The Pulitzer prizes have been established to honor “excellence in journalism and the arts since 1917,” as they say on their web page. While people tend to think of the awards as given for the best journalism, there are categories for the arts, among them, drama.
Let me make an important distinction here. When the Pulitzer committee considers “drama,” they mean, that which is written to be performed on stage, not the opposite of comedy. In fact, some Pulitzer Prize winners in this category have been comedies, and others have been musicals.
If you were to log onto the Pulitzer web page and study the list of winners, you would quickly be able to see that the process of selecting only ten from such an outstanding field is not an easy one. I will have left out some very impressive dramatic literature in my formation of a top ten, but we have to draw the line somewhere, don’t we?
As I often do when paying homage to such an array of quality, I will not quibble over which listed show may be somehow better than another. Instead, I shall list them in chronological order and let you, the well-versed reader, decide if one of the shows deserves to rank above another. Keep in mind that the award is frequently given in the year after the show opened.
Our Town, Thornton Wilder, 1938
Our Town is a gently amusing, but poignant three-act play about life, love and loss in a small, fictional New Hampshire town.
It presents itself to the audience in an odd way: as an ongoing play, in which the main character is “The Stage Manager,” who serves as an interactive narrator. The warm and gentle characters are easy enough to love, but, so well-written is this play, the crusty and irascible ones are too.
At the age of 65, I have almost certainly burned out too many brain cells to learn a big part like The Stage Manager (and it is huge), but I would probably come out of my self-imposed retirement from the stage to play the role of Simon Stimson, the drunken choirmaster. It turns out my dad, who did a small amount of community theater in his time, got to play that role in a long-ago production of the show.
Four or five years ago, I thought I was going to have a chance at it, when a nearby theater group decided to stage Our Town. I made an appointment for an audition, but, the day before I was supposed to show up, I got a call from the producer, telling me the group had cancelled the production because not enough men had expressed an interest in trying out for it.
Despite all the minor irritations that come with the stage, I generally maintain a cheerful outlook throughout, but that decision really and truly perturbed me. Just before that, I had produced my first and only show, the non-musical version of Charlotte‘s Web. In three nights of auditions, we had maybe nine people show up, and two of them were not ready for the stage in any capacity. Did I cancel the production? No, I got on the phone and sang chorus after chorus of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” until I got a cast assembled. At that, I had to step into the show myself, which I hadn’t planned on, with everything else on my plate, in the role of Homer Zuckerman, and then had to re-write portions of the script so that, instead of a goose and a gander, there was just a goose and, instead of a sheep and a lamb, there was just a sheep. Didn’t anybody ever tell those other people that the show must go on?
Okay, end of rant. Suffice it to say that Our Town is entirely worthy of your attention. If you don’t know it and can’t get a chance to see it in the near future, hie yourself off to your local library and read it.
2. Harvey, Mary Chase, 1945
For those who may not be familiar with the play, Harvey is a six-foot talking rabbit, who does not appear onstage. We only have the word of one Mr. Elwood P. Dowd that his friend Harvey talks or even exists.
Although the play has some serious undertones regarding the way our society treats the eccentric among us, it is a very witty tale of how a man and his imaginary friend deal with the people around them, some of whom profess to love him, but none of whom have an easy time understanding him.
I think Elwood P. Dowd may be one of the best comedic characters in the history of the modern theater-not necessarily the funniest, but the best. His monologue about how he met his friend, Harvey, is a classic and, to this day, a favorite among auditioning actors. I’ve been known to use it myself.
By the way, the original stage show was directed by Antionette Perry, after whom the Tony Awards are named, not just for directing this one show, but for an impressive body of work. Ms. Perry did not live to see all five years of the show’s run, but, then, it is axiomatic among actors that, once that opening night curtain goes up, the director’s job is done.
There have been some good movie and television versions of this show, starring people like Jimmy Stewart, Art Carney and Harry Anderson (with Swoosie Kurtz as Elwood’s clueless sister). I’m sure there will be more versions forthcoming, and, to that end, let me note that the first time I saw David Hyde Pierce (in a short-lived sitcom called “The Powers that Be”), I said to myself, “Why, it’s Elwood P. Dowd.”
3. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tenneesee Williams, 1948
Oh, come on. Do you even have to ask?
