A NEW CONTRAST: The Origins of America-in-Play
By Lynn M. Thomson
Back in 1991, I was looking for a dissertation topic. Since I was required to make an original contribution to scholarship, the most helpful search criteria was obscurity: I hoped to find a tidbit in neglected backwaters. I concentrated first on Restoration comedies and early American plays and, for reasons only having to do with nostalgia, George S. Kaufman. Actually, I was sure that this signal writer had been much investigated, but I still treasured a collection of his plays given to me by my high school drama teacher. As a teenager, without any critical vocabulary, I simply had fallen in love because Kaufman made me laugh.
In my search, I discovered an odd contrast: remote late seventeenth century English plays were readily available in lovely new editions on open shelves, whereas American comedies that had traveled the boards for more than five decades in the nineteenth century were . . . where? I also found Kaufman had rarely been a topic for scholarship, despite his hav-ing won two Pulitzer Prizes and having had a play (often two or three) on Broadway every sea-son between 1921 and 1942. The missing plays and absent studies seemed connected.
Something was amiss.
Eventually I learned that a stunning number of these elusive American plays had been lost and, then, that some were to be found in a microfiche edition titled “Columbia Readex Microprint of Early American Plays, 1831-1900″ in English and American Plays of the Nineteenth Century. New York University possessed this col-lection, but I could not locate it. With a puzzled librarian in the lead, I went deep down to a remote corner on the lowest floor in the Elmer Bobst Library. There, we found shelves of microfiche in storage boxes. In a moment that seemed too much of a cliche to be real, the librarian cautiously blew the dust off one box and I fell in love again and only wanted to adopt these orphaned plays.
So, I began seeking out and reading these comedies in bulk. I knew of course the two plays from the period much anthologized, The Contrast(1787) by Royall Tyler and the later Fashion(1845) by Anna Cora Mowatt. Now, I read The Stage-Struck Yankee by Oliver Durivage (1847); The Green Mountain Boy by Joseph S. Jones (1833); The People’s Lawyer by Joseph S. Jones (1839); The Vermont Wool-Dealer by Cornelius Logan (1838); Tears and Smiles and The Lion of the West and A Glance at New York; and . . . .
And I rediscovered the primal American character, Jonathan, aka Jedediah Homebred and Deuteronomy Dutiful and Jonathan Postfree and . . . Yankee progeny, as Mose the Fireman and his girlfriend Lise, and Mike Fink the boatman in African-American and white versions . . . and Nimrod Wildfire (a frontiersman) and yet more and more titles I never knew. Do you know The Forest Rose by Samuel Woodworth (author of The Old Oaken Bucket)-a play that starts with music evoking nature at the day’s dawn, as in the so much later Oklahoma!?
I soon realized what scholars would reify, that the characters and stories found within these comedies were larger than any one individual play. The writing was a direct reflection of a crucial moment in our history: the fervor in the fledgling country to discover its own identity. Unlike contemporary plays, which pride themselves on originality of story and character, there was an intentional reiteration in the stories and characters of this early canon. The performances of these early plays were a dramatic and communal exploration of what it meant to be American.
I learned our greatest fable was about the contrast between city and country and the faith in our innocence . . . and so much more. I learned that a currently denigrated American popular culture had always been demeaned both from within and abroad because of inapt comparison with contemporary English culture. These early comedies were really our folk drama. The result of this legacy of disdain is that we have deprived ourselves of what other world citizenry has: the beginnings of the culture and works that keep the power of the people alive. I also learned that throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, farces continued to allow country bumpkins to vanquish city slickers and so heralded democratic ideals, including the rights and glories of the common man and guarantees of American life, such as self-determination.
Oh, and yes, I found my dissertation topic and therein is another contrast: the subject was not obscure or in a backwater, but rather in plain sight on Broadway and the map of our dramatic history. I learned that Kaufman’s work was parody of traditional American comedy. In his time, Kaufman was considered a brutal, bitter, angry satirist-a startling contrast from his reputation today as a genial and patriotic showman writing inoffensive traditional plays. No, he was actually a debunker of such comedies, a fact commonly known in his time because the plays he kidded were still written and performed. But to understand a parody, one must first understand its object; Kaufman is not now considered a parodist, because the rich past that informed his writing has been so neglected. That understanding eventually led me back once again to those early American comedies; my ignorance, I realized, was shared.
