- One of the standard clichés of American theatre history is that no significant playwrights emerged prior to World War I, and that the appearance of Eugene O'Neill and his generation transformed Broadway drama after 1920 from a marketplace of frivolous entertainments to a center for drama of serious purpose. Though it may well be true that few dramatists of lasting international significance appeared in the 19th century, several generations of diverse and challenging playwrights filled American stages with intriguing dramas and comedies from the end of the American Revolution to World War I, when O'Neill and his contemporaries established themselves.In the first half of the 19th century, the outstanding literary figures of the age—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe—generally avoided playwriting (although many tried their hand at it) perhaps because theatre was considered an inferior form in intellectual circles. The problem was compounded by the fact that much serious drama was imported from Europe or, more significantly, was adapted from other sources by lesser writers or actor-managers. At mid-19th century, little had changed, although a few dramatists, particularly Dion Boucicault, demonstrated facility in a range of genres. The most celebrated play of the era, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel by George L. Aiken, a little-known actor-manager. Aiken's hack job aimed at exploiting the novel's huge popularity. Many dramatists adapted popular fiction or were compelled to custom-tailor vehicles to showcase actors. Few could make a comfortable living as a playwright, which may account for the fact that many dramatists of the era also worked as actors or managers.As the first tremors of modernism were felt in the 1870s, American dramatists tentatively broke away from the grip of melodrama to explore new European trends in drama, particularly the much-vaunted realism and, in general, the greater seriousness of purpose inherent in it. Bronson Howard, for example, scored a major success with The Henrietta (1887), an assault on corrupt Wall Street speculation, while other writers looked to the tragedies of the Civil War and its aftermath for subject matter. The emergence of the "new woman" brought realistic social problem plays by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw to American stages, often inspiring considerable controversy. Actor-playwright James A. Herne modeled his 1890 drama Margaret Fleming on works along those lines by Ibsen. Controversy kept Herne's play from public stages, but European developments would continue to inspire playwrights like William Vaughan Moody, Clyde Fitch, Edward Sheldon, and others in form and content after 1900.The early deaths of Moody and Fitch may well have slowed the emergence of a more serious American drama, but by the 1910s a new generation of dramatists appeared, many profoundly influenced by what became known as the New Stagecraft, which flourished alongside the little theatre movement. Typically, little theatres, which proliferated in most major American theatres between 1910 and the mid-1920s, allowed playwrights, actors, directors, and scene designers to experiment in style and techniques, as well as to explore previously taboo subjects, often in one-act form and all without major commercial constraints. Many of the finest U.S. dramatists of the post-World War I era found their first opportunities through little theatres, with O'Neill the most exalted example.In the wake of World War I, Broadway audiences and critics began to reject melodramatic and sentimental plays, instead lionizing the "serious" dramatist as exemplified by O'Neill, Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Robert E. Sherwood, and others, all of whom had their first important Broadway successes in the 1920s. These writers, and others following in their wake, experimented not only with the realistic form and socially conscious themes, but also explored expressionism, symbolism, and other innovations emerging on European stages. Women playwrights asserted themselves in this era, with Susan Glaspell, Zoe Akins, and Sophie Treadwell leading the way. African American playwrights found some space in all-black little theatres like the Lafayette Players and made inroads into the mainstream, with the work of writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston establishing a beachhead.While serious dramatists like O'Neill dominated the attention of critics, a generation of sophisticated comic dramatists also appeared, led by George S. Kaufman, Philip Barry, S. N. Behrman, and others. Playwriting steadily evolved into a respected profession and even moderately successful dramatists could expect to make a living through Broadway productions, publication of their plays, and touring, stock, and amateur royalties. Many specialized in particular genres, while others demonstrated versatility writing dramas, comedies, and musicals. Some turned to directing and producing as well. In the 1920s, playwrights created organizations like the Dramatists' Guild to protect their interests. These writers created a golden age of American drama on Broadway that stretched to the early 1960s.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.
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