50 American Playwrights That Everyone Should Know – Part II

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 or thought-provoking playwrights in the history of American theatre. 

So without further adieu, here is the second part of my list of 50 American playwrights that everyone should know

11.  Horton Foote (1916-2009)

Without a doubt, Foote’s greatest career achievement is penning the 1962 screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird. However, he was also notable for his work that he penned for the stage. Among these works include the English translation of Scarlett – a Japanese musical adaptation of Gone with the Wind – as well as the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Young Man From Atlanta and a biographical series consisting of nine one-act plays entitled The Orphans’ Home Cycle.

12.  Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960) 

While Rodgers and Hammerstein is widely cited as perhaps the most influential duo in the history of American musical theatre, it is Hammerstein who deserves the most credit for writing the scripts for these great Broadways shows, while Rodgers dealt with composing. The musicals which he penned remain some of the most popular of all time. Having won 8 Tonys and 2 Oscars for his work – which included Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific – few writers of musical theatre can compare to Hammerstein.

13.  Moss Hart (1904-1961)

In the early 20th century, Hart became known primarily for his collaborations with George S. Kaufman (see Part I) which received critical acclaim. These works included Once in a Lifetime, Merrily We Roll Along, You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. He was also known for his work as a screenwriter, having penned a few notable film classics for 20th Century Fox.

14.  Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)

 Few female playwrights in the 20th century – if not in all of American history – had enjoyed as much Broadway success as Hellman. Her most notable works include The Children’s Hour, Watch on the Rhine, The Autumn Garden and The Little Foxes, the latter of which received a 1942 film adaptation starring Bette Davis. Unfortunately, her Cold War-era activism – which led to her being blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities – overshadowed much of her achievements in theatre during her later years.

15.  Langston Hughes (1902-1967

A prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was a notable black artist and activist in the 1920s. While perhaps better known for writing poetry and fiction, he also wrote many notable works for the stage. His most notable works in theatre include Mule Bone, Street Scene, Tambourines to Glory and Black Nativity.

16.  William Inge (1913-1973)

Known as the “Playwright of the Midwest” in his time, Inge was known for writing several plays that were focused on small-town life in Middle America. He enjoyed some Broadway successes in the 1950s, the most notable of them being the Pulitzer Prize-winning Picnic. However, his critical failures during the later years of his career were ultimately a factor that led to his suicide at the age of 60.

17.  Arthur Laurents (1917-2011

After a successful career writing for radio and the screen during World War II, Laurents turned his attention to writing for the stage. While his vast body of work also includes a fair amount of straight plays, he is perhaps best known for writing some of the most beloved and critically acclaimed Broadway musicals of all time. These works include West Side Story, Gypsy and Hallelujah, Baby!

18.  Arthur Miller (1915-2005)

One of the most prolific playwrights of the 20th century, Miller remains one of the most popular and celebrated playwrights in American history. He is perhaps best known for the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play Death of a Salesman, widely cited by many as one of the greatest American dramas of all time. His long list of work also includes All My Sons, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge.

19.  Clifford Odets (1906-1963) 

During the Great Depression, Odets emerged as one of the most successful and significant playwrights of his generation. One of the greatest writers of social and political theatre in American history, his work influenced generations of playwrights that followed him. Some of these works include Waiting for Lefty, Paradise Lost, Clash by Night and The Big Knife.

20.  Tennessee Williams (1911-1983

Along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, Williams is considered to be one of the greatest writers of American realism in theatre. While he was initially not very successful as a writer, his unhappiness with his situation was what led him to write the great drama that established his career: The Glass Menagerie. After that came A Streetcar Named Desire, widely considered to be one of the greatest American dramas of all time. While he penned several other works after that, his career eventually endured a steep decline, which fueled his addiction to drugs and alcohol that ultimately led to his death at the age of 71.

Stay tuned for Part III 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).