Conjunctions:25 The New American Theater

Introduction: Plays as Literature
Reading plays is like reading poetry: it requires, though in a very different way, an exercise of the imagination.

     In poetry and prose fiction both, the “voice” of the work is provided directly. Though elliptical and metaphorical in poetry, and often expository in prose fiction, the voice is likely to be a singular, consistent voice, and the individual reader is its sole confidante. We may not be told what to think but we are provided with the atmosphere in which to think, and frequently in fact we are told what to think. These works of literature are always past tense, even when they purport to be presenting events in present tense; they record moments now history, and permeable to interpretation. The “point of view” of the work, its psychological perspective, allows us entry into the mystery to be explored. (For all works of the imagination are mysteries. What has happened to bring us to this point of crisis? What will happen to push us further, to resolution? Out of what urgency has the work been created?)

     Plays more closely resemble poetry than they do most prose fiction, because poetry is a compact language, a heightened and accelerated form of communication, and what is omitted is an integral part of its meaning, just as plays are “narratives” severely reduced to human voices and gestures. A dramatic work is always present tense, and characters are vividly alive before us. We aren’t told what they say or do, we observe them firsthand. We aren’t told what to think about them, we draw our own conclusions.

     Reading plays, the reader’s mind is the stage, and a willful emptiness is desirable. Envision a play dramatically by seeing the characters enter this emptiness, as they would a stage in a theater; as much “background” is provided as the playwright has given you in his notes and asides. Your imagination is actively engaged. The silent reading of a play can be a “staging” that may in truth be more rewarding, and closer to the playwright’s intentions, than one or another actual production.

     So, too, the “staged reading” for many theater people can be more rewarding than the fully produced play. For the playwright him—or herself, the experience is often more illuminating. The colorful distractions of the set, the blocking, the director’s interpretation of the work haven’t yet come into being.

     Some plays are more self-consciously literary, more designed to be read, than others. George Bernard Shaw’s prefaces and stage descriptions are famously, or infamously, intended to be read; Shaw’s doggedly witty, persistently hectoring voice competes with the voices of his dramatic characters for our attention. The exquisitely wrought and writerly plays of any number of classic playwrights—Chekhov, Turgenev, Strindberg, Ibsen, Calderon, Yeats, Lorca, Synge—repay countless readings. Most of us know the incantatory and elusive tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides solely through reading, not the stage. Above all, the plays of Shakespeare demand to be read, reread, brooded upon, absorbed. In our classic American theater, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams are perhaps the most avidly read of playwrights.

     Yet the distinction between the art of the play and the art of prose fiction is considerable. The prose writer, coming to the theater, is likely to be stunned, if not dismayed, by the leaden nature of his best “writerly” work when it is presented by living actors on a blunt, exposed stage. Where in prose fiction the writer is accustomed to shaping subtleties of meaning by way of carefully composed language, in which the very punctuation and the spacing of paragraphs may be a part of the meaning, in drama the writer must provide for his characters ‘living” roles. All great novelists—Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Flaubert, Eliot, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence, Melville, Faulkner—provide rich, fascinating passages of description, historical background, character analyses, exposition; we are likely in fact to be reading novels for this reason, because we are mesmerized by a writer’s unique voice. In prose fiction, style is art; there is no art without individual style. Yet, on the living stage, none of these qualities of prose fiction “works”: not description, however brilliant; not historical background, analysis, any kind of exposition. What shimmers with life on the page may die within minutes in the theater precisely because prose is a language to be spoken to an individual, recreated in an individual reader’s consciousness, usually in solitude, while dramatic dialogue is a special language spoken by living actors to one another, a collective audience overhearing. Most remarkably—and here I am speaking as a writer of prose fiction who approaches the art of the play with much humility, yearning and hope—the dramatic situation may not contain spoken language at all, but resides in a realm that can only be described as purely theatrical. It is something of a surprise, and certainly an instructive, chastising surprise, for the writer of prose fiction, to discover that scripts that appear barely skeletal to the reader’s eye, by contemporary heirs of Beckett like Pinter and Mamet, spring astonishingly to life on the stage, because they are not “about” texts at all, but powerful subtexts to be brought into life by the art of acting. (The “act of acting”—a subject entire in itself, unfortunately out of place here. Only keep in mind that the most supreme artists of acting are precisely those who scarcely seem to be acting at all, and may therefore be undervalued.) So we discover, to our astonishment, that theater is not “about” dialogue after all, but what might be called fields of dramatic tension; force-fields of human relationships beneath the level of language, and perhaps even of consciousness, at which dialogue hints in the way that a divining rod hints at a subterranean spring. If there is no mysterious, magical spring water hidden beneath the surface of the work, the most elegantly crafted, clever dialogue will not make the work live. We learn that the text of the play is not the play, still less is the written and published text of the play anything like the theatrical experience, which will vary considerably with individual productions, each production being a complex vision worked up into performance by an individual director-artist in company with individual actor-artists. (That these are “artists” no less than the playwright cannot be stressed sufficiently.) All theater is living experience, all published texts are histories or records of experience. Theater is present tense, the printed word is past tense.

