American Stages: The Evolution of Theatre in the United States

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In a nation invented on suppositions of individuality and equality, theatre has always held a peculiar place. On the one hand, Western theatre and the genres of tragedy and comedy were born from democracy in its ancient Athenian form; on the other hand, the communal nature of theatre goes against the expressions of self-reliance that characterize American vision and enterprise. This course explores the ways in which people who have called themselves Americans, sometimes with significant cultural modifiers, have thought about and made theatre from the 18th century to the present. We shall begin by looking at early attempts to create American “entertainments” based upon European forms. Soon, the displacement of native peoples, African slavery, expansion into the West, mass immigration, and industrialism led to new social and political uses of melodrama. In the 20th century, a “classic” American drama develops, represented in the works of Eugene O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. We shall then retrace our steps in order to gain alternative perspectives. These come primarily from the influence of African American music, particularly jazz, as it informs popular entertainments and blends with European vaudeville and “gaiety” shows to create a new and characteristically American genre: musical theatre. Simultaneously, the element of improvisation as derived from jazz contributes to the idea of unscripted work as quintessentially American, challenging the entire role of the playwright and the boundaries of theatrical space. We will then be in a position to examine the paradoxes of contemporary stages in which the invention of the self—that unique American assumption, privilege, and burden—is conflicted by identity politics, postmodernism, and the reflexive poses of irony.