- Realism And The American Dramatic Tradition, and: Mimetic Disillusion. Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and U.S. Dramatic Realism
George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1894 that “I am an advocate for stage illusion; stage realism is a contradiction in terms” (“Ten Minutes with Mr. Bernard Shaw,” Today, April 28, 1894; reprinted in The Drama Observed, Vol. 1, edited by Bernard F. Dukore [University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1993], 222). That same year, he completed Mrs Warren’s Profession, a play inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s realist social dramas. Shaw’s seeming inconsistency mirrors the variances inherent in realism as dramatic form. Two recent books from the University of Alabama on the realistic movement in American drama also address this complexity.
Realism and the American Dramatic Tradition is a useful introduction for students of modern American drama. Demastes’s collection of sixteen essays goes back into the nineteenth century to identify the roots of realism in the drama of the “American Ibsen,” James A. Herne. Patricia D. Denison’s analysis of Herne’s legacy is slightly marred by her inattention to other movements that influenced Herne (and Ibsen)—most particularly melodrama. Otherwise, it is a well-written account of the “social and dramatic complexities” of Herne’s vision of realism which continues “to trouble us a full century later” (35). Denison’s essay follows Brian Richardson’s helpful though dense examination of the literary and theatrical concerns of realism. He stresses that it “should be viewed not as a mirror, and not as a delusion, but as a synecdoche, a model that attempts to reconstruct in an abbreviated but not inaccurate manner the world that we inhabit” (3–4). This critical redefinition permits a somewhat wider range of plays and playwrights into the realistic canon than might be expected. Richardson features the expected, playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, and David Mamet, but also gives equal weight to Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, David Rabe, and Sam Shepard, those whose work depends significantly on a freer form of theatricalism than the traditional “realism” encompasses.
Demastes’s collection provides persuasive arguments regarding realism’s history and analysis, but overall it is not entirely successful in elucidating realism as a genre. Each contributor defines realism’s parameters differently, or avoids dealing with them altogether. Though many of the essays, particularly those on Rachel Crothers (Yvonne Shafer), Lillian Hellman (Judith E. Barlow), the dramas of Amiri Baraka and August Wilson (Demastes and Eric Bergesen), and contemporary women playwrights including Beth Henley, Wendy Wasserstein, Tina Howe, and Marsha Norman (Janet V. Haedicke) are individually quite strong, the collection as a whole contributes little to a deeper understanding of the meaning and value of realism’s contradictions.
Among the best entries are Shafer’s penetrating analysis of Crothers’s neglected work and Barlow’s astute essay on Hellman’s undervalued The Little Foxes, as well as Robert F. Gross’s delightful gloss on realism’s impact on high comedy. Most outstanding is Patricia R. Schroeder’s “Remembering the Disremembered: Feminist Realists of the Harlem Renaissance” in which she brings to light a few fascinating dramas by several hitherto little-known African-American women playwrights, Angelina Weld Grimké, Mary P. Burrill, and Shirley Graham. Schroeder’s essay places perhaps too much emphasis on political correctness and feminist theory, but she otherwise provides a remarkable primer on these overlooked women and their plays.
What becomes clear is that even an expanded definition of realism, such as Richardson’s, limits the reader’s view of the bold diversity of American drama. Where are essays on Elmer Rice, Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Christopher Durang, Maria Irene Fornes, Terrence McNally, and many others? As Demastes acknowledges in his incisive preface, the American stage produced “The Adding Machine, Our Town, Camino Real, and Angels in America” (ix). To understand...