So recently I posed the following question on Twitter:
what was the last play that both (a) had some measure of success getting produced and (b) represented something new in the theater?
Twitter being Twitter, of course, the conversation was limited to 140 character bursts. Even still, the question got further clarified and some answers were given (you can find most of it in my timeline), leading me to this conclusion:
so what we’re saying is: there hasn’t been a massively *important *and *successful *play* since ANGELS IN AMERICA?
Now of course, this is about an hour conversation between maybe ten folks on Twitter. Hardly comprehensive. But it seems a little surprising to me, and certainly worth investigating. So I bring it here, where we can discuss it in a bit more detail.
Towards that goal, I’ll try to define my criteria a bit better. I used the terms “important” and “successful” about, but I’ll modify them slightly. I think I’m asking about “importance” as the overall descriptor here. If a play is “new” (as defined below) and “successful” (also defined below), I’d argue that it becomes more and more important. Of course you can quibble with that, but we’ve got to frame the question somehow, right? So let’s agree on that.
On the topic of “new,” I’d factor in one or more of these:
*some kind of new/novel form — and it doesn’t have to be on the level of Brecht or Beckett; I’d consider plays like M. Butterfly, Fences, and Zoot Suit to be trying something different. Basically, something outside of the straightforward realism that seems to dominate our stage (bonus points if we can see other plays that have followed in that plays footsteps);
*some kind of social interest/awareness/relevance — I wouldn’t say that something like Ruined is groundbreaking in form, but to have that subject matter in front of major theater audiences nationwide means a whole lot. Similarly, a musical like In The Heights, which doesn’t push a social message, can still have important resonance based on the musical forms it brings to a wider audience.
And that “wider audience” remark leads to the “successful” part of the equation:
*critical success/awards: if a play wins the Pulitzer, it enters sort of rarefied air. A play doesn’t have to have been given a ton of awards to be “important,” but it’s hard to argue that awards don’t push plays deeper into the conversation.
*an audience: for a lot of plays, this is the real test. Do people come to see the play? Does it have long runs? Again, you don’t have to run forever to be important, but if people don’t see the play, what kind of importance can you really have?
*educational impact: if you were going to be teaching a history of theater survey course, would this play make it onto your curriculum? And what would you say about it?
I’m not necessarily looking for plays that hit on of all of these fronts (although Angels in America and Rent (the two shows of my theatrical life that really seem to fit the bill) certainly came close. But plays that are truly important — well, I imagine they’d need pretty good marks across the board.
So here’s my slightly modified question: using the criteria above, what are The Most Important Plays Since Angels in America?
Answer in the comments.
UPDATE: Naming plays is helpful. What would be more helpful is talking about why you think those plays fit the bill.
UPDATE: Let’s add one more factor into the conversation: impact outside of the world of theater. This can include bringing new audiences into the theater, spawning a movie or television show that reaches a wider audience, changing the way people think about a topic or person — any of that. And yes, I realize that (a) this eliminates a lot of plays and (b) isn’t the goal of many plays. But still. If we’re talking about importance, you should get points for breaking through into the real world.
And that, of course, leads me to one of my favorite questions: what about Tyler Perry?