- The Oxford Handbook of American Drama ed. by Jeffrey H. Richards with Heather S. Nathans
This luxurious volume, conceived and edited by Jeffrey H. Richards and completed by Heather S. Nathans following Richards’s passing, is described in its introduction as “the most comprehensive multiauthored book on American [End Page 108] drama currently in print” (1). Bringing together essays by thirty leading scholars, it fills a definite void for teachers and students of drama. There are more than a few “handbooks,” “guidebooks,” or “companions to” out there, but The Oxford Handbook of American Drama is uncommon in its thorough and wide-ranging presentation of multiple topics despite the necessary brevity per contribution in a nearly 600-page work. Most impressive are the ways in which the book merges the familiar with the more shadowed corners of the American canon, and, in most cases, individual topics are each engagingly unpacked by a major scholar specializing in a particular subject.
For those who only know or teach American drama as a twentieth-century phenomenon beginning with Eugene O’Neill, this substantial book will go a long way to awaken faculty and their students to American drama’s complex and diverse history. Extending from the colonial pre-Revolutionary era and the hurly-burly nineteenth-century stage, to the emergence of Broadway, the road, and contemporary plays challenging long-held orthodoxies of politics, race, and gender, this potent resource quite literally exceeds previous works of its kind. The often astonishing, politically and emotionally wrenching, and riotously entertaining theatrical heritage of the United States is fully present here in chapters immersing the reader in the work of diverse artists, companies, historical issues, and recurring themes emerging from 350-plus years of the nation’s still comparatively young existence. In a distressing time of national retrenchment in universities and colleges, where the perennially threatened arts find their survival even more than usually at risk, the mission of drawing a new generation of audiences and practitioners toward the glories of live theatre in the United States is more imperative than ever. As such, the value of this book in supporting that task is obvious and, in fact, essential.
This worthy, over-flowing compendium is a most helpful tool toward that end. Hopefully, the book serves as a call to arms for those of us teaching our theatrical past to raise the bar to meet its level in quality and quantity. It offers a road map through the complicated and storied history of America’s plays and, as previously noted, goes some distance toward reconsidering standard accounts. Especially strong are contributions on pre-twentieth century plays and playwrights (the first ten of the book’s thirty-two chapters focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century developments), but I found the chapters by editors Richards (“Early Republican Drama”) and Nathans (“Representing Ethnic Identity on the Antebellum Stage, 1825-1861”) to be exceedingly valuable, as is Sara Meer’s “Minstrelsy and Uncle Tom” and, especially, Rosemarie K. Bank’s essential “Antebellum Frontier and Urban Plays” and Amelia Howe Kritzer’s “Antebellum Plays by Women: Contexts and Themes.” Unlocking those aspects of American drama still so rarely seen or studied, yet often so boldly entertaining and incomparably rich in the life of its turbulent times, is a most welcome exercise. Essays such as Mark Hodin’s tightly-constructed “Late Melodrama” makes a long and complicated era of popular plays—lumped [End Page 109] together under the frequently misunderstood label of melodrama—vividly accessible to those with little knowledge of the form. Even essays covering more familiar topics, such as Thomas S. Hischak’s “American Musical Theatre, 1870-1945,” offer fresh insights, in this case in unraveling the influences leading to the emergence of the post-Show Boat “book musical.”
The more-or-less chronological structure of the book is helpful. As subsequent chapters illuminate the rise of Realism, musical theatre’s emergence and triumph in the twentieth century, images of the “New Woman,” and African American theatre, the result is a solid...