save the day." He was an alienated tragic hero seeking to "belong" in
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an eroded "jungle" society, or an "everyman" trying to "cope" through false


compensations of "pipe dreams," or a muted survivor living a life of "quiet
desperation," a victim of societal pressure, animal desires, and loss of integrity.
Freudian and Jungian theories helped greatly in that way.
During the 1960s, great changes took place in American society and literature.
The 1960s was a phase of new movements and new ideas in America. Americans in
that era faced many controversial issues-from civil rights, the Vietnam War, the
Cold War, racial injustice, nuclear arms, and nonconformity. These ideas contributed
to changes in American drama. A new generation of dramatists emerged to express
the political, social, economical changes within the American society. A leading
dramatic figure of this period was Edward Albee. Edward Albee (1928- ) is
classified as the first American dramatist of the Theatre of the Absurd. His plays
contained philosophical, social, and economical issues. In addition, the existential
theories, especially of Sartre and Camus, were dealt with in his dramatic pieces.
According to Esslin, Albee is the primary American playwright of the
Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin sees that Albee "comes into the category of the Absurd
precisely because his work attacks the very foundations of American Optimism"
(1969, p. 302). In the words of Tom Driver, "it was necessary, to have a popular
playwright of the absurd [in America]. It was in this context that Edward Albee
became a culture hero after The Zoo Story," (Driver, 1970) which was Albee's
first play. The Zoo Story was followed by a number of remarkable plays; such as,
The Zoo Story (1959), The American Dream (1960), Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf? (1962), Three Tall Women (1991), and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (2002).
It is said that his plays have the formal inventiveness and depth of ONeills and the
social acuity and judicial firmness of Arthur Millers, but he outdoes them both in
his wit and grace with words. He is experimental like Thornton Wilder, but his plays
have greater passion. In his understanding of the marginalized members of society
and his ability to produce tight poetic dialogue, Albee is equal to Tennessee
Williams, but his work is more consistent than Williams' and has a greater
intellectual quotient (See MacNicholas, p. 22).
After Albee, there were a number of playwrights who enriched American
drama with their plays till the present day. Those dramatists are Sam Shepard, David
Mamet, Beth Henley, and Arthur Kopit. Sam Shepard (1943 - ) has been acclaimed
as the premier American dramatist of his generation, particularly for his explorations
of American myths and archetypes. Thematically, his work often confronts the
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cultural identity of the United States. Shepard has also been concerned with the
dynamics of the American family. Shepard's Cowboys, written in 1964, was his first
play; but it was his play Buried Child that earned the most success and even received
the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979. His dramatic pieces Far North, Simpatico,
Curse of the Starving Class, True West, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind
received great recognitions as well. David Mamet (1947- ) is the greatest and most
influential of living American dramatists. His works are known for their clever
dialogue. Mamet's style of writing dialogue, marked by a cynical, street-smart edge,
precisely crafted for effect, is so distinctive that it came to be called "Mamet speak"
(See Krasner, p. 410). Mamet's first play to receive attention was The Duck
Variations (1972), but he gained his first critical success with his Sexual Perversity
in Chicago (1974). He won the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross (1984). His
later plays include Speed-the-Plow (1987), Oleanna (1992), and The Cryptogram
(1994).
Arthur Kopit (1937- ) is the contemprary American playwright, who is famous
for his serious plays with strange style. It is said that a close observation to his work,
one will fell that his plays are so unlike one another that they seem the work of
several different authors. A writer of considerable versatility in a variety of theatrical
idioms, Kopit's work shows many European influences, especially those of Brecht
and Pirandello. His best Plays are Indians (1969); and Wings (1978). Indians is seen
as a review of America's treatment of the native Americans and a critique of the
Vietnam War. Wings (1978) is a poetic drama about a woman recovering from a
stroke, whose fractured world is revealed through her interior monologue.
Beth Henley (1952- ) is a popular contemporary playwright. She is best
known for her tragicomedies that depict women who struggle to define themselves
in society. Critics praise Henley's humorous portrayal of small-town Southern life.
They compare her with other Southern playwrights, such as Eudora Welty and
Tennessee Williams. Henley's first play was the one act play Am I Blue. Beth Henley
was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle
Award for Best American Play for Crimes of the Heart, which is her first full-length
and most famous play. The play is a black comedy about the reunion of three
maladjusted sisters: Meg, just back from a failed attempt at a singing career in
Hollywood; Lenny, single and desperate; and Babe, the youngest sister, who shot
her husband because she didn't like his looks. Henley's style, sometimes called

