What of new plays about old subjects? It's hard to imagine producers commissioning a play about, oh, 18th-century American life, or a portrait of power such as Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon or Howard Brenton's Never So Good. For the most part, young playwrights are churning out three-person plays set in contemporary, Ikea-decorated living rooms populated by quirky regular folk.
I think this gets the issue exactly backwards. I don't think that there is a real dearth of plays about historical figures and issues, or things beyond the usual "living rooms" of "quirky regular folk." To back that up, I present this, this, this, this, this and this. And that's just a smattering I pulled from memory. I'm sure there are others that I'm missing. I don't think that playwrights are shying away from it. It's just that there aren't a lot of theatres willing to go out on a limb and produce these kind of plays.
It seems that the idea is always that the audiences won't connect, won't understand the play. That may be true, but then again, all of these revivals and transfers seem to do pretty well. So maybe it's...something else. But it's not that the plays aren't out there, or even the playwrights interested in it aren't trying. For most playwrights, though, I think there's a bit of a simple arithmetic to it: historical plays aren't likely to be produced, especially by young or early career playwrights, so why write them? Maybe if there was a foundation supporting that kind of thing, you'd see more of it. It certainly worked for the Sloan Foundation and their science play programs.
I agree that there's something in the American spirit that's always about "looking forward" and letting our history, even our recent history, go down the memory hole. But there's also something to most theatre's pretty desperate need to seem "hip" or "cool" and that translates, almost constantly, into pretty, young white folk, sitting on Ikea furniture talking about their problems. And sex.
If we, as playwrights, are trying to get our work out there, it makes sense that's what most of us would wind up writing. Combine that with the undergrad and grad school obsession with "write what you know" in its most limited forms, the overwhelming amount of young, white actors and a general lack of education in historical matters both for the artists and the audience, well, it adds up to not a lot of historical plays on our stages. But theatres play an active role in that.
And, frankly, so does the press. David actually does pretty well, and kind of undermines his own argument with the Time Out Best of 2008, which features some homegrown period/historical plays, particularly some experimental things, like this. But it also features a major revival by a British director. And these are the kinds of things that theatres wind up looking for. Who's hot? Who's exciting? And then they book them. If British directors are in vogue, then everyone's got to have a British director. Until the next trend comes along. This is the system we have, and largely, the reason it's so broken.
Playwrights are definitely complicit in this (and I know I've written more than my fair share of people sitting on lovely furniture and talking plays), but we're not alone.