If you cannot catch the play, there is an impressive movie version, starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh. That will do. There is also an opera. Sadly, it won’t do-a major disappointment.
Still, if you really had your heart set on catching an opera based on a major modern American play, I can highly recommend A View From the Bridge, composed by William Bolcom, with a libretto by the playwright himself, Arthur Miller.
4. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller, 1949
Whoa, speaking of Artie Miller, here he turns up, in the big number four slot with that Salesman thing. Seriously, if Elwood P. Dowd may be the outstanding comedic figure of the 20th Century American stage, then Willy Loman-the title character in this play-may be the tragic one.
A great deal of the play’s story is told to us in flashback, which makes sense, inasmuch as the major theme is Loman’s despair over his wasted life. He is 63 in real time, at the start of the play.
And, while Willy is clearly the dominant figure in the story, the roles of his wife, Linda, and his two sons, Biff and Happy, are well-drawn and challenging in their own right.
There have been any number of productions of this excellent show, not all of which I’ve seen, of course. The one I liked best was the 1985 television production, starring Dustin Hoffman in the lead role.
No words I might conjure up can do justice to the power of this drama.
5. The Teahouse of the August Moon, John Patrick, 1954
Actually, the playwright adopted this very entertaining comedy from the novel of the same name, written by Vern Sneider.
The play deals with the American occupation of Okinawa, immediately after World War II. A number of “correct” people may decry the servile way in which the Japanese villagers are portrayed, but one wonders how aggressive they would have been in real life during that time.
Also, the point of the play is that, by seeming acquiescence, rather than confrontation, the villagers are able to completely thwart all the overbearing ideas of the occupying Americans, while choosing to heed the useful ones.
As I mentioned in an earlier essay, I once saw a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of this play, featuring the talented and convincing Paul Ford (Sgt. Bilko’s commanding officer in the sitcom, You’ll Never Get Rich) in the role of the main foil, Colonel Wainright Purdy. I thought it was the best thing that series ever produced, by which I mean, ever.
6. Fiorello!, Musical, 1960
It is not very often that a musical wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama. To do so, it must really be something. Fiorello! really was something, all right. For an award that began in 1917, Fiorello! was only the third musical to win it.
Theater critic Robert J. Elisberg calls this show, “The Greatest Musical You’ve Never Heard Of.” Yet it won the Tony Award for best musical, in addition to the rare Pulitzer.
The basic story is a romanticized version of the career of Fiorello H. LaGuardia (After whom the airport was named. Now you know.) A crusading attorney, he ran against the Tammany Hall establishment to win a seat in Congress, to the wonderment of all, even his own political backers. I wish I could have found you a clip of the number, “The Name’s LaGuardia,” in which the title character campaigns in the various neighborhoods of his district in English, then Italian, then Yiddish. I got to see the show on Broadway, with the original cast, and this number truly burned the barn.
Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick wrote the music, while Jerome Weidman and George Abbott wrote the book.
As people who know anything about New York’s history are aware, the real LaGuardia eventually became the first Republican mayor of the city in a very long time. The show does not deal with his administration, but, rather, ends at the point of his victory.
Getting back to Elisberg’s comment, Fiorello! features some of the best music composed for the Broadway stage, yet it does not seem to be a popular show in community settings. Perhaps it is, in and around New York, but, in the twenty years I spent doing theater in the Washington, DC area, I only knew of one production of the show anywhere near the area.
Perhaps, as we come to the fiftieth anniversary of the show’s opening, a few theater groups will open their eyes to what they have been missing.
7. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Frank Loesser, 1962
You know something? This show, composed by Loesser and written by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert is OK. It’s not the greatest musical to ever hit the Broadway stage, by a long shot. The pickings must have been pretty slim that year. On the other hand, there have been a number of years when the Pulitzer people didn’t hand out an award at all in this category.
Although I think this show pales in comparison to the one I listed just before, it still is not without its merits. While it is not Frank Loesser’s best work (he composed Guys and Dolls), the show is no slouch. It features such entertaining songs as “Coffee Break,” “The Company Way,” “Brotherhood of Man” and my favorite, “Grand Old Ivy”.
I got to do this show in 1998, and it was fun.