"Southern gothic," combines dark humor with a decidedly regional idiom. Her other
remarkable works are The Miss Firecracker Contest (1980), and Abundance (1989).
Since the events of September 11, 2001, American drama dealt with a number
of themes that were never dealt with before. Contemporary American drama reflects
relevant, twenty-first century premises: society as violence-riddled, the lurking
threat of terrorism and serial crime, the loss of faith in any deity or value-system,
and the concept of totalitarianism masquerading as democracy. The four notable
contemporary playwrights are David Auburn, Byrony Lavery, Martin McDonagh,
and John Patrick Shanley. The idea of violence is depicted in a number of
contemporary American plays; such as, Laverys Frozen, and Martin McDonagh's
The Pillowman. Basically, McDonagh, like Lavery, is expounding a tale that depicts
the casual presence of violence in contemporary culture.
With a close observation to the American drama, one can discover that black
American drama, or African- American drama, has occupied a great portion of the
history of American drama. In general, black American drama focused on the issues
that interested the Black within the American society. It dealt with the topics that
reflected the social, economical, political problems of the Afro-American people. W.
E. B. Du Bois, founder and editor of The Crisis, the monthly, official magazine of
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "defined African
American drama as theatre by, for, near, and about African Americans, the United
States was a segregated society" (Gonzlez, 2009). Du Bois thought that AfroAmerican drama should be used as a vehicle to introduce propagandatistic plays to
advance the cause of the American Negro. The African American playwright, Paul
Carter Harrison, admits that one of the most important aims of black drama is to
insure that "the collected energies of black people coalesce to define their peculiarly
humanistic place in a ravaged society" (1973, p.196).
As Afro-Americans' place in American society has changed over the centuries
from slavery to freedom to the arduous battle for civil rights, so, too, the importance
and effect of African American drama. Before the American Civil War, black
American drama primarily focused on the issue of slavery. At the turn of the 20th
century, the dramatists turned to deal with the racist attitudes in the United States.
During the American Civil Rights movement, the black American playwrights
interested in the issues of racial discrimination and black nationalism. Today,
African American dramatic works has become accepted as an integral part of
American literature.
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The beginning of black American drama was marked in the nineteenth century
with Williams Wells Brown, the founder of the first African American institution
which is called the African Grove Theatre in 1821. William Wells Brown sought to
establish a social-gathering place to entertain free blacks (See McAllister, 2003).
Brown wrote two plays which established the black drama in America; the first was
King Shotaway(1823), the first known play by an African-American writer. The
second play was The Escape: or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), which was known as
the first play by an African-American writer to be published. The Escape was a kind
of satire against the owners of slaves. Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins wrote one of the
earliest musical plays in black theatre: Peculiar Sam or the Underground Railroad
(1879) whose action centered on the fleeing of some slaves to the North. Hopkins'
play was influenced by Brown's The Escape. There were other early black American
playwrights; such as, Langston Hughes, Eulalie Spence, Ruth Gaines Shelton, and
Abram Hill. The nineteenth century was a formative period in African-American
literary and cultural history. Prior to the Civil War, the majority of black Americans
living in the United States were held in bondage. Law and practice forbade teaching
blacks from learning to read or write. Thus the first plays of black American
dramatists were characterized by their radical nature as they express protest and at
the same time embody acts of communal resistance. They were limited to the topics
of slavery, racial discrimination, and the demand of equality and freedom, which
were long denied to the Blacks in America. In addition, these plays reflected the
Blacks' long struggle to live, the struggle that extented nearly four centuries.
Furthermore, the black American people were upset with the distorted black
image in the American plays written by white American playwrights. As a result, the
black American writers resorted to write plays that dealt with the strong personality
of the blacks, their courage and bravery. James V. Hatch admitted that the afroAmerican dramatist fought "against these stage lies, black authors wrote plays to
demonstrate the black person's courage. William Easton wrote about the slave
uprising and the war for independence in Haiti in his play Dessalines (1893).
Dessalines, the hero of the play, is a black man whose courage inspires his soldiers
to defeat the French army. George A. Town's The Sharecropper depicts one farmer's
courage against the theft of his crops, and Willis Richardson's The Chip Woman's
Fortunequietly suggests another kind of courage, the bravery of keeping on
'keeping on'" (Hatch, p. 22).