I also started to understand how profound a loss-and find-I had stumbled into. I thought often about the cultural starvation from ridiculing what is labeled “popular” when the root of that word is, after all, “the people.” Fortuitously, during all the time I was researching, I was also a literary manager and dramaturg and director specializing in new American plays. While watching writers struggle to find subject matter, I observed that those who sought out structure or story or character in family legacies from other and ancient cultures were richly fueled. I made the obvious and thrilling connection, that while our culture wasn’t so ancient, we too had shared legacies, a common ground of American myth (not meaning a lie but a story about a shared perception of truth) and mystery.
As a part of my Kaufman research, I put together a reading of selections from plays written between 1776 and World War I. The reading took place in 1995 and involved actors of all ages and ethnicities who initially thought these plays alien. But from the moment the reading started, even with the barriers of language, situation, and culture, the actors instinctively hooked into the work. They knew innately how to perform these texts in a way that doesn’t happen when actors first approach Shakespeare or the Greeks. The artists understood the writing because it was fundamentally their culture.
The project was dormant for about a decade, although I often talked about my discoveries. Over and over, I encountered delight and, yes, recognition, when people discovered that there was this rich dramatic history prior to the standard benchmark of Eugene O’Neill, a history so rarely taught in our own colleges. A homecoming. Furthermore, people almost immediately recognized examples of the early archetypes in film and television successes: from It’s a Wonderful Life to Forrest Gump, from The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres to City Slickers.
I was given the opportunity to host a panel at New Dramatists during a year there as a resident director. In the spring of 2005, I curated an evening focused around the characters, stories, and obsessions of early American drama. The writers of New Dramatists are a highly educated, rigorously selected group of some of the country’s finest contemporary playwrights. I did a casual survey of who knew what about early American drama. Of the group, only two were familiar with pre-Eugene O’Neill American dramatic traditions or plays.
During the evening at New Dramatists, I introduced images and texts from early drama. I set a context in art, especially the Hudson River School, and music. The panel became a platform for a broad discussion-from our dramatic past to our national identity to the war in Iraq. Some noted that President Bush had made himself into the oldest American archetype-the character of the Yankee. Despite the expected remoteness of these plays, the audience laughed with recognition and applauded at excerpts from The Contrast and The Vermont Wool-Dealer. And an even more surprising contrast with expectations was that with only a cursory knowledge of this heritage, the conversation became a platform to discuss huge contemporary issues in a new light and with a deeper understanding. Writers were making connections to the past, which in turn were informing their experience of the present.
Some weeks later, I experimented with writing exercises that would allow modern playwrights to have conversations with the writing and writers of the past. This workshop, co-curated by playwrights Dominic Taylor and David Grimm, was a crossover moment for me. I gained the conviction that I wanted to start a project that would connect current writers with their dramatic past. The seeds which had been planted more than a decade earlier finally grew above soil.
Coincidentally, I had just been given a two-year residency to develop a musical at the TRIBECA Performing Arts Center (TPAC). Linda Herring, Executive Director at TPAC, who had attended the New Dramatists panel, agreed to my adding this project to my residency.
I invited two student dramaturgs from Brooklyn College (Jennifer Leeson and Elizabeth Coen) to assist me and I put together the structure for four workshops. In December 2005 and January 2006, I solicited the participation of playwrights through a flyer. I received a small grant from Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas to support the work. Beginning in February 2006, I, the dramaturgs, and playwrights took a journey through early American drama, iconography, music, and culture.
The writers discovered new entries to their work-structures and stories and characters as rich provocative sources. The writers learned to appreciate that their own impulses often held unsuspected folk origins. We learned to decode the old plays. We all learned more about who we were and gradually developed a communal vocabulary out of which we can make work. Today we find ourselves laughing deeply at “inside jokes” we would not have understood, or even made, a year earlier. We are building a new, a contrasting, relationship with our own culture.
And so, in the fall of 2006, I went ahead with four more workshops and was honored to have Dominic Taylor join me as an artistic partner and Jennie Greer help with a business plan. We commissioned sixteen playwrights to write ten-minute plays. On three evenings-March 19, 26, and 27, 2007,we shares this work in readings and introduced the public to America-in-Play. These plays together were meant as a new contrast, a new starting point to enrich the cultural conversation about who we, the people, are.