The Cambridge Companion to American Theatre Since 1945. Edited by Julia Listengarten and Stephen Di Benedetto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021; Pp. 273.

by Clay Sanderson
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 35, Number 2 (Spring 2023)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2023 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

The Cambridge Companion to American Theatre Since 1945. Edited by Julia Listengarten and Stephen Di Benedetto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021; Pp. 273.

Julia Listengarten and Stephen Di Benedetto’s collection of historical essays from a wide array of scholars may at first seem to retread familiar territory, but the editors are determined to make this volume original and relevant. In their Introduction’s first paragraph, the co-editors emphasize “an urgency to disrupt traditional historiography that perpetuates hierarchies of power and privileges overwhelmingly white male voices” (1), and for the most part, their disruption is successful. While American theatre in the second half of the twentieth century has been extensively recorded, the editors provide some new resources, deliberately highlighting the contributions of BIPOC and female artists; they also avoid the usual trap of forgetting that professional American theatre goes far beyond the island of Manhattan. Critical essays discuss relevant cultural history of each period, which frames what was happening on stage in the context of what was then happening in the United States at the time.

This absorbing volume is broken into three parts: Commercial and Mainstream Theatre, The Regional Theatre Movement, and Experimental Theatre and Other Forms of Entertainment. Each section includes three to four essays, written predominantly by leading scholars of theatre studies. For instance, the first section includes Susan C.W. Abbotson’s chapter, “Broadway Post-1945 to 1960: Shifting Perspectives.” This exemplary essay outlines how after War World II, America adopted a new identity as a leading world superpower and boasted “a growing middle class determined to grasp a bright new American future” that was “modeled around the perfect nuclear family, while holding at bay the demons of communism, the atom bomb, and juvenile delinquency” (21). Simultaneously, Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and subsequent Sexual Behavior in the Human Female book-length studies shocked people across the country with his revelation of a stark contrast between what conservative Americans believed their society to be and the reality of what their neighbors were actually doing behind closed doors. These contrasting ideologies, Abbotson argues, are partly responsible for the popularity of the work of such playwrights as Tennessee Williams, who titillated Broadway audiences with his frank portrayal of the sexuality of both those on the outskirts of society and those making up its family-based middle class. Abbotson references influential plays by Eugene O’Neill, Thorton Wilder, Arthur Miller, and William Inge, as well as musicals by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, which featured the work of innovative producers, directors, and choreographers such as Hal Prince, George Abbott, and Jerome Robbins. Yet the editors’ mandate for a more inclusive theater history is modeled by this same chapter’s focus on female contributors to the Golden Age of Broadway. Abbotson includes artists such as Federal Theatre head Hallie Flanagan, acclaimed Shakespearean director Margaret Webster, musical theatre director Mary Hunter, and Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford, among others. She also considers some of the African-American theatre that was happening Off-Broadway–including works by such playwrights as William Branch, Loften Mitchell, and Alice Childress who are frequently left out of New York theatre history. Thus, the Cambridge Companion reflects on how disparate theater-makers, communities in America and perspectives intersect.

In Part II, the section on regional theatre, Elizabeth A. Osborne uses her chapter “Money Matters: Dismantling the Narrative of the Rise of Regional Theatre” to correct the accounts ofearly historians of the regional theatre movement such as Martin Gottfried and Joseph Zeigler, arguing that “(h)istoriographically…the existing narrative has gone largely uninterrogated for too long” (136). Traditional narratives chronicle regional theatre as an attempt in the 1940’s and 50’s to decentralize New York City within the professional theatre world, striving to give audiences amore avant-garde alternative to Broadway and its tours, only for many organizations to eventually succumb to the economic need to model commercial theatre’s values despite their non-profit status. Osborne argues that this narrative “oversimplifies a complex web of artistic goals, economic and administrative structures, and relationships with local communities” (138). Osborne centers women as the true forgers of the regional theatre movement, detailing the founding of Theatre ’47 in Dallas by Margo Jones, the Alley Theatre in Houston by Nina Vance, and the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. by Zelda Fichandler. Part II also includes an important essay by Faedra Chatard Carpenter, “When and Where They Enter: Black and Brown Voices in American Theatre.” This wide-ranging chapter chronicles the Black Arts movement as propelled by Larry Neal, the Chicano Theatre movement as led by Luis Valdez, and the seminal work of BIPOC playwrights such as Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Kennedy, and María Irene Fornés. Carpenter nicely balances the importance of these artists’ contributions to the transformation of American theatre, noting that some of these writers (particularly Valdez and Baraka) were “products of their time” who “were not always inclusive in terms of intracultural representation”(161) such that their own biases upheld a male, heteronormative worldview.

Part III’s focus on “experimental” theatre and beyond also finds meaningful ways to refocus history away from male-centered institutions. Although in Timothy Youker’s essay “Experimental Collectives of the 1960’s and The Legacies” we are treated to the requisite exploration of how the likes of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud deeply influenced non-commercial and regional theatre collectives from the San Francisco Mime Troupe to the Living Theatre in New York City, eventually leading to such modern groups as Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theatre Project, Youker also chronicles the contributions of female-centric troupes suchas Anne Bogart’s SITI company and The Five Lesbian Brothers. This well-researched, more inclusive vision of the experimental theatre movement demonstrates the wide-range of non-traditional performances practices that have drawn in diverse audiences outside commercial theatre.

The Cambridge Companion to American Theatre Since 1945 will benefit established scholars and theatre history students. It incisively summarizes the contributions of the most well-known theatre artists of the past seven decades, as well as many who history has overlooked. Framing diversity of representation as critical to scholarship, this volume considers previously underrepresented perspectives and players in theatre history scholarship. Equally, this volume practices theater historiography: questioning what we think we know, and reinvestigating it with an eye towards the future.

Clay Sanderson

Arizona State University

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