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Twentieth-century black drama has been characterized by two important


literary movements: The Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The
Harlem Renaissance, also referred to as the New Negro Movement, generally, refers
to the flourish of Afro-American literature during the 1920s and 1930 among a
group of writers concentrated in Harlem, New York. The Harlem Renaissance grew
out of the changes that had taken place in the Negro American community since the
abolition of slavery. It marked a turning point for African American literature. With
this movement, African American literature, and drama in particular, began to be
absorbed into mainstream American culture. The Harlem Renaissance playwrights
were Langston Hughes, Du Bois, Willis Richardson, and Zora Neale Hurston. But
the leading figure of that period was Theodore Ward. Although Theodore Ward
(1902 1983) did not receive the suitable critical attention, he has been called "the
dean of black dramatists" for his contribution to black American drama. His two
most important plays are Big White Fog (1938) and Our Lan' (1941)
Influenced by the movement, an important playwright emerged in 1940s.
Her name was Alice Childress. Alice Childress (1920- 1994) established herself as a
cultural critic and champion for the masses of poor people in America. Her writings
reflect her commitment to the underclass whose lives are often portrayed
inaccurately in American literature. She portrays African Americans who triumph
largely because of familial and community support. Childress's first play, Florence
(1949), is a well-crafted play that levels an indictment against presumptuous whites
who think they know more about African Americans than African Americans know
about themselves. Florence is also about the need for African Americans to reject
stereotyped roles. On another level, Florence pays tribute to African American
parents who encourage their children to reach their fullest potential by any means
necessary. Her first play reveals Childress' skill at characterization, dialogue, and
conflict. Childress was the first black woman to have a play produced professionally,
which was Florence, and is also the first woman to win an OBIE award for, perhaps,
her best-known play Wine in the Wilderness (1969).
The second movement was The Black Arts Movement, also referred to as the
Black Aesthetic Movement, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s. Important
writers of the Black Arts Movement included Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Alice
Walker, and Toni Morrison. During this period, black American playwrights
attempted to give honest black images of the real life of the black Americans. They
introduced their audience to the problems of racism, and the societal ills. Moreover,
"Black drama in the 1960s was an urban affair, and it spoke an urban language of
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alienation, despair and provocation" (Bigsby, 1999, p. 88). And by the rise of Black
Power groups in the middle of the 1960s, there were a conflict between the real
Black Soul and the bourgeois Negro. This conflict was dramatized in a number of
plays; for example, Wine in the Wilderness (1969) by Alice Childress. Wine in the
Wilderness makes fun at bourgeois affectation. Childress levels an indictment
against middle-class Afro- Americans who scream brotherhood, togetherness, and
Black Power, but who have no love or empathy for poor, uneducated, and unrefined
African Americans.
Wine in the Wilderness dealt with the rank of black women in the black
community. When Tommy, a woman works in a dress factory, was introduced to
Bill Jameson, an African-American painter, in a bar, Bill finds in her the model of
one of his paintings. He intends to paint her as representative of a woman who is
ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar, poor, and dumb. She angrily
criticizes Bill and his friends, who belongs to the middleclass educated black
community, for thinking that they are better than she is and for looking down on the
masses of the African-American community who are less educated and less
privileged than them. Bill realizes that he has been misguided in his approach to art
and his attitude toward the African-American community, that he has been painting
in the dark, all head and no heart. Bill comes to realize that Tommy herself is his
true African queen, a woman like many in her community. He convinces Tommy
to stay so he can paint her portrait as his new vision of African-American
womanhood, the wine in the wilderness. In this play, Childress discussed the class
divisions within the African-American community. Moreover, Childress addresses
the theme of perceptions of African-American women within the African-American
community. Tommy argues that women like herself strong, energetic, yet
vulnerable should not be criticized but should be embraced and celebrated by
African-American men and the community as a whole.
A black American dramatist with a considerable status in the history of black
drama is Imamu Amiri Baraka. Amiri Baraka (1934- ) is a black American
dramatist, poet and novelist who reflected the ideas of the Black Power Groups.
Floyd Gaffney, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, has compared Amiri Baraka
to W. E. B. Dubois and Richard Wright as one of the twentieth centurys most
prolific and persistent social and moral critics of black experience in America. In
1964, Baraka wrote his first four plays: The Baptism, The Toilet, The Slave and The
Dutchman. Bigsby said that the year 1964 "marked the appearance of a man who
was to have a considerable impact on the emergence of a powerful black drama in
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the United States. His name was Leroi Jones [Leroi Jones was the birth name of
Amiri Baraka] " (Bigsby, 1999, p. 81). In these plays, Amiri Baraka has explored
the experience and anger of African-Americans. Baraka's works involved with issues
of racial and national identity. He once stated, "We must eliminate the white man
before we can draw a free breath on this planet." Baraka's writings have been his
weapon against racism. "In Dutchman (1964), the black man is killed for allowing
himself to be provoked by a white woman. In The Slave (1964), the black man kills
the white man and leaves his own white wife and his own miscegenated children as
he goes to rejoin the black army. Great Goodness of Life (1967) is the exorcism of
all that is white in a black man. Experimental Death Unit # 1 (1965) is the killing of
Whitey and all Blacks who consort with Whitey. B. P. Chant (1968) is the praising
of the Blacks, the builsing of the Nationtime." (Hatch, p. 33- 4).
Although all of Baraka's dramatic pieces are significant, his Dutchman remains
his most famous and most important play. Dutchman was responsible for the growth
of a genre of black literature known as the Black Arts movement. Younger black
writers, including Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Ed Bullins, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin
X, and Larry Neal, soon produced a torrent of black-themed works that sought to
establish the artistic validity of African-American cultural idioms and that was often
openly antiwhite. ... With The Dutchman Baraka opened the doors for black
American writers to deal with a broad range of political, racial, and social themes"
(Magill, 1998). Thus, the importance of Amiri Baraka was not only because of the
power of his plays, but also because of his influence he had on others. He played a
great rule in the establishment of Black Theatre Groups. This led to the appearance
of a group of great influential black dramatists. One of those dramatists was Ed
Bullins.
Ed Bullins (1935- ) is an African American playwright pioneering artist of the
Black Theater movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He is known for writing plays
such as In the Wine Tine and Goin A Buffalo. Most of Bullin's plays are seen as
useful and relevant to the history of black American drama. Bullins' characters are
searchers for self-realization or existential triumph in a bewildering world. Bullins is
also famous for his natural style which is evident in his dialogues. Bullins'
remarkable works are In the Wine Time (1968), Goin A Buffalo (1968), In New
England Winter (1971), The Duplex (1970), The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971), and
Home Boy (1976).

