English Literature
American Drama

American Drama

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Exploring the Impact of American Drama on English Literature

The theater may be a beloved pastime, but have you considered the far-reaching influence of American drama on English literature? Throughout history, American playwrights have made substantial contributions to the literary world, receiving esteemed accolades such as Nobel Prizes and Pulitzer Prizes. This is particularly impressive considering that American drama did not become a significant genre until the twentieth century.

The Roots of American Drama

  • The Puritan, Revolutionary, and Early National Periods (1620-1830)
  • The slow start of drama in American literature can be attributed to the strict beliefs of early New England Puritan immigrants. They viewed theater as immoral, leading to outright bans on theatrical performances in several states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island in the eighteenth century.
  • In addition, much of the early drama produced in the United States was imported from Europe, featuring works by renowned playwrights like Shakespeare. As a result, there was a dearth of original American drama.

However, during the American Revolution and Early National period, literature began to reflect the changing atmosphere of the new country. Plays written during this time often took the form of political satire or propaganda in support of the revolutionary cause. Examples include Mercy Otis Warren's "The Adulateur" (1773) and John Leacock's "The Fall of British Tyranny" (1776).

The Nineteenth Century

In the early nineteenth century, drama gained popularity as a form of entertainment, but it still did not receive much recognition as a crucial part of American literature. While other genres, such as American Romanticism, were gaining traction, there were no notable dramatic works being created in the United States.

American Romanticism, a literary movement from 1830 to 1865, focused on conveying strong emotions, individualism, and the beauty of nature. However, theater during this time was primarily for entertainment, showcasing productions of Shakespeare's plays, melodramas, and comic minstrel shows featuring actors in blackface and jokes that perpetuated racial stereotypes.

Building on the principles of Romanticism, melodramas grew in popularity for their sensational and dramatic nature, typically centered around themes of love, heroism, and the battle between good and evil. Meanwhile, minstrel shows provided musical entertainment, but relied heavily on racist stereotypes portrayed by white actors in blackface.

One notable event in American drama during the nineteenth century was the stage adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852). However, many productions deviated from the author's original intent and leaned more towards the popular comic minstrel shows. Theater was still not viewed as a serious art form, and actors were not highly esteemed.

However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the literary movements of Realism and Naturalism gained traction in American literature, paving the way for the first great American playwrights.

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century was a significant turning point for American drama. Theater began to gain recognition as a legitimate literary form, and some of the most celebrated American playwrights took center stage.

With the emergence of movements such as Realism and Naturalism, American drama shifted its focus to portraying life as it truly was, without elaborate literary conventions. These movements explored the impact of environment and circumstances on individuals, resulting in a more realistic and nuanced approach to storytelling.

The Evolution of American Drama in the Twentieth Century

The first half of the twentieth century was marked by major events such as World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, all of which significantly influenced American drama. Playwrights saw the stage as a platform for social commentary, and their works often reflected the turbulent times.

As with other forms of literature, American drama in the twentieth century became more experimental. Playwrights pushed the boundaries of traditional forms, structure, narrative techniques, and language in their works.

The Impact of Realism and Naturalism on Modern Drama

The mid to late nineteenth century in Europe saw the emergence of a literary movement known as Realism and Naturalism. Influential figures such as Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov pushed the boundaries of traditional drama, exploring unconventional forms and focusing on the complexities of the human psyche rather than theatrical spectacle and melodrama. This movement greatly influenced the next generation of American dramatists, who would become known for their contributions to modern drama.

The Evolution of Modern American Drama

As Realism and Naturalism gave way to Modernism, the first great American dramatist, Eugene O'Neill, emerged. His groundbreaking works, including The Iceman Cometh and A Long Day's Journey into Night, revolutionized American theatre with their emotional depth and seriousness, setting a new standard for American drama. The Modernist movement emphasized style and structure over plot, and O'Neill's experimentation with different forms and points of view helped to shape the future of American drama.

O'Neill's impact on American theatre was so significant that he became the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936. He was also associated with the Expressionist literary movement, which originated in Germany and made its way to the United States. Expressionist plays often exaggerated elements to convey intense inner emotions and criticize societal systems.

In the mid-twentieth century, American drama reached new heights with the works of influential playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Both writers, alongside O'Neill, created works that are still widely performed today. Miller's modern tragedy Death of a Salesman and Williams' classic dysfunctional family drama A Streetcar Named Desire explored the complexities of the American psyche and the human condition, addressing issues such as the struggles of the working class and societal norms and expectations.

