Playwrights, Production and Performance:
American Theater in the 20th Century
January 25 - June 8, 2011
Tim Murray and Laurie Rizzo
Theater Leading into the 20th Century
American theater existed prior to the Revolution, beginning in Southern cities and spreading northward to Philadelphia and New York. Most East Coast cities and several Western cities had theaters by the early nineteenth century and by 1825 New York had become the American theatrical center.
As a new nation, American theater had not yet developed its own identity and was heavily influenced by Europe, especially English theater. Nineteenth century audiences enjoyed theatrical spectacles including; minstrel shows, burlesques, honky tonk, Wild West shows, circuses, vaudeville, and musicals. American drama primarily consisted of melodramas, farce and poetic dramas. As the century progressed, American theater became influenced by American literary trends. The Realism movement stimulated a rise in realism in American drama, which began towards the end of the nineteenth century and marked a major shift in theater leading into the twentieth century.
Throughout the twentieth century, several other aesthetic, political and social movements have emerged. Like Realism, most of these movements were not isolated to the theater, but rather were larger reactions to cultural and societal
changes that were influencing all of the arts.
Oscar Wilde said,
“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
As a powerful and often overlooked medium in a technology driven-world, theater has consistently challenged social, political and cultural norms. Theater played an important role in these movements. Most playwrights did not limit themselves to one style of writing or participating in only one movement. These playwrights experimented not only with their own writing, but also with pushing the limits of what the theater was capable of being.