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Along with Ed Bullins, August Wilson (1945-2005) is another black


American dramatist who has enriched the black drama, and was greatly influenced
by Amiri Baraka. Through Baraka's writing, Wilson "learned sociology and political
commitment" and learned to include the emotions of anger and violence. Although
Baraka supported a violent revolution, Wilson differed in his belief that African
Americans need to develop a "collective self-reliance grounded in black history and
culture" (Wang, p. 4). Wilson believes that the culture of the Blacks had been denied
for so long time. Thus, Wilson's vision is to allow African Americans a glimpse of
what it means to "reopen their history books" and "choose their own destinies"
(Shannon, p. 16) and "inspire healthy spiritual and attitudinal adjustments within his
people" (Shannon, p. vii). Wilson's plays attempt to address the exclusion of African
Americans from history by showcasing moments when, through their struggles, they
were able to choose their own fates (Shannon 16).
August Wilson said, "I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining
ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hollowed and made fertile by
the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as worriers on the
cultural battlefield that affirmed their self worth. As there is no idea that cannot be
contained by black life, these women and men found themselves to be sufficient and
secure in their art and their instructions" (1996). Although Wilson's main themes
were about racial injustice and alienation, they also address issues of social class and
economic tensions that touch all Americans. As a result, Wilson's drama is
appreciated by the Whites as well as the Blacks in America. They enjoy Wilson's
plays because of the lyrical beauty and for his characters' "uncanny knack for
conveying universal thoughts and emotions" (Shannon, p. vii). Wilson's first play
was Jitney (1979). But it was his Fences (1983) that gained him the critical praise.
Fences was followed by a number of very wonderful plays; such as, Joe Turner's
Come and Gone (1984), The Piano Lesson (1984), which New York Posts Clive
Barnes, called it the fourth, best, and most immediate in the series of plays
exploring the Afro-American experience during this century, Gem of the Ocean
(2003), and Radio Golf (2005).
To conclude, although the neglect of American drama suffered from, it is
evident that American drama is a vital literary genre in the history of American
literature. It gave the world a number of its main dramatists who were able to leave
their impact on the history of drama for years. In addition, black drama occupies a
great part of American drama. Today, it is noticed by all critics all over the world.

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Shannon, Sandra G. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, D.C.:


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