Albert and Shirley Small Speial Collections Library
actors graphicCreating America's Theatre
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Introduction to the Exhibit
Early American Theatre
A Novel Idea
Musicals
Setting the Modern Stage
A Voice of Their Own
Picks and Pans
Playbills and Programs
Regional Theatre in Virginia

Setting the Modern Stage

Modern Playwrights

Maxwell Anderson


Playwriting followed teaching and journalism as Maxwell Anderson's third vocation. He collaborated with Laurence Stallings on his earliest success What Price Glory? (1924), a play about American soldiers in France during World War I. Anderson's love of traditional literature, poetry, and drama influenced all his plays, and the 1920s saw the honing of his playwriting skills with such works as Saturday's Children (1927), Gods of the Lightning (1928), and Gypsy (1929). Anderson ushered in the next decade with his blank-verse drama Elizabeth the Queen (1930). This decade found Anderson at the height of his career with twelve of his plays being produced professionally, including Both Your Houses (1933; winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Mary of Scotland (1933), Winterset (1935; winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award), Wingless Victory (1936), The Masque of Kings (1937), and Knickerbocker Holiday (1938; a musical for which he wrote the book and lyrics).


Maxwell Anderson's bent for historical tragedy and verse drama found further creative expression with the coming of World War II. The war profoundly affected Anderson, who translated his feelings into the plays Journey to Jerusalem (1940), Candle in the Wind (1941), Storm Operation (1944), Truckline Cafe (1946), and Joan of Lorraine (1946). The last three noted plays that Anderson produced were Anne of the Thousand Days (1948), Lost in the Stars (1949), and Barefoot in Athens (1951). Maxwell Anderson died in 1959, after more than thirty years of active participation in America's theatre.

 

Anderson, Maxwell. Mary of Scotland. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1934.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Lithograph, signed, by Don Freeman, entitled "The Queen and the Stagehand." [1933].
Courtesy of the University of Virginia Art Museum.

 

The Theatre Guild Inc. Presents "Mary of Scotland." A New Play by Maxwell Anderson, with Helen Hayes. Playbill for the Alvin Theatre. New York: New York Theatre Program, [1933].

Gift of Doris Farr.

 

 


William Inge


Midwestern playwright William Inge was born, raised, and educated in Kansas. During the 1950s, Inge made his mark as a playwright with four successful plays-Come Back, Little Sheba (1950), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic (1953), Bus Stop (1955), and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957). All set in small Midwestern towns, Inge's plays sensitively portrayed the complexities of the American family.


June Schlueter writes in The Cambridge History of American Theatre that Inge "examines a large but typical cast of characters and relationships, repeatedly creating situations that dramatize the details of lives anesthetized by habit, dreams suffocated by compromise, and sexuality denied-the stuff of small-town America."


All four of Inge's best-known plays were translated into popular Hollywood films. However, his later plays failed to have the same impact on and appeal to audiences and critics. The only notable success that Inge achieved after his plays of the 1950s came with his 1961 Academy Award-winning original screenplay for Splendor in the Grass. Having fought alcoholism and depression for many years, William Inge took his own life in 1973.

 

Typed rehearsal script of "Come Back, Little Sheba" by William Inge. Adapted for radio by Robert Anderson and produced by the Theatre Guild. 4 February 1951.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

This performance starred Shirley Booth and Gary Cooper.

 

The Theatre Guild and Joshua Logan Present "Picnic," the Pulitzer Prize-Drama Critics' Award Play, by William Inge. Playbill for The Music Box. [New York]: Playbill, [1955].
Gift of Doris Farr.

 

Robert Whitehead and Roger L. Stevens Present "Bus Stop" by William Inge. Playbill for The Music Box. [New York]: Playbill, [1954].
Gift of Doris Farr.

 

Arthur Miller

From a notable start in the mid-1930s, Arthur Miller embarked on a career that has spanned over sixty years in the American theatre. His first plays, Honors at Dawn (1936) and No Villain (1937), captured the Avery Hopwood Award for playwriting two years in a row, and the following year, No Villain, revised as They Too Arise and again as The Grass Still Grows, won the Theatre Guild Award for 1938. Despite the failure of his first Broadway-produced play, The Man Who Had All the Luck, Miller's success rebounded with All My Sons (1947), which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award over O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. Miller further cemented his position as a powerful new playwright with Death of A Salesman (1949), which also won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. Both of these plays dealt with Miller's recurring themes of the destructiveness of sibling rivalries and the fallacy of the American dream.


Profoundly affected by the Depression and the ensuing war years, Arthur Miller developed a staging concept with minimal props and scenery, setting a stage on which his actors could move fluidly through time and space to create the essential exposition needed for his plots. Miller's The Crucible opened in 1953. Set in Salem during the witchcraft trials, the play sought to parallel the Joseph McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. More plays followed in succession, including A View from the Bridge (1955), After the Fall (1964), Up from Paradise (1974), The American Clock (1980), The Golden Years (1990), The Last Yankee (1991), and Broken Glass (1994).


