At the beginning of the twentieth century, American theatre was heavily dominated by commercialism. In 1909, an attempt to establish a European-style art theatre in New York City was made (Geisinger, 241). The building was so cavernous and unsuited for experimental work that the project failed after two seasons. Dedicated to producing the best of European and classical drama and to fostering new American plays, the first production groups of the 1900 s were amateurs (Geisinger, 241). The memberships were organized by subscription, so that true experiment could be conducted without commercial pressure. One of the first of these companies in New York City was the Washington Square Players. From a similar group, the Provincetown Players, appeared the first American dramatist of international stature, Eugene O’Neill. His first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, was successfully produced in 1920. (Taubman, 121). Most of O’Neill’s subsequent work represented a restless search for theatrical style such as expressionism in The Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape and allegory in his updating of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, Mourning Becomes Electra, before he found a suitable idiom for modern tragedy in his autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night (Blum, 242).
In 1918, art theatre was established on a commercially successful basis by New York City’s Theatre Guild (Priestly, 134). During the next two decades it became the most important platform for American drama, encouraging such playwrights as Robert Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, and Elmer Rice, in addition to O’Neill and European writers (Priestly, 134). The Theatre Guild’s success quickly stimulated independent Broadway producers to follow its example. The artistic challenge was also taken up by various designers, including Lee Simonson, Norman Bel Geddes, and Jo Mielziner, who provided distinguished settings that were realistic, symbolic, or expressionistic as required (Priestly, 135). In 1927 Show Boat by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern set new standards in the musical theatre, and in spite of competition from the expanding motion-picture industry, the number of productions on Broadway grew from 150 in the 1920-21 season to 280 in 1927-28 (Blum, 240).
The stock market crash of 1929 heralded the end of the unparalleled prosperity of both the theatre and the nation. The nation recovered from the ensuing economic depression, but the theatre, under increasing competition from motion pictures, radio, and television, did not (Blum, 242). During the next 30 years, traveling companies all but disappeared, and productions on Broadway shrank to 60 in 1949-50, thereafter averaging between 50 and 60 a year (Blum, 242). No new theatres were constructed. Nevertheless, live theatre continued to attract talented writers. From the social protest movement of the 1930s came Clifford Odets, Sidney Kingsley, Lillian Hellman, Thornton Wilder, and William Saroyan (Taubman, 456).
Efforts to rebuild the cultural fabric of civilization after the devastation of World War II led to a rethinking of the role of theatre in the new society (Priestly, 156). Competing with the technical refinements of motion pictures, radio, and television (all of which were offering drama), the live theatre had to rediscover what it could give to the community that the mass media could not. In one direction, this led to a search for a popular theatre that would embrace the whole community, just as the Greek theatre and the Elizabethan theatre had done (Priestly, 158). In another, it brought to completion a new wave of experiments that had started before the war and was not to subside until the early 1970s which sought to challenge the audience, breaking down the barriers between spectators and performers (Taubman, 501).
By the beginning of the 1950s the vitality of American theatre was acknowledged around the world. The international reputation of Eugene O’Neill was complemented by two potent young dramatists: Arthur Miller, who turned the ordinary man into a figure of tragic stature in Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953) (Geisinger, 461), and Tennessee Williams, who created a world decaying with passion and sensuality in plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie (Geisinger, 461).
During the 1960s, a strong ultramodern theatre movement known as “Off-Off-Broadway” emerged (Blum, 310). Among the most influential groups were Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre, Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, Julian Beck’s and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre, and Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre (Blum, 310-311). These groups sought to explore taboo topics such as sexuality, nudity, and primitivism. They also signaled, however, a movement away from literary values: coherent speech and concise dialogue were in most cases replaced by improvisations, grunts, and shrieks (Blum, 311).
By the late 1970s, the wild experiments had dissolved into conventional playwriting, mostly of mediocre quality. Even by the mid-1980s, very little had emerged to replace the enthusiasm of that period when theatre seemed to have found a new closeness and a fresh way of involving all segments of the community (Taubman, 671).
After Rodgers and Hammerstein breathed new life into the musical comedy with Oklahoma!, the form acquired more sophistication with such Broadway successes as Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady, and it broke new ground in West Side Story produced in 1957, which conveyed much of the plot through dance. The range of subjects widened: hippie culture was introduced in Hair, religion was popularized in Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971, and dance became the central element in shows such as A Chorus Line and Dancin’ in the late 1970 s (Blum, 358). By the 1980s, Stephen Sondheim had become the most innovative force in the musical theatre, combining the roles of lyricist and composer in such works of immense technical sophistication as Company in 1970, A Little Night Music in 1973, and Sunday in the Park with George in 1984 (Blum, 358).
Priestly, J.B. The Wonderful of the Theatre.. New York: Doubleday and Company Inc 1969.
Henderson, Amy and Dwight Blocker Bowers. Red Hot and Blue: A Smithosonian Salute to the American Musical. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1996.