America In Play

The Recovery Project

The neglect of American drama is most visible in an absence: approximately half of the American plays written prior to the end of the nineteenth century have disappeared. The reasons are multiple, including the denigration of American drama both at home and in Europe and America’s late entry into copyright protection for plays in production. Texts that held the stage for decades were never printed.  An example is The Lion of the West by James Kirke Paulding, which  performed in many variations for more than fifty years and importantly launched the archetype of the frontiersman [Nimrod Wildfire].  A late version was eventually found only in the mid-20th century: at the British Museum.

The contemporary stress on sustainability blended for Lynn Thomson with this loss and she originated the idea of The Recovery Project. She says, “I am continuously reminded of the losses I had learned about at the start of my engagement with early American drama, when I was unable to locate so many of the plays I sought for my dissertation and for my theatre company.  We have only remains, fragments including short plot descriptions.  I kept thinking of a museum I saw some years ago in Spain: built on what was left of a synagogue destroyed five centuries earlier.  The building incorporated the fragments left from the original construction: and so a bit of a cornice from the 15th century was where, perhaps, that molding had once been, a small bit framed by an entirely new wall. The dialogue between the two was a history and a drama. I imagined that same dialogue happening within a new play.”

For The Recovery Project, America-in-Play will identify missing play scripts and find remains: trace evidence of the original play through other writings by the author, through descriptions in the press, through biographies and diaries and similar sources. AIP is commissioning five teams, each consisting of a playwright and dramaturg, each of whom will be working on recovery of a lost American play from the time period between 1776 and 1920. Each commissioned playwright, in close collaboration with a dramaturg, will write two plays: first a reconstruction of the original and then second, a new play inspired by the old one. In this way, AIP recovers a missing piece of the past and endows that work of art with a legacy, the instigation of a new play out of the remnants of the old one.