Twenty-First Century American Playwrights

Twenty-First Century American Playwrights. Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018; Pp. 228.

In 1982, Christopher Bigsby penned A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. What was originally planned as a single volume expanded to three, with volume 2 being released in 1984 and Volume 3 in 1985. Although Bigsby, a literary analyst and novelist with more than 50 books to his credit, hails from Britain, he is drawn to American playwrights because of their “stylistic inventiveness…sexual directness…[and] characters ranged across the social spectrum in a way that for long, and for the most part, had not been true of the English theatre” (1). This admiration brought Bigsby’s research across the millennium line to give us his latest offering Twenty-First Century American Playwrights.

What Bigsby provides is an in-depth survey of nine writers who entered the American theatre landscape during the past twenty years, including chapters on Annie Baker, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Katori Hall, Amy Herzog, Tracy Letts, David Lindsay-Abaire, Lynn Nottage, Sarah Ruhl, and Naomi Wallace. While these playwrights vary in the manner they work and styles of creative output, what places them together in this volume “is the sense that theatre has a unique ability to engage with audiences in search of some insight into the way we live…to witness how words become manifest, how artifice can, at its best, be the midwife of truth” (5). This explanation, however vague, does little to provide a concrete rubric for why these dramatists were included over others. Yet productively, although most of the playwrights included in this collection have had productions on Broadway, Bigsby eschews the misguided notion that American theatre means only Broadway with his inclusion of several writers more well-known in universities, regional theatres, and Off-Broadway—providing a refreshing change from many playwright surveys.

Bigsby’s recent monograph presents a combination of playwright biography, oeuvre studies, philosophies, working methods, and dramaturgical analysis. Detailed and information-rich, his discussions can be experienced like episodes in a documentary series, gently guiding audiences through the life and catalog of these nine playwrights, proving it an accessible read for academics and enthusiasts, alike. The volume is organized so that each playwright gets their own chapter, any of which could be read independently from the rest of the text for artists and scholars wishing to do a deep dive on a single playwright. Readers do not need to be familiar with each playwright’s work to follow Bigsby’s scholarship, as he takes time to give a thorough description of each play while also unearthing the themes, styles, and methods favored by each writer. The tell-tale marks of each dramatist is dissected, including, for example: Annie Baker’s penchant for pauses (“it’s not actually silence I’m after so much as the things that we do when we’re not talking” (19)); Naomi Wallace’s political narratives (“politics and art can never be divided…that’s terribly exciting” (194)); Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “radically different” oeuvre (“each of my projects are in part a rejection of or violent departure from a previous project” (35)); Katori Hall’s examination of diverse Black experiences (“everybody is influenced by who they are and unfortunately how other people perceive them” (68)); and Lynn Nottage’s unearthing of “memoir-less” narratives that implicate audiences (“I think that provocations is when you enter in the space and everything you believe in is challenged” (165)).

In allowing the playwrights to speak for themselves, Bigsby opens the door to revealing the dramatists’ relationships to the canon. This proves useful to both students and scholars searching for context in placing the latest generation of American writers against the dominant voices of the 20th century. He analyzes many of their plays against titans of not only the American theatre, but also the world’s stage. He draws parallels between Baker’s characters in The Aliens to the vaudevillian clowns of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the “characters on pause” from Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, for instance. Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County gets read against Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for its ability to “get through the skin and muscle, down to the bone and the marrow” of familial secrets (109). David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole is compared to O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, both plays having to “recycle their sense of lost purpose within the constraints of what should have been a place of safety” (132). Yet the text is more than an exercise in comparing and contrasting work with what came before, and 20th century models; Bigsby also considers how these works navigate contemporary socio-political issues and historical contexts on both macro and micro levels. Thus he evokes Amy Herzog’s uncomfortable family history as inspiration for After the Revolution (77-78), Sarah Ruhl being inspired to write The Clean House after overhearing a conversation at a cocktail party in which a doctor claimed they “didn’t go to medical school to clean house” (178), and Lynn Nottage’s use of the 2008 financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street as the inspiration for Sweat (164).

If there are any flaws to the volume, they mostly lie with the publishers themselves. There are proofreading errors throughout — including calling Albee’s work Whose [sic] Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, referencing the Vermont Senator Bernie Saunders [sic], and an indecision about whether or not there is a second hyphen in “twenty-first century.” These detract from an otherwise engaging and solid read. Bigsby himself is not above question, however. Although he doesn’t say so directly, Bigsby gives the impression that his definition of “playwright” rejects those who write for the musical theatre, a disappointing exclusion. His introduction gives credit to the “financially no less than critically rewarding” plays—sorry, musicals—of Lin-Manuel Miranda, for instance, but still Bigsby denies him a chapter’s sustained discussion. (And because Miranda is denied, we are less likely to question the omission of other critically, commercially and culturally successful musical theatre writers). Bigsby addresses this line of critique in a way, stating that “to name some of [the excluded writers] would invite complaints of further omissions” (2). While none of his volumes to date have examined musical theater writers with his impressive, engaging lens, one can hope that he is deliberately keeping a few aces hidden up his sleeve that will serve as the basis for the inevitable—and welcome—volumes yet to come.

Shane Strawbridge
Texas Tech University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 1 (Fall 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center