In February 2011 I embarked on one of those grandiose projects to which I am occasionally susceptible, a survey of the effect that 9/11 had on American drama. I was unable to sustain the dedicated time, contemplation, and writing necessary to do this up right. Once in a while I have hopes of continuing the series, but it seems it was not meant to be. For example, I read Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul (which premiered in New York in December 2001) last week and planned to write a few notes about it, only to find that the edition I’d read had been superceded by revisions that Kushner published in 2005. I considered writing about it anyway, but it would have been unfair to the play as Kushner currently conceives it, and readers of the play would likely have access to the revised 2005, not the 2002, version. It’s then that I throw up my hands.
Given the day I republish the introduction to this planned survey below. I imagine if I were to revise both the introduction and the conception, it would have to include mention and consideration of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Short essays on Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon (still the most incisive if corrosive portrait of the American consciousness in the decade after 9/11) were completed.
Symbolically, the 21st century began for the United States with the World Trade Center disaster of 11 September 2001, the tenth anniversary of which will be marked later this year. In the decade since, the cultural, economic and social landscape of the U.S. has changed beyond all prediction. The elections of 2008 put America’s first citizen of African descent in the Oval Office, in the midst of an economic crisis which many compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. While its predecessor pursued a policy of military interventionism exacerbated by the events of 11 September, the current administration continues a similar interventionism in Afghanistan. Both of these are reactions to an Islamic fundamentalism on the rise in the 1990s but seemingly confined to the Middle East and South Asia; 11 September proved that the U.S., too, was susceptible to the violence this fundamentalism engendered. While the progressive left hailed the election of Barack Obama as a turn away from conservative Republican values, in only two years a radicalized right in the form of the “Tea Party” movement was in part responsible for returning a Republican majority to the House of Representatives in the last mid-term elections. In the meantime the economic downturn continues to negatively affect employment figures. The social fabric is so uneasy that regular irrational bursts of deadly violence are a common staple of the news, most recently in the January shootings in Arizona.
The landscape has changed internationally as well, and U.S. policy and its perspective on the world continue to be affected by these changes. In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, some Eastern European nations such as Belarus, Russia and now perhaps Hungary are beginning to exhibit authoritarian gestures of censorship and police-state social tactics. In Egypt, the Sudan and the Congo, authoritarian regimes continue to spell catastrophic conditions for many citizens. The Internet has played a role in changing the means of communication not only domestically but internationally. Private corporations like Facebook and Twitter are now driving online communications rather than the more public sphere of the World Wide Web and email.
American theatre and drama have had to contend with these changes as well; dramatists have the same concerns as the rest of us, and their explorations are revealed in their work. I think it may be safe to say that there are more plays being written and staged in the U.S. now than at any earlier period of American history, despite the smaller number of straight plays being produced on Broadway. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that recent discussions of this explosion of dramatic work, such as Outrageous Fortune and Rocco Landesman’s recent comments, have far more to do with the practical production landscape for these plays than about the plays themselves. Evaluations of these new plays are often confined to the newspaper or magazine review, the length of which does not allow longer contemplations of the work (and the shrinkage of space in print media for this kind of coverage of theatre renders it unpublished, if not unwritten). I do not here mean to disparage the work of these reviewers, who are often very fine, but the necessity to cover this greater number of plays does not easily permit the critic to stand back and describe broader trends in both the content and the changing form of the plays they review; even those who are able to glimpse the forest through the trees have neither the time nor the outlet for the necessary broader considerations of this work and how it reflects the historical and social condition of the U.S. in the first years of this century. Another influence is the rise of celebrity culture in coverage of the arts generally. When longer pieces on this drama are published, they are often in the form of interviews or profiles of young playwrights — interesting and even necessary as secondary literature, but lacking a critical and evaluative focus on the plays themselves, instead valorizing anecdote and personality.
Extended criticism of plays as texts with literary and cultural properties have been published overseas by British theatre writers such as David Ian Rabey, Dan Rebellato and Aleks Sierz, but their work has focused primarily on British drama, as is appropriate. These three writers are also aware of the performance and theatrical qualities of these dramatic texts, and their textual criticism is influenced by these considerations. I’m going to try a little of the same thing here at Superfluities Redux. I’ve noticed my increasing interest in the history of American drama (indeed, my essays on texts like The Glass Menagerie, The Iceman Cometh and Awake and Sing continue to draw some attention, even if it’s only from high school and college students in need of paper topics), and given the strictures on my time and wallet I can’t get to the theatre as much as I like. But I do have access to the texts of contemporary drama, and in looking for a new direction for Superfluities Redux I may have found some future contemplation there. I continue to hope that Superfluities Redux provides some kind of content and thinking that are difficult to find elsewhere on the Internet or in press criticism of American theatre.
This survey of American drama over the last decade will begin with a toe dipped in the water before I wade out to further depths. In the next week or so I’ll be posting essays on three recent American plays that reflect these uniquely 21st century issues in American culture: Neil LaBute’s The Break of Noon, which ran at the MCC late in 2010; Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, the winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; and finally a new American play which has not yet debuted on U.S. shores, Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which premiered last year at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I will try to approach these plays as individual expressions of contemplation on American culture over the past few years, then, after this, look more deeply at the work of those dramatists who it seems to me are meaningfully wrestling with this new 21st-century America in theatrical and dramatic form — both new writers like Christopher Shinn, Thomas Bradshaw and Young Jean Lee and more established dramatists like Richard Foreman, David Mamet and Tony Kushner.