- A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama: Volume One: 1900–1940; Volume Two: Williams / Miller / Albee; Volume Three: Beyond Broadway by C. W. E. Bigsby (review)
- Performing Arts Journal
- The MIT Press
- Volume 9, Numbers 2&3, 1986 (PAJ 26/27)
- pp. 264-265
- View Citation
- Additional Information
A Critical Introductionto Twentieth-CenturyAmerican Drama: Volume One: 1900-1940; Volume Two: Williams/ Miller/ Albee; Volume Three: Beyond Broadway C. W. E. Bigsby Cambridge University Press: Volume One, 342 pp., $15.95 (paper), $42.50 (cloth); Volume Two, 355 pp., $14.95 (paper), $39.50 (cloth); Volume Three, 485 pp., $14.95 (paper) There is no closet drama, says Christopher Bigsby: theatre is preeminently a public art which addresses itself to group sensibilities, a place where "transformation is not only a credible goal but a present fact." It is precisely because, in his view, American theatre so effectively mirrors social, political, and cultural change that Bigsby is fascinated by its achievements, although he acknowledges that theatre has never located itself at the center of American culture in the way it has in his native England. This formidable trilogy of over 1100 densely-packed pages takes as its task the chronicling of American theatre's emergence from its "disregarded and parochial" status at the beginning of the century to its major and serious representation of the central forces in our national consciousness , an achievement, in the author's sanguine judgment, of world stature. Volume One moves from the Provincetown Players' and O'Neill's thrusting of seriousness upon our theatre to the political imperatives demanded of it by the Depression and the rise of fascism in the 1930s; Volume Two focuses on the dominant dramatic trio of Williams, Miller, and Albee in the post-World War I theatre; and Volume Three moves "beyond Broadway" to consider the explosion of experimentation that has emerged since the 1960s. Despite its length, the trilogy does not aim at encyclopedic allinclusiveness ; it pointedly calls itself a "critical introduction," and admits a selective focus on "central" playwrights and theatre groups determined by the author's social criteria. There is, then, no consideration of American musical theatre and little of comedy, for Bigsby's overarching scheme rests on a firm distinction between "serious" and non-serious forms and figures. This is theatre history and dramatic criticism strongly wedded to the history of ideas: Volume One records how, as American theatre began to attend to its own processes, it absorbed the "central" theme of its age: alienation from the new urban and industrial world which seemed to deny the animating myths of America's rural past; the volume on the major postWorld War 1I playwrights notes that beneath their distinctively individualistic voices was sounded a common lament on the erosion of private space and the social collapse born of a failure of courage and imagination on the public level; Volume Three traces the diminishing power of Broadway to reflect the vital concerns of our culture as issues of race, poverty, and Vietnam created an alternative theatre in which aesthetic innovation walked hand in hand with political revolt. It is not necessary to accept all of Bigsby's judgments or decisions on 264 structural balance (nine pages on Native American theatre, three pages on gay theatre, including the Ridiculous) to be impressed by the scope of his narrative, the perceptiveness of his insights, and, above all, by his ability to synthesize an enormous amount of material from literature, art history, sociology and theatre. Many set pieces-such as the essays on the theatre and Vietnam, and the Theatre of Images' roots in contemporary art-are well-balanced and wide-ranging. Despite some overextended tangents, Bigsby's ideational thrust keeps his work eminently readable as well as informative . And yet there are some overall conceptual difficulties: one is the aforementioned inability to recognize that "non-serious" work can be particularly expressive of cultural conflict, and that its consideration might well have buttressed social analysis. More basic is the trilogy's misnomer: despite the focus of Volume Two, this work-as my preceding analysis should have made clear-embeds the history of drama in the history of theatre and society. Both the first and third volumes are essentially organized by theatre groups, not playwrights. Indeed, in the last volume, one section on Shepard and Mamet is contained within a structure which considers Performance Theatre (The Living Theatre, Open Theatre, and Performance Group), Theatre of Images (Wilson, Foreman, Breuer), and Theatre of...