     In venturing into the territory of the theater, the writer accustomed to the printed word must leave behind all the cultivated strategies of his (or her) art—the shelter of language, the cocoon-like protection of an individual prose style; the powerful arsenal of intellectual analyses, historical and expository information; allusions, references, metaphors; all of interiority, in fact. But isn’t that everything? you may ask. Why would a writer give up so much, in exchange for the unknown? Precisely because the theater is an adventure, a challenge, a risk; because it is not only always present tense in the theater, but because the theater itself has no memory. All that you’ve learned, or believe you’ve learned, in one adventure, may be erased by the second, and yet again by the third. In theater, the playwright throws himself (or herself—I suppose I am speaking most frankly and intimately of myself) into a kind of free-fall, surrendering control in the hope of achieving something higher: that realm of the purely and ineffably theatrical.


Long recognized as one of our most imaginative, gifted, provocative and adventurous of playwrights, John Guare here presents in Conjunctions:25, The New American Theater a gathering of works by contemporary American playwrights that is representative of the eclectic, experimental and hybrid nature of our theater. It is a heterogeneous assortment with no political rubric, no aesthetic banner. Familiar names are juxtaposed with the less familiar and the newly emergent; realistic, accessible works are juxtaposed with the bizarre and perhaps unstageable. There is a wonderful diversity of styles, from the hallucinatory It’s an Undoing World of Tony Kushner, the gorgeously lurid Venus of Suzan-Lori Parks and the vividly theatrical Insurrection of Robert O’Hara to the powerful dramatic naturalism of Donald Margulies’s short, tight, captivating Kibbutz and the melancholy comedy of Wendy Wasserstein’s Antonia and Jane, the forthright low-keyed realism of Mark O’Donnell’s Wish Technology. The section from Jon Robin Baitz’s Amphibians suggests a full-length drama of character and conscience in a mode that resembles the most powerful work of Arthur Miller, while the section from John Guare’s Moon Under Miami suggests an extravaganza of ever-shifting mockmadcap revelations, unpredictable like most of this playwright’s work. There are plays here that richly reward close reading, among them Ellen McLaughlin’s experimental verse plays Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia in Tauris, and several that may require it Erik Ehn’s teasingly surreal Every Man Jack of You, for instance, and Doug Wright’s Quills. Harry Kondoleon’s notes to the director on the nature of the set forSaved or Destroyed makes for helpful information not available to a theater audience. The playwright’s notes for Christopher Durang’s surreal Nina in the Moming help Illuminate the play, like Mac Wellman’s for the highly conceptualized The Sandalwood Box.

     In a special category, in fact, is Kondoleon’s frame-smashing work, in which an actor addresses the audience with painful candor, speculating on the reasons why people come to the theater: “To see actors and measure their own dissatisfactions against those of the characters?” He states bluntly, “I am your average sometimes-working actor. You have probably not seen me in undistinguished productions in regional theaters across the country ... You have possibly not seen me on TV ... I am not, ladies and gentlemen, one of the stars.”

