Thursday, September 3, 2009

My Playwrights Draft

Like all such lists there is a lot of subjectivity to this. I have read hundreds of plays over my career, many of them amazing, and many that are painful to read, let alone watch, or worse yet, work on. I firmly believe that the playwright is an active an vital collaborator in the creative process of the show. So I do think about playwrights a lot, those I love (Arthur Miller, Moises Kaufman, William Shakespeare) and those that I could...uh live without (Sam Shepard, my dislike of his work is well documented). But this list is something different to me, it is more about the importance of their work, their skill and talent (both are vitally important) and their impact on the pantheon of American Theatre.
So that being said, without further ado:

1. Arthur Miller -hands down my favorite American playwright, and in my opinion the best
2. Tennessee Williams -his lyrical writing and powerful characters still move me
3. Eugene O'Neil -one of the ones that I do not like, but cannot deny the importance or place on this list
4. August Wilson - The fact that he completed his life's work (ten plays depicting the story of African Americans in the USA each in a different decade of the 20th century) alone makes him vital. Add to the that the beautiful, poetic and powerful plays (Fences, The Piano Lesson, etc.) and he has secured his position as one of the most importnat playwrights ever.
5. Lorraine Hanseberry - not a large collection fo work, but Raisin in the Sun changed everything
6. Neil Simon - another one that I am not fond of, but recognize his place
7. Wendy Wasserstein - one of the top voices for Boomers and women for two decades
8. Edward Albee - Wrote quite a few, less than stellar scripts, but when he got it right his work is still powerful.
9. Thornton Wilder - Come see Our Town in October, that will explain everything
10. William Inge - captured Americana and the voice of the heartland better than anyone else.

Several runners up - Mamet, Shepard (still hate his plays, you hate your dad fine we get it, move on) Letts, Nottage, etc. But if I have to pick 10 these are them.

Share yours, debate mine, anything.

also, become the next great American Playwright, Playwright workshops start this month, see the website for more information.


Steve Martin said...

Edward Albee rated below Wendy Wasserstein? No. Way.

Yes, Albee wrote some clunkers but you can't deny that he changed theatre with The Zoo Story, The American Dream, A Delicate Balance and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Add the beautiful character study of Three Tall Women, the heavily controversial The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and you've got a body of work that has reshaped American theatre for more than 50 years.

I enjoy Wendy Wasserstein's plays, but there's no way I'd rate her higher than Albee. Heck, I also would rank him higher than Simon and Hansberry.

Steven Koehler said...

Albee took a big hit in my book by writing the prequel to The Zoo Story. It seemed much like Disney's recent obsession with sequels to their own classics, all straight to video of course. It feels like they are saying Walt didn't tell the story completely, so here is our attempt to finish the genius. Much like Cinderella II, Albees attempt to glimpse the hours before the events of The Zoo Story only serve to diminish the power of the original.

Wasserstein captured the voice of a generation, an oft overquoted generation yes, but still. She also was able to step back from her own perspective and poke at the Boomers, make fun of their self-importance a little. With her final play "Third" she even take on the established Feminist intellectual liberal university set. She was brilliant in how she could take characters and weave universal stories around them.

Simon, I defend on his popularity. He is one of the best known American playwrights, especially outside of those in the know. I am sure that many more people have heard of and know The Odd Couple than All My Sons or even a giant like Iceman Cometh. He is the entry for many people into the world of theatre. That being said, I do not like his plays, and my personal taste puts Albee WAY ahead of him, but that was not the point.

Hansberry wrote a play that changed (literally) the face of American Theatre. For the first time there was an African American cast (except one) with an African American director not only on Broadway, but with huge success. She launched the careers of Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. Not to mention that the very play also touched on not only the oppression and struggle of the poor, but was a predictor of the Women's Lib, Black Power, and Afrocentric movements. She brought the Civic Rights movement to Broadway before MArtin Luther King had his dream. Perhaps her placement is a little high, as she wrote so little before her tragically early death, but I stand by it. Without her could we have seen Wilson?

So where is your list Steve? And everyone else?

rick8 said...

Hey Steve-

Thanks for the love...I still gotta believe Kushner belongs in the top 10...for the record, from my blog, I go:

1. Miller
2. Williams
3. Wilson
4. O'Neil
5. Mamet
6. Kushner
7. Shepard
8. Inge
9. Wilder
10. Wasserstein

I also leave off Albee, which is probably kind of egregious but it's my list, but there are some others as well: Simon, Lanford Wilson, Kaufman (not Moises), Hansberry, Nottage is climbing the list rapidly...I don't think writers like Tracy Letts, Warren Leight, David Lindsay-Abaire, Jose Rivera, etc have done enough yet and I fear they won't, since we seem to be losing them all to film and TV...

I gotta another Fantasy Draft blog I am about to post and I think it is even more difficult than Top 10 American Playwrights...

Stay tuned!!


Steve Martin said...

OK, my Top 10 list of important American playwrights.

1) Eugene O'Neill. Until him, American drama was not well regarded by the world. Robust characters.

2) Tennessee Williams. "A Streetcar Named Desire" changed everything. Did pretty well with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "The Glass Menagerie" too.

3) Edward Albee. His plays are openly contemptuous of the world and the people who inhabit it. And he's been at it for more than 50 years.

4) Arthur Miller. He writes about the specific, but moves beyond that: "Death of a Salesman," "The Crucible" especially.

5) Neil Simon. The audience laughs, but at the core his plays has weight to him. Wildly popular.

6) August Wilson. I need to see his work onstage, but the idea of chronicling daily life in each decade of the 20th century is gargantuan.

7) Tony Kushner. "Angels in America" is huge and about much more than living with AIDS in the Reagan Years. I hope his next plays are equally dense with ideas. He may move farther up.

8) David Mamet. For his love of language. F*@#!

9) Sam Shepard. The chronicler of the cast-aside or overlooked? I need to see more of his plays. "The Curse of the Starving Class" was amazing.

10) Thornton Wilder. Not only for "Our Town" but also for "The Skin of Our Teeth" and his multiple one-acts.

Playwrights whose work I love but haven't placed here: Terrence McNally, Wendy Wasserstein.

Steven Koehler said...

The reason I left Kushner off is that Angels is 18 years old. It premiered the year that current college freshmen were born. He is an excellent playwright, but what of substance (well at least of that substance) has he done since then?

Sam Shepard is the chronicler of people who hate their fathers.

Mamet to me suffers from a plethora of bad plays. I am very hot and cold with him. While Glenn Gerry Glenn Ross may be one of the better American plays, Edmund is pretentious and a little lame.

I have already argued for a lower place for Albee, like Disney putting out Cinderella II, his writing of a prequel to Zoo Story takes just a little away from the original, and diminishes the entire opus just a little.

Eugene O'Neill may have put American Drama on the map but Miller and too a lightly lesser extent Williams solidified American playwrights rightful place in the global pantheon. I guess that is my way of saying that I agree to his importance, but still can't imagine sitting through Long Days Journey Into Night.

Great List Steve, thanks

Steve Martin said...

Rick, what is your other blog post Fantasy Draft? "More difficult than Top 10 American Playwrights" has piqued my interest.