100 Greatest American Plays
Thomas S. Hischak
Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017
Over time, theatregoers and practitioners develop their own mental list of favorite plays, though they may never bother to commit their list to paper. We are, of course, each entitled to our own criteria for the selections we make of “best” or “greatest” – or whatever adjective we wish to apply. Leading American theatre historian Thomas S. Hischak has committed his list to paper, providing in the process an excellent, highly entertaining companion to which the rest of us may compare our own lists.
The inevitable problem of a book like this is the limitations it imposes on itself. In this case, 100 plays is the limit, surely making choices difficult. It is hard to imagine, for example, that David Belasco’s The Heart of Maryland or J. Hartley Manners’s Peg O’My Heart are more deserving of inclusion than, say, Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten or David Mamet’s American Buffalo. However, O’Neill is amply represented by five plays (Anna Christie, Ah, Wilderness!, The Emperor Jones, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh) and Mamet less so by one (Glengarry Glen Ross), but it is doubtful that all but the most sophisticated of American theatre lovers are likely to hunt up the Belasco or Manners plays for a reading. Too bad, in a sense, but plays still alive on the stage, one could argue, probably deserve inclusion before landmarks no longer viable for production.
On the other hand, having now played devil’s advocate, I would point out that Hischak has done an admirable job of representing the full range of American plays from some of the earliest (Royall Tyler’s The Contrast and Anna Cora Mowatt’s Fashion) to recent cutting-edge dramas such as Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. Even better, he has represented popular Broadway fare like Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner alongside some of the most challenging of works in the American canon, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America or Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. The expanding view of what is “American” and issues of changing values are also reflected in the range of plays featured with multicultural themes, works by women and authors of color, and those of diverse backgrounds.
Superbly reproduced rare production images accompany many entries, each of which also includes a mini-biography of the play’s author, a brief bit of dialogue, short critical quotes from then and now, and production information about the play’s original staging and, where appropriate, subsequent revivals. The essays each provide an overview of the plot and anecdotes about the play that are invariably informative and entertaining. Hischak also provides his reader a handy reference by which to compare, including appendices of Pulitzer Prizes, New York Drama Criticism Circle Awards, and Tony Award winners for Best Play. As well, handlists of the playwrights, a chronological list of the plays featured, and a bibliography, as well as a thorough index, make this book a useful resource and a fun read.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro