While doing some research, I got sidetracked when I stumbled upon some old writings on theatre from Harper’s Magazine; they range from corny to embarrassing (by virtue of decades of hindsight) to insightful.

First, from the “Joke” section of “The Editor’s Drawer,” September 1918, I give you, “The Way of the Dramatist”:

“MIGHT I ask how my three-act drama is coming on, sir?  Has it been accepted?” questioned the young dramatist, eagerly.

“The three members of the reading committee have read it,” replied the manager, “and think it will do with one act cut out.”

“I am glad to hear it is no worse, sir,” said its author, breathing a sigh of relief.

“But,” continued the manager, “unfortunately, each one wants to strike out a different act.”

I know, try to contain yourself.

Next, from “What Every Critic Needs to Know” by Walter Prichard Eaton (June 1920 issue)

“[T]he critic has, obviously, a threefold choice.  He can confirm the mob opinion, like a popular lecturer; he can contradict the mob opinion, like G. B. Shaw (perhaps!), or he can be a clown. If he does the first, he is faced with the horrible likelihood of being made a press agent.  If he does the second, he will run amuck of the managing editor about the third day, and lose his job. So he becomes a clown. That is the reason for the extraordinary exhibitions of acrobatic humor in our literary criticism of the hour.”

This quote is interesting to think about from the standpoint of critical legacy…so this is what we’ve inherited?


Finally, here are some ideas to think on from “The Plight of the Dramatist” also by W.P. Eaton (March 1941 issue).

Eaton’s general claim is this: The low point drama was experiencing during the late 30’s/early 40’s was NOT due to the rise of Hollywood cinema, the demands of labor unions, the depression, or the War, but “the failure of the dramatists to find themes which are practical.” He goes on to clarify what he means by “practical”; for him it is the ability of a play to achieve “mass appeal” and do so “instantaneously.”

Does the dramatist’s plight today hinge on this kind of practicality?

Some direct quotes from Prichard:

Dramatic Hierarchy

  • “[I]t is the second-rate dramatist who keeps the theater going, and always has been. There are never enough first-rate

ones to keep one quarter of our theaters open and our actors at work. (..) In all rich eras of the theater, when the best plays were written, there was

invariably a lively production of inferior but sufficiently entertaining drama which was the back log of propserity.”


Prichard narrowed the drama of the early 20th century down to 4 themes:

  • (1) “the struggle of the hero with poverty or with ‘social injustice'” (here he has in mind Gasworthy’s Silver Box, Maxwell Anderson’s Saturday’s Children, and Odets’ Waiting for Lefty)
  • (2) “characters in conflict with boredom, with a stale, flat, or restricted life” (here he has in mind Odet’s Awake and Sing and Elmer Rice’s Street Scene)
  • (3) “the timeless conflict of good and evil” (here he has in mind tragedies, such as those by O’Neill, Maxwell Anderson, and Philip Barry)
  • (4) “the protagonist in conflict with the modern spirit of doubt, irresolution, confusion” (here he cites only one ex., Robert E. Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois)

THOUGHTS? Do any/all of these themes hold true of American drama today?  How else might we classify the themes explored in American       plays in the past decade? the past year?

How does “the plight of the dramatist” today compare to/differ from 1941 when Prichard wrote this piece?

About Walter: (b. 1878-d. 1957) Born in Malden, Ma. Educated at Harvard. Author and Drama Critic for several publications.  In 1933, became Assoc. Prof. of Playwriting at Yale.


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