African-American playwrights also gained recognition and acclaim during this period, with works such as Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, and August Wilson's Fences making a significant impact. American drama continued to evolve and diversify throughout the twentieth century, covering a wide range of themes and ideas. Playwrights of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s used their works to address important social issues, such as civil rights, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS crisis. Theatre also became more experimental and creative, with playwrights utilizing different structures and forms to tell their stories and taking advantage of advancements in stage performance.

The Relevance of Modern American Drama

Today, modern American drama remains an integral part of American literature. From hyper-realistic to completely experimental, American drama continues to tackle themes of identity, current social issues, and the complexities of human relationships. Works such as Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, which explores the breakdown of the modern family, and Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, which addresses post-9/11 Islamophobia and the American-Muslim experience, showcase the continued significance of drama in the United States. It serves as a powerful medium for understanding and exploring the complexities of American society and the human experience.

The Impact of American Drama on English Literature

Prior to the 20th century, American drama held little importance in English literature. However, renowned writers such as Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams elevated American drama to an esteemed art form with substantial literary value, gaining international recognition. Since then, American drama has produced some of the most influential and celebrated playwrights in English literature, greatly influencing dramatists and authors around the world.

Notable Figures of American Drama

Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams are among the most prominent and influential figures in American drama. Their groundbreaking works have shaped modern American literature and continue to be studied and performed worldwide.

The Pioneers of American Drama: Celebrating the Contributions and Impact of Iconic Playwrights

From Eugene O'Neill to Tennessee Williams, American drama has been shaped by some of the most notable playwrights in history. These individuals have not only revolutionized the art of storytelling but have also tackled controversial issues and challenged social norms. Let's take a closer look at the pioneers of American drama and their notable works.

Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953)

Eugene O'Neill is considered the first prominent American playwright to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. His plays often depicted tragic themes of disillusionment and despair among people from different socio-economic backgrounds. O'Neill was also recognized for using authentic vernacular language in his works, legitimizing the literary value of drama. Some of his notable plays include The Hairy Ape (1922), The Iceman Cometh (1939), and A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1941).

Arthur Miller (1915–2005)

Like O'Neill, Arthur Miller was known for his complex and melancholic portrayal of inner thoughts and feelings, as well as disillusionment with American society and the American dream. In 1949, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his renowned play, Death of a Salesman. Miller's other notable work, The Crucible, also gained critical acclaim for its commentary on the Salem witch trials.

Tennessee Williams (1911–1983)

Tennessee Williams boldly addressed controversial topics such as violence and sexuality in his dramas, making him a pioneer in pushing the boundaries of American theatre. His most renowned plays include The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

Other Notable Works

In addition to the aforementioned playwrights, there are other significant works in American drama such as:

  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1962) by Edward Albee (1928-2016)
  • Fences (1985) by August Wilson (1945-2005)
  • Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1991) by Tony Kushner (1956-present)

The Distinct Features of American Drama

American drama is a diverse genre, but there are some common features found in these works. Many plays tackle contemporary issues, critique societal norms, and delve into the complexities of characters to drive the plot forward.

Furthermore, American drama is often deeply psychological, relying on intricate and multi-faceted character studies to convey the inner experiences of the protagonists. It also frequently critiques social norms, such as the idealized American family, the American dream, and issues of classism and racism in the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Drama

What is American Drama?

American drama typically refers to plays written in the English language by American playwrights.

What influenced American Drama?

American drama has been influenced by various factors, including the works of European playwrights and significant social, political, and cultural events in the United States and the rest of the world.

What are the characteristics of American Drama?

American drama is a diverse body of work with various characteristics. However, many plays explore current issues, critique social norms, and rely on in-depth character studies to drive the storyline.

What is the first form of American Theatre?

Early forms of theatre in the United States were largely imported from Europe, including iconic works like Shakespeare.

The Evolution of American Drama

Behind the success and recognition of American drama lies a slow and turbulent journey. Throughout the American Revolution, the rise of melodrama and comic minstrel shows gained popularity, but it wasn't until the mid-1900s that American drama truly took shape and garnered international acclaim.

The development of American drama was hindered by the Puritans in New England, who viewed theatre as immoral. In some early colonies, theatre was even prohibited altogether. This lack of significant dramatic works changed with the contributions of playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams, who transformed American drama and put it on the global stage.

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