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The Cambridge History of American Theatre

Book description

This is an authoritative and wide-ranging history of American theatre in all its dimensions, from theatre building to playwriting, directors, performers, and designers. Engaging the theatre as a performance art, a cultural institution, and a fact of American social and political life, the history addresses the economic context that conditioned the drama presented. The history approaches its subject with a full awareness of relevant developments in literary criticism, cultural analysis, and performance theory. At the same time, it is designed to be an accessible, challenging narrative. All volumes include an extensive overview and timeline, followed by chapters on specific aspects of theatre. Volume Three examines the development of the theatre after World War II, through the productions of Broadway and beyond and into regional theatre across the country. Contributors also analyze new directions in theatre design, directing, and acting, as well as key plays and playwrights through the 1990s.

Reviews

‘Nowhere has the American theatre been treated to such a thorough discussion of its culture, plays and players, directors, designers, architects and producers, also encompassing the development and transformation of the theatre within the country’s changing social and political climate.’

Michael Whitlatch Source: Journal of Theatre Research International

‘All three volumes have greatly contributed to a better understanding of the American theatre as a reflection of the changing political, social and cultural face of the United States.’

Michael Whitlatch Source: Journal of Theatre Research International

‘Wilmeth and Bigsby’s history is the finest written about the American theatre in many years. A must for all college and university libraries.’

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  • 1 - American Theatre in Context: 1945–Present
    pp 87-162
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521669597.003
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The years between the two world wars are now seen as a golden age in American theatre and drama. Much of the postwar theatre was dependent for its success on a strong visual realization and an emotionally energetic acting style. At the start of the nineteenth century New York City emerged as the commercial and theatrical capital of the nation. By the late nineteenth century, American theatre was essentially divided into New York and 'the Road', touring theatre that originated in or emanated from New York. By the early 1950s, most people involved with the Broadway theatre began to sound a note of panic as they recognized the situation. One response to the decline of the theatre was the emergence of Off- Broadway. Perhaps the deepest embodiment of the spirit of disaffection and one of the strongest forces in the shaping of an American aesthetic for the fifties were the Beat writers.
  • 2 - A Changing Theatre: Broadway to the Regions
    pp 163-293
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521669597.004
  • View abstract
    Summary
    From 1950 onwards, Broadway had to struggle to find an identity in an increasingly obstreperous performance culture. As the seventies began, Broadway was in a state of acute paralysis. The early seventies was Broadway's direst period. In the 1970-71 season, there were fifty-six shows, only eight of which were straight plays originating on Broadway. In a way, more disheartening than the dwindling number of productions and their high prices by 1980, was the utter predictability of the Broadway menu, season after season, for almost the next two decades. Serious drama would be largely brought in from the regional theatre and the West End. In the dismal days of Broadway in the seventies, when the British play overran American efforts, there was atleast the comfort that the American musical was commercial and artistically dominant. The Wooster Group and Mabou Mines have been most prominent in what some have called the 'second Wave' of Off-Off Broadway experimentation.
  • 3 - The Plays and Playwrights
    pp 294-418
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521669597.005
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The work of American playwrights who began extending the boundaries of dramatic form in ways that both imitated and anticipated such European experiments as Surrealism, Dadaism, Expressionism, and epic theatre. Arthur Miller sets the play in the suburban backyard, with Keller surrounded by the comfortable domestic routine that characterized the lives of so many following the disruptive war years. The postwar American stage also hosted a number of writers who had established reputations before the war, most notably Lillian Hellman, Maxwell Anderson, Clifford Odets, and Elmer Rice. If there was a playwright who shared the respect of Arthur Miller and Williams in the fifties, with which he dramatized the American family, it was William Inge. In 1956, an American production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot left the American theatre reeling. Among the first to react to the Beckett production were Jack Gelber and Edward Albee, who took the lead in redefining, and relocating, the American play.
  • 4 - Musical Theatre since World War II
    pp 419-465
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521669597.006
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The most commonly heralded aspect of the postwar theatre is the collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Both had been major figures in the musical theatre when they first collaborated on Oklahoma!. Given the success of South Pacific, they clone it with another exotic musical about cultural collision based on literary work, The King and I. South Pacific mines another of the new trends of the 1940s, an interest in serious social issues of politics and race. In addition to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the forties also saw the beginning of the other major music-theatre writing team of the forties and fifties. As the musical theatre entered the fifties, there were two clear trends, the developing 'musical play' and the traditional 'musical comedy'. With smaller theatres and less financial pressure, Off-Broadway sought to encourage experimentation. James Rado's and Gerome Ragni's Hair use of rock music brought amplification into the theatre, and its use of nudity attracted much notice.
  • 5 - Directors and Direction
    pp 466-489
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521669597.007
  • View abstract
    Summary
    In the 1945-1960 section, the names of new postwar directors mentioned, are accompanied by the year of their first Broadway production. New plays continued to benefit from the direction of old guard members, who were joined by several substantial postwar competitors, including Martin Ritt, and Joseph Anthony. The dominant mode of postwar acting and directing, known as 'the Method', was based on the American adaptation of Konstantin Stanislavsky's actor training system, filtered through the lens of the Group Theatre of the thirties. One of the most momentous postwar developments took place in the musical theatre, where choreographers began to direct. Method-influenced, Belgian-born Ulu Grosbard was one of the few important directors to leap from Off-Broadway to Broadway without a company affiliation. Off- and Off-Off Broadway became principal starting places for most state-of the-art directing careers, many of which then became the bedrock of the non-profit regionals. Attention must be paid to a handful of revolutionaries who have burst the theatre's seams.
  • 6 - Actors and Acting
    pp 490-513
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521669597.008
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The Group Theatre was the single most important institution for actor training in the history of acting in America. Regardless of differing opinions of Strasberg, however, Group actors were united in their commitment to developing a performing style of psychological revelation based in a secure and systematic technique. In the fall of 1947 three Group alumni, Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, and Cheryl Crawford, who once again assumed fund-raising responsibilities, founded The Actors Studio. Studio members perhaps initially sensed the contradictions in Strasberg's temperament, the pull between art and commerce, between idealistic attention to craft and the pursuit of fame, when Marilyn Monroe first began to attend sessions at The Actors Studio in 1955. Historically, the musical theatre had always been a star-driven form, and from 1945 at least through the mid-sixties a series of memorable performances were by stars headlining tailor-made vehicles. The experimental theatre, in contrast, has fostered a counter-tradition which rejects the seamless realist approach.
  • 7 - American Theatre Design Since 1945
    pp 514-533
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521669597.009
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The history of contemporary American theatre design, that is, the design of scenery, costumes, and lighting in the United States after World War II, can actually be traced back to the production of The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife. A critical event in the history of costume design was the actors' strike in 1919 for better wages and improved working conditions. One of the key figures in the early history of lighting design is Stanley R. McCandless. One of the major factors in the globalization process was the proliferation of theatre activity that occurred between 1965, when the National Endowment for the Arts was founded, and the mid-eighties. The design of rock concerts, and how the design of rock concert lighting consequently influenced theatre design, is a fascinating phenomenon. The twentieth century has witnessed great advances in the way theatre productions have been designed.
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