Friday, February 27, 2009

Plays v. Playwrights

Isaac, as per usual, has a good thing going: list the 9 most influential plays of the 20th Century. As usual, I've chimed in, but it brought up an interesting question for me. Rather than hijack his thread, I'd figure I'd bring it over here. It is my blog, after all.

In his update, he makes a terrific point about Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson. It does indeed owe a lot to Chekhov, as Wilson does as a writer. Does that make it less influential, though? It's not a derivative work, precisely. (Full -and, I imagine somewhat obvious- disclosue: I'm a HUGE Wilson fan.) And I think Wilson's work in the '70s and '80s are definitely key, as part of the second wave of "naturalism" that includes Rabe and McNally and Mamet.

What I found interesting, approaching the question as a writer, is this: is it the playwright who's influential or the play? There are certainly plays, individual plays that are undeniably influential. Jack Gelber's The Connection is one. Waiting for Lefty is another. But, in looking at my own 9 and the others on their, it strikes me that most of us are looking at playwrights who were influential and trying to pick their "best" play.

O'Neill is probably the single most influential American playwright of the 20th Century. Hands down. But is The Iceman Cometh MORE influential than The Hairy Ape? Remember O'Neill won the Nobel Prize BEFORE The Iceman Cometh or Long Day's Journey Into Night were even written.

I think the same can be said for Miller, Williams, Albee, A. Wilson, even Shepherd. Their bodies of work are influential, and full of good plays, but maybe not all of the individual plays could be called influential.

On the other hand, Waiting for Lefty isn't necessarily a great play by a great playwright, but, I think you can argue, it's an influential play. That kind of political activism, at that moment in history, the Group Theater aesthetic, the whole kit and caboodle. Same goes for Gelber's play or The Mystery of Irma Vep. These are plays that opened avenues for playwrights that hadn't been open before. Without Charles Ludlam, do we have Tony Kushner?

Not to get too pointy-headed here, is there a possibility that a less than great or perfect play can be more influential? A personal anecdote: My affection for Wilson's work really began in grad school. One of my professors showed us the American Playhouse version of his play Lemon Sky with Kevin Bacon. It's really great. I highly recommend it. It's also pretty revolutionary, moving back and forth through time, in and out of various characters' thoughts and recollections, a true memory play. There's one great scene where all of the characters are gathered around a table in a bar, drinking, and re-hashing the past, even though at least one of them is dead. It's not a ghost thing, but memory made flesh. When it was done, my professor said he liked to show that to students because it was good, but it was also achievable. You read The Glass Menagerie, the granddaddy of memory plays, and it's nearly flawless and you think, "I can't even live a life good enough to be written about like this." But you watch Lemon Sky and think, "I can tell my story like, too."

In some ways, it reminds me of the old saw about the Velvet Underground's first album. They always say that only 500 people bought it, but every one of them formed a band.

In some ways, I guess a good follow-up question is: great, we've got the most influential plays of the 20th century. Now which one made you want to write a play?

1 comment:

Lindsay Price said...

I saw that 'Lemon Sky' production too. As a teenager it was almost overwhelming to realize there was a play that exactly demonstrated the way I wanted to write. I'd never seen anything like it before and it certainly was influential to me. It made me want to write a play for sure.

I wonder if there can there be 9 definitive influential plays for a whole century?