     For all their diversity, we can define plays in terms of two usually overlapping categories: the “realistic” (which need not, of course, mean conventional or formulaic) and the “surreal” (which need not, of course, mean shapeless, chaotic, impenetrable, willfully self-indulgent), and you will see here how fluidly playwrights move from one mode of expression to another, sometimes within a single scene. Tony Kushner’s dithyrambic It’s an Undoing World has the alternative title “Why Should It Be Easy When It Can Be Hard?” and the subtitle “Notes on My Grandma for Actors, Dancers and a Band”; it is a highly theatrical means of presenting private memoir and public history and the character of Sarah, “Grandma.” A play in the realist mode would move along very different lines, though incorporating identical material (and one can envision a deeply moving realist play, in fact, in the penumbra of this one); the form Kushner has chosen is post-Modernist, time-fractured, choral, mythic, “confusing”—for, as it is said of Sarah, “She has no sense of, of order. She is impossible.” Doug Wright’s brilliantly inventive Quills is a meditation upon the Marquis de Sade as the exemplar of sacred and ungovernable processes of the imagination, the play’s roots solidly biographical even as it soars to outrageous absurdist heights. (“The more I forbid,” declares Sade’s jailer, custodian of civilized bourgeois order, “the more you are provoked.”) Paula Vogel’s antic burlesque The Mineola Twins springs from an actual, if improbable, Mineola, USA of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

     “Experimental” dramatic techniques have become, in the late twentieth century, so much a part of the playwright’s arsenal of strategies that they seem scarcely “experimental” any longer, but rather more a kind of deft shorthand for what would have required, in an earlier decade, a more elaborate and methodical unfolding of plot. Have we not all been instructed in the sacrosanct virtues of beginning, middle, end? Complication, climax, resolution? A respect for Aristotelian unities? For the clarity of chronology? For clarity itself? As if the limitations of realism were not in fact limitations. Contemporary dramatists assume in their audiences a measure of sophistication that allows freedom to explore any number of modes of expression. Both Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus and Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection, of which we have sections here, promise to be dazzling, disturbing works, strongly visual, musical and theatrical: reading such scripts is a stimulus to anticipating how they will be staged. The dreamy baseball fantasies, Arthur Kopit’s Elegy for the House that Ruth Built and Eric Overmyer’s The Dalai Lama Goes Three for Four, are monologues which will lend themselves to highly imaginative mise-en-scène stagings, precisely because they are so “interior.” Nicky Silver’s Etiquette & Vitriol is a more conventional monologue that opens into a full-length play comprised basically of linked monologues, like most of the dramatic work of this darkly gifted, idiosyncratic writer. Romulus Linney’s two-character Divine Comedy South is essentially two monologists/narcissists in conversation, their subject being “the fast, furious and disgraceful rummaging through the old clothes of other [people’s] bodies.’ And Han Ong’s Mrs. Chang is another work of linked monologues, providing a mysterious fractured and strangely eloquent “English” that is, for the tragicomic Mrs. Chang, a life-saving mask-talk. Han Ong demonstrates the ways in which, before our eyes, people “act” themselves. So too in the literally speedy scene from Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Evolution two representative young men confront an electronic cloning of personality that dwarfs their quite ordinary selves: is this the next stage of human evolution? The parodied poets of Amy Freed’s slyly cruel The Psychic Life of Savages, among whom one can identify almost too readily Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, are continually inventing and exhibiting themselves through absurdly arbitrary distortions of language. Keith Reddin’s You Belong to Me, with its rapid shiftings of perspective and its continuously overlapping, self-erasing melodramatic plots, is an artful variation on a familiar theme of marital betrayal.

     Comedy by its very nature violates the decorum of realism, and leaps beyond our expectations of “common” sense in the service of a higher, and always a lighter, more transcendent vision. Perhaps the most effervescent and ingeniously realized comic play in this volume is David Ives’s Degas, C’est Moi, which like the much-admired one-acts of Ives’s recent “All in the Timing,” glides with seamless fluidity from point to point, from interior monologue to exterior scene, with an irresistible momentum that can be realized only in the living art of the play.

Joyce Carol Oates is currently Visiting Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author, most recently, of the novel Breathe and the story collection The (Other) You (both Ecco), which includes several stories that originally appeared in Conjunctions. She is the 2019 recipient of the Jerusalem Prize.