8. The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler, 1969
In 1908 a boxer named Jack Johnson became the heavyweight champion of the world. Jack Johnson was black in an era when America expected all her champions to be white. As if that, in itself, were not galling enough to the majority population, Johnson liked to carry on with white women and even married a few. That is no big deal these days, but it was a HUGE deal in 1908. As a result, a frantic search ensued for a “great white hope” to beat the unpopular champion, hence the name of the show.
The leading man in the show is the champion, named Jack Jefferson, played by a young James Earl Jones. Jane Alexander, as his wife, had the female lead. Both of them won Tony awards for best lead actor and actress in a play.
In many respects, the playwright was true to the real-life Johnson’s story. When no white boxer could be found to beat him, he was arrested on a perversion of the Mann act, having to do with transporting women and girls across state lines for immoral purposes. In other words, it federalized the crime of pimping. To be sure, the act was a great necessity. We may tend to think of those years as a gentler era in our history, but abductions of young girls into forced prostitution was a terrible problem on an alarming scale.
Of course, the real champion (and the fictional one) did not take an unwilling young girl across a state line. He took his wife, who happened to be white. Jefferson manages to flee the country, while out on bail, and continues to defend his championship in exile. One of the great moments in the play is when the champion goes to Mexico, so he can taunt his oppressors close-up. He proclaims that he is going to stand at the border, waving the championship belt and shout across to them, “HERE I IS! HERE I IS!”
In one respect, though, Sackler sold out. Because he had to make liberal use of the word that starts with N in his dialogue, he felt compelled to balance the scales in a very stupid and ham-fisted way. He created a black character who had no relevance whatsoever to the story, but simply showed up from time to time to harangue the audience with massive doses of white guilt. While all the other performers were talking to each other, as well they should, this one guy was snarling at the New York theater-going audience of Klansmen and slave-owners.
Still, even with that one glaring flaw, The Great White Hope was eminently worthy of the Pulitzer Prize that it won.
Oh, by the way, let me just throw in a quick note about the ravages of inflation, particularly as it applies to the Broadway stage. I took a date to see the show and got front-row seats in the mezzanine. Front row mezzanine! Those tickets set me back all of six bucks apiece.
9. Fences, August Wilson, 1987
I think that, at the very least, this is the best play of the 1980s. I have not yet had a chance to see it, but even reading it blew me away.
The main character and leading man is Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player, who must presently make ends meet as a garbage collector. Let’s not call him a sanitation engineer-this story is set in the 1950s.
My favorite character in the cast is Troy’s brother Gabriel, who took shrapnel to the head in World War II and became insane as a result. Even though the play features a black cast, I sort of got the chance to play the crazy brother.
I was substitute teaching in the Montgomery County school system, when I drew an English class that had been given Fences as an assignment. A big part of the assignment involved reading the play aloud in class. As the teacher, I had to do the “casting.” For each character-even the leads-I had to do a little coaxing to get a volunteer.
“Come on, now, who wants to be Troy? You don’t have to read the whole part. We’ll switch off in a little while. Anyone?”
“Okay, I need a young lady to be Rose.” (Troy’s wife). “No, you’re not really married to him, it’s just a play. Anyone?”
But, when it came to Gabriel it was, “WhowantstobeGabriel?Nobody? OkaythenIguessI’lltakethepart.”
This story is so powerful, I will not spoil it even a little bit. See it if you can, but, if not, then read it. That is an order.
10. Rent, Jonathan Larson, 1996
Rent is a wild, high-energy musical, based strongly on the Giacomo Puccini opera, La Boheme. It is not exactly the same story, modernized. It has its own voice and its own story to tell, despite the many similarities to the opera. Just as La Boheme represents opera at its best, so does Rent represent the modern Broadway at its best.
The show only recently became available for community and reparatory use, which is how I came to see it. No, I was not a performer. Everyone on the stage, including the least-visible, most infrequent player, required far more energy than I could muster at my age. I saw it as an audience member and was glad to give it a standing ovation at the end. See it yourself and, if the company members know what they’re doing, maybe you’ll feel the need to rise from your seat as well.
And so it came to pass, your narrator listed his ten favorite Pulitzer Prize winning dramas, and, lo, the people were mightily pleased that he had finished up at last.
Robert J. Elisberg, Huffington Post
Own observation and experience