50 American Playwrights That Everyone Should Know – Part I

Anthony J. Piccione

They are the masterminds behind the plays that theatergoers of all kinds are treated to, whether it’s at the community or professional level. Without them, the actors, directors and designers would not have a brilliant show to bring to life, to begin with. It is true that theatre is a collaborative art form, but of all the roles involved, none of them require more artistic or creative ability than that of the playwright.

It is the playwrights who first create the show that the actors, directors and technicians will ultimately bring to life. Without them, there would be no show to put on in the first place. Yet it seems as if that – despite the enormous role that they play in this process – they do not get nearly as much credit from society for their contributions to the arts and culture as they should, especially here in America.

Personally, not just as a young playwright himself – but as an individual that respects all kinds of artists in theatre and elsewhere – I’d like to see that change, and that is why I have decided to dedicate this five-part series to just 50 playwrights from the United States that everyone – especially those in the theatre community – ought to be familiar with. Each part in this series will contain 10 playwrights – in no particular order – who were among some of the most influential, critically acclaimed and thought-provoking playwrights in the history of American theatre. 

So without further adieu, here are the first 10 out of 50 American playwrights that everyone should know:

1.      David Belasco (1853-1931) 

One of the earliest and most influential figures in the history of American theatre, Belasco was a highly successful producer – known for penning much of his own work – who either wrote, directed or produced over 100 Broadway shows in his lifetime. While he is perhaps best known for adapting Madame Butterfly for the stage, he is also known for plays such as Hearts of Oak, The Heart of Maryland and The Girl of the Golden West.

2.      Clyde Fitch (1865-1909) 

Having penned 36 original plays over the course of his career, Fitch was considered to be the most successful playwright during the early 20th century. Some of his most notable works – which ranged from melodramas to farces – included plays such as Nathan Hale, The Girl with the Green Eyes and The Woman in the Case. Given how prolific he was, it’s hard not to wonder how much more he could have contributed to American theatre, had it not been for his relatively early death at the age of 44.

3.      Robert Frost (1874-1963) 

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Frost was better known for his poetry than for his plays. In his life, he was considered to be one of the most accomplished poets in America. However, given his general contributions to the arts, it seems fitting for him to be on a list that recognizes with work as a playwright. While he wrote quite a few short plays, his most notable work is the comedic play A Masque of Reason.

4.      George S. Kaufman (1889-1961)

 Few comedic writers of his generation had been more accomplished than Kaufman. A frequent collaborator of the Marx Brothers, he wrote several comedic and satirical plays, and was also known for writing several musicals. Of the many plays and musicals that he penned, his two most well-known works are the Pulitzer Prize-winning play You Can’t Take It With You and the Tony Award-winning musical Guys and Dolls.

5.      Steele MacKaye (1842-1894

While he was primarily known as one of the most accomplished inventors in the history of American theatre, MacKaye was also known for writing, directing, producing and acting in many of his own shows. His many productions that he was heavily involved in helped to establish MacKaye as one of the most significant figures in 19th century American theatre. Notable works that he penned include Monaldi, Marriage, Won at Last and Hazel Kirke.

6.      Langdon Elwyn Mitchell (1862-1935

Few American playwrights in the early 20th century were more popular than Mitchell. This was largely because he was especially known for writing roles in his plays that were made for some of the most talented actors of that era. Among his most notable works were In the Season, Becky Sharp, The New York Idea and The New Marriage.

7.      Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

Widely considered to have pioneered the use of realism in American drama, O’Neill remains one of the most renowned and influential playwrights in the history of American theatre. While he also wrote some comedies, he is primarily known for his dramas, which frequently incorporated themes of despair and tragedy. While his most critically acclaimed work is Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he is also known for dozens of other plays, including Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, The Emperor Jones and Strange Interlude.

8.      Noble Sissle (1889-1975) 

One of the great jazz composers of his generation, Sissle is also known for his work in theatre and film. Due to his notability as one of the few memorable African-American theatrical composers of that era, he was a fairly significant figure in the history of musical theatre. Some notable works in theatre include Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies.

9.      Sophie Treadwell (1885-1970

In the early 20th century, few playwrights did more to highlight women’s issues of that time period than Treadwell. Having penned dozens of very different plays with very different styles, they also incorporated several other issues that were relevant to the times, as well as some aspects of her Mexican heritage. Her greatest achievement in theatre is arguably the play Machinal, which is considered to be one of the best examples in history of American expressionism in theatre.

10.  Thornton Wilder (1897-1975

Westminster College of the Arts, Sophomore Maeve Lysnkey and senior Conor Fallon play Rebecca and George Gibbs. 

Westminster College of the Arts, Sophomore Maeve Lysnkey and senior Conor Fallon play Rebecca and George Gibbs. 

Having won the Pulitzer Prize three times in his career, Wilder was both one of the most accomplished playwrights and novelists of his generation, whose work often sought to explore the human condition in America. In theatre, he is best known for writing the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Other works include The Long Christmas Dinner, The Merchant of Yonkers, The Alcestiad: Or, a Life in the Sun and Plays for Bleecker Street.

Stay tuned for Part II of this list! If you have any suggestions for playwrights that you believe should be on this list, feel free to let us know in the comments sections. 

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).

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