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  • Hillbilly TragedyWhat's Not Playing in American Theatres in the 2017–18 Season
  • Paul David Young (bio)

In November 2016, the forgotten, un- or underemployed, white, Christian, heterosexual, working class male of Middle America elected Donald Trump, so goes the hypothesis. Allegedly, pollsters failed to detect this group and account for its views in presidential prognostication, and the Democrats had "lost" the election because they likewise did not heed its cries of pain.

Before announcing the 2017–18 season, American theatres had had the luxury of several post-election months to consider the street protests and counterdemonstrations, the debates about the legitimacy of the election, and the NPR listening tours devoted to the neglected white Christian working-class straight male in the heartland. Had the "mainstream" or "fake" news media (as the right prefers to call everything other than Fox News and Breitbart) been misled by its alleged "liberal bias" into ignoring the anger of this key slice of the American electorate? Had American theatre similarly ignored this demographic group? And if so, would American theatre respond to the election and correct this omission? In theory, theatre should adapt quickly to respond to such events.

To find out, I undertook a survey of the 2017–18 season. Before I began my research, I felt confident that there were already many plays circulating about this supposedly forgotten figure in the American political landscape, and that American theatre had surely jumped in to take a closer look after the election.

I was completely wrong.

Perhaps I had been misled into believing that American theatre was addressing the issues of this group because of a limited number of plays. I had unwittingly expanded the anecdotal evidence into a solid trend. This kind of empirically unsupported generalization is characteristic of human thinking, as Daniel [End Page 13] Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and other behavioral scientists have found. As a speies, we tend to be lazy and will extrapolate from a meager data set rather than undertake the hard work of fully analyzing a question or problem.

One very high-profile play may have contributed considerably to my false impression. Lynn Nottage's Sweat, which opened at the Public Theater in New York on November 3, 2016, sounded as if it had been written with the surprise results of the election in mind. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for a Tony Award. The play transferred to Broadway but closed after twenty-four previews and 105 regular performances, a respectable run for a non-musical in New York commercial theatre.

Sweat is a fairly old-fashioned play, running chronologically and logically. Its characters personify the unemployed or underemployed worker whose surefire, good-wage job at the factory is becoming extinct. Like many plays in the American canon, such as William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life and Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, it takes place in a bar. Sweat earnestly embraces the cause of the working class in America and shows how economic downturn manifests itself in spoiled relationships, lost lives, animosity toward immigrants, and racial bias. Though it does have a slight focus on the women in this situation, Sweat trains its eye broadly on the social problems caused by the departure of manufacturing from these communities.

Before I investigated, I believed that, apart from Sweat, theatre offered many similarly themed plays that touched on the lives of the dispossessed worker, in keeping with its tradition of sympathy for the underclasses throughout the twentieth century. Annie Baker's 2014 Pulitzer Prize–winning The Flick featured people in dead-end jobs, for example. I thought of American theatre's long history of sympathizing with the downtrodden laborer and even communism. Eugene O'Neill often lent a sympathetic ear to the working class and the oppressed. Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty, and indeed much of the theatre movement with which he was involved during the 1930s—funded in part by the U.S. government—looked at the plight of the working class and the inequities of wealth distribution, and encouraged the contemplation of socialism and communism as alternative systems. In the 1940s and 1950s, the plays of Tennessee...


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