You Gotta Know These American Plays
- Our Town (Thornton Wilder, 1938). A sentimental story that takes place in the village of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire just after the turn of the 20th century, Our Town is divided into three acts: “Daily Life” (Professor Willard and Editor Webb gossip on the everyday lives of town residents); “Love and Marriage” (Emily Webb and George Gibbs fall in love and marry); and “Death” (Emily dies while giving birth, and her spirit converses about the meaning of life with other dead people in the cemetery). A Stage Manager talks to the audience and serves as a narrator throughout the drama, which is performed on a bare stage.
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Eugene O’Neill, 1956). O’Neill wrote it fifteen years earlier and presented the manuscript to his third wife with instructions that it not be produced until 25 years after his death. Actually produced three years after he died, it centers on Edmund and the rest of the Tyrone family, but is really an autobiographical account of the dysfunction of O’Neill’s own family, set on one day in August 1912. The father is a miserly actor, while the mother is a morphine addict, and the brother is a drunk; they argue and cut each other down throughout the play.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Edward Albee, 1962). The author Virginia Woolf has little to do with the story, except that Martha sings the title to George when she is mad at him in Act I. In fact, Albee got the title from graffiti he saw on a men’s room wall. In the drama, George is a professor who married Martha, the college president’s daughter, but the two dislike each other. Martha invites another couple, the instructor Nick and his wife Honey, for drinks after a party for her father. All four of them get drunk, and they end up bickering over their flawed marriages: Besides George and Martha’s problems, Honey is barren, and Nick married her for her money.
- A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947). Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski represent Williams’s two visions of the South: declining “old romantic” vs. the harsh modern era. Blanche is a Southern belle who lost the family estate, and is forced to move into her sister Stella’s New Orleans apartment. Stella’s husband Stanley is rough around the edges, but sees through Blanche’s artifice; he ruins Blanche’s chance to marry his friend Mitch by revealing to Mitch that Blanche was a prostitute. Then, after Blanche confronts Stanley, he rapes her, driving her into insanity. The drama was developed into a movie, marking the breakthrough performance of method actor Marlon Brando.
- A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry, 1959). Her father’s 1940 court fight against racist housing laws provided the basis for Hansberry’s play about the Younger family, who attempt to move into an all-white Chicago suburb but are confronted by discrimination. The first play by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway, it also tore down the racial stereotyping found in other works of the time. The title comes from the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" (often called “A Dream Deferred”).
- The Crucible (Arthur Miller, 1953). Miller chose the 1692 Salem witch trials as his setting, but the work is really an allegorical protest against the McCarthy anti-Communist “witch-hunts” of the early 1950s. In the story, Elizabeth Proctor fires the servant Abigail Williams after she finds out Abigail had an affair with her husband. In response, Abigail accuses Elizabeth of witchcraft. She stands trial and is acquitted, but then another girl accuses her husband, John, and as he refuses to turn in others, he is killed, along with the old comic figure, Giles Corey. Also notable: Judge Hathorne is a direct ancestor of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
- Death of a Salesman (Arthur Miller, 1949). This play questions American values of success. Willy Loman is a failed salesman whose firm fires him after 34 years. Despite his own failures, he desperately wants his sons Biff and Happy to succeed. Told in a series of flashbacks, the story points to Biff’s moment of hopelessness, when the former high school star catches his father Willy cheating on his mother, Linda. Eventually, Willy can no longer live with his perceived shortcomings, and commits suicide in an attempt to leave Biff with insurance money.
- Mourning Becomes Electra (Eugene O’Neill, 1931). This play is really a trilogy, consisting of “Homecoming,” “The Hunted,” and “The Haunted.” Though it is set in post-Civil War New England, O’Neill used Aeschylus’s tragedy The Oresteia as the basis for the plot. Lavinia Mannon desires revenge against her mother, Christine, who with the help of her lover Adam Brant has poisoned Lavinia’s father Ezra; Lavinia persuades her brother Orin to kill Brant. A distressed Christine commits suicide, and, after Orin and Lavinia flee to the South Seas, Orin cannot stand the guilt and kills himself as well, leaving Lavinia in the house alone.
- The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, 1944). Partly based on Williams’ own family, the drama is narrated by Tom Wingfield, who supports his mother Amanda and his crippled sister Laura (who takes refuge from reality in her glass animals). At Amanda’s insistence, Tom brings his friend Jim O’Connor to the house as a “gentleman caller” for Laura. While O’Connor is there, the horn on Laura’s glass unicorn breaks, bringing her into reality, until O’Connor tells the family that he is already engaged. Laura returns to her fantasy world, while Tom abandons the family after fighting with Amanda.
- The Iceman Cometh (Eugene O’Neill, 1939). A portrait of drunkenness and hopeless dreams. Regular patrons of the End of the Line Café anticipate the annual arrival of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman, but in 1912 he returns to them sober. After the patrons reveal their “pipe dreams,” Hickey implores them to give up those dreams and lead productive lives. The “Iceman” is supposed to represent the “death” found in reality.
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams, 1955). Centers on a fight between two sons, Gooper and Brick, over the estate of their father “Big Daddy” Pollitt, who is dying of cancer. After his friend Skipper dies, ex-football star Brick turns to alcohol and will not have sex with his wife Maggie (“the cat”). Yet Maggie announces to Big Daddy that she is pregnant in an attempt to force a reconciliation with—and win the inheritance for—Brick.
- The Little Foxes (Lillian Hellman, 1939). Set on a plantation in 1900, Hellman attempts to show that by this time any notion of antebellum Southern gentility has been destroyed by modern capitalism and industrialism. Three Hubbard siblings (Regina and her two brothers) scheme to earn vast riches at the expense of other family members, such as Regina’s husband Horace and their daughter Alexandra. The title is taken from the Old Testament Song of Solomon: “the little foxes that spoil the vines.”
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.