50 American Playwrights That Everyone Should Know – Part III

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 third part of my list of 50 American playwrights that everyone should know…

21.  Edward Albee (b. 1928

During the post-WW2 era of American theatre, Albee established himself as one of the most influential and critically acclaimed playwrights of his generation. Widely considered to be one of the greatest playwrights associated with absurdism in theatre, he has continued to experiment in playwriting even in the 21st century. His most well-known works include The Zoo Story, The Sandbox and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

22.  Woody Allen (b. 1935)

 For decades, Allen has been known primarily for having one of the most prolific careers in the history of filmmaking. However, he has also written some notable works for the stage, as well. Perhaps the most notable of these plays are Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam. Unfortunately, much of his long career has been somewhat overshadowed in later years by a controversial personal life.

23.  James Baldwin (1924-1987)

 One of the most significant social critics of his time, Baldwin was known for writing several essays on various issues related to race, class and sexuality. While he was primarily known for other forms of writing and for his political activism, he also was known for writing two major plays: The Amen Corner and Blues for Mister Charlie, both of which touched on themes similar to those that were explored in his essays.

24.  Truman Capote (1924-1984)

Often associated with the Southern Gothic literary movement, Capote was primarily known as a widely successful author during his lifetime. However, he also wrote a few notable works for the stage and screen, including a stage adaptation of his novella The Grass Harp, as well as the Broadway musical House of Flowers. It’s worth wondering if this brilliant writer might have done more writing for theatre or film later in his life, had he not lost his battle with cancer at the age of 59.

25.  Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

 Despite her short-lived career – having succumbed to cancer at the age of 34 – few playwrights have had the same impact through writing several plays that Hansberry had with just one play. With her highly successful A Raisin in the Sun, she became the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway in 1959. Since her passing, the play has remained popular in the theatre community, and it has also led to film and musical adaptations.

26.  Joseph Heller (1923-1999)

Few satirical writers in the 20th century had been more notable than Heller. While he is mostly remembered for his comedic novel Catch-22 – the title of which has since come to be a frequently used term in the English language – he also wrote some works for the stage and screen. His works in theatre include a stage adaptation of Catch-22, as well as We Bombed in New Haven and Clevinger’s Trial.

27.  Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933)

Although he also penned works for the stage and the screen, McCarthy is primarily known for being one of the greatest novelists of his generation. He is responsible for writing great books such as The Road, Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, the latter of which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film. However, he also wrote two plays: The Stonemason and The Sunset Limited, with the latter of which was adapted into an HBO film by Tommy Lee Jones.

28.  Neil Simon (b. 1927)

Notable for becoming the first living playwright to have a New York theater named in his honor, Neil Simon wrote several notable works over the course of a half-century. Earlier works include Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. However, his most critically acclaimed work is his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Lost in Yonkers. Many of these works are notable for their rare mixture of comedy and seriousness that his audiences find easy to relate to.

29.  Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

One of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century, Vidal was a highly prolific writer and commentator whose work dealt with a variety of different political issues. While he primarily wrote novels and essays, he also wrote some notable works for both theatre and film. His works for the stage include Visit to a Small Planet, The Best Man, Weekend and An Evening with Richard Nixon.

30.  Lanford Wilson (1937-2011)

While perhaps not as well-known as Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, Wilson was one of the most admired and respected writers of American realism in theatre during the 20th century in his lifetime. Of his many works – which largely touched on certain social and romantic themes – his most critically acclaimed is Talley’s Folly, which won him the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award nomination. (He would go on to actually win a Tony for future works.) Other notable works that he penned include Fifth of July, Angels Fall and Burn This.

Stay tuned for Part IV 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).