In addition to plays, Miller has written screenplays, novels, short stories, non-fiction, and his memoirs. In 1984, the Kennedy Center honored the playwright for his lifetime contribution to America's performing arts. At the age of eighty-seven, Arthur Miller remains an active member of the theatrical community.

 

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem. New York: Viking, 1949.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Kermit Bloomgarden and Walter Fried Present Thomas Mitchell in Elia Kazan's Production of "Death of a Salesman." Playbill for Ford's Theatre. Baltimore: Playgoer, [1951].
Gift of Margaret Hrabe

 

Miller, Arthur. After the Fall. New York: Viking, 1964.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Clifford Odets

The current New York theatrical season has witnessed a rare phenomenon-the simultaneous production of three plays by a hitherto unknown and unheralded dramatist. Not since the plays of the youthful O'Neill electrified the theatrical and literary worlds has any other young playwright so immediately established himself as a new and authentic force in the American theater. Clifford Odets brings into it a poetic vision, a sure grasp of the dramatic possibilities inherent in the social conflicts of our time, a keen insight into his characters, a fine ear for the vernacular speech, and a true creative gift.

--From the dust jacket of Clifford Odet's Three Plays.


In 1935, Clifford Odets took New York by storm when the Group Theatre produced his three plays-Awake and Sing!, Waiting for Lefty, and Till the Day I Die. Previous to this time, Odets had been acting professionally with the Group Theatre, which had been formed to produce new American plays with a left-wing political slant. With the immediate success of Waiting for Lefty, Odets changed overnight from a minor actor to an acclaimed playwright. The political climate of the Depression welcomed this play about a taxi drivers' union strike; it engulfed audiences with its working-class fervor.


Odets's New York success resulted in offers from Hollywood to write screenplays. He went to the West Coast with the intention of using his earnings to fund the Group Theatre, but critics condemned his move as selling out to the wealth of Tinseltown. Over the next twenty years, Odets wrote several more plays, the most successful being Golden Boy (1937), The Country Girl (1950), and The Flowering Peach (1954). His later works never eclipsed the success of his early social dramas.

 

Odets, Clifford. Three Plays. New York: Random, 1935.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.attribution

 

 

Autograph letter, signed, from John Steinbeck to Clifford Odets. [8 December 1950].
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Steinbeck admires a performance of Odet's The Country Girl.

 

Thornton Wilder

In the late 1930s, novelist Thornton Wilder emerged as a playwright. Although having written and adapted several plays in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Wilder had established his reputation with the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928. In the preface to his Three Plays (1957), Wilder recalled those years,


Toward the end of the twenties I began to lose pleasure in going to the theatre. I ceased to believe in the stories I saw presented there. When I did go it was to admire some secondary aspect of the play, the work of a great actor or director or designer. Yet at the same time the conviction was growing in me that the theatre was the greatest of all the arts. I felt that something had gone wrong with it in my time and that it was fulfilling only a small part of its potentialities…The tragic had no heat; the comic had no bite; the social criticism failed to indict us with responsibility.


Wilder began his playwriting career by writing one-act plays, such as The Long Christmas Dinner, The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and Queens of France. He experimented with minimal staging and props, allowing the audience to imagine beyond the constricting elements of traditional scenery. Wilder carried his theatrical explorations into his first three-act play, entitled Our Town (1938). While the play’s setting is a small New Hampshire town, the stage directions specify “No curtain. No scenery. The audience arriving, sees an empty stage.” Instead, the character of the “Stage Manager” sets the stage with props and a descriptive narration of the characters and setting. This play captured audiences with its humanity and simplicity and garnered Wilder a Pulitzer Prize, making him the only writer at that time to have won the prize for two different writing genres. The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), Wilder’s allegory of the life of man, gained him another Pulitzer Prize and acceptance as a major playwright in the American theatre. Wilder, however, downplayed his importance in the same preface as above:


The theatre has lagged behind the other arts in finding the “new ways” to express how men and women think and feel in our time. I am not one of the new dramatists we are looking for. I wish I were. I hope I have played a part in preparing the way for them. I am not an innovator but a rediscoverer of forgotten goods and I hope a remover of obtrusive bric-a-brac. And as I view the work of my contemporaries I seem to feel that I am exceptional in one thing – I give (don’t I?) the impression of having enormously enjoyed it.

Contrary to his own words, Thornton Wilder was an innovator who especially impacted stage presentation in the twentieth century. He continued to write until his death in 1975.

 

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. New York: Coward McCann, 1938.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

Wilder, Thornton. The Long Christmas Dinner, and Other Plays in One Act. New York: Coward-McCann; New Haven: Yale University, 1931.
With autograph corrections and signed by Thornton Wilder.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

 

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