When was the last time you curled up with a cup of coffee and a good play? If you’re like many people, the answer might be not since Mrs. Johnson’s high school English class, or, more likely never. Dramatic works are both literary texts and performable pieces of art, best experienced live with all the senses engaged.
Each year the Pulitzer Prize committee recognizes a dramatist for their ability to create innovative, relevant drama. Instituted in 1917 by Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian-born immigrant who became a journalist, newspaper magnet, and eventual founder of the Columbia University School of Journalism, the Pulitzer Awards honor excellence in journalism (print and online newspapers), photography, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, music, and drama. The committee announces prize winners each April and is affiliated with Columbia University and the Columbia University School of Journalism. Only original play texts may receive nominations, not a text based on a production or other literary work. Over the decades, the Pulitzer committee has undergone criticism for its selection and nominating practices. In several cases, the committee’s advisory board, consisting of Columbia University trustees, has overturned a selection for reasons that ranged from a lack of maturity in the writing to an abundance of profanity or sexual themes. Here are ten of the most provocative and long-lasting works to win the Pulitzer for Drama in the last century.
Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, pub. 1947, Pulitzer, 1948: “I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers,” whispers Blanche, the doe-eyed Southern belle making a slow, riveting descent into psychological, sexual, and emotional violence during an ill-fated attempt to reconnect with her sister, Stella. Blanche Dubois travels to New Orleans to visit with her sister, Stella, and her husband Stanley Kowalski. Born of Southern gentility, the sisters’ lives have taken much different paths: Blanche remained a school teacher, caring for the family estate and her failing parents while Stella married Stanley, a rough-hewn, blue collar man, and settled in New Orleans. Not long into her visit Blanche clashes with the working class, aggressively virile Stanley (performed on Broadway and later in film by Marlon Brando) becoming both fascinated and repulsed by the brutish man of the house. As the two sisters struggle to reconcile their different life choices, events escalate within the household to a shattering climax that alters the lives of these ordinary individuals forever. Streetcar is a gripping emotional and psychological portrait of class and gender relations in early-twentieth-century America.
Death of A Salesman, Arthur Miller, pub. 1949, Pulitzer, 1949: Over six decades after its publication, Death of a Salesman remains a staple of high school and college literary curricula and continues to attract audiences to productions of the play all over America. Death of a Salesman provides a snapshot of a contentious time in American culture at the start of the 1950s, fraught with change. At the heart of the play is the quietly dignified Loman family. Willy Loman, the family patriarch, is bearing witness to his own professional extinction as his salesman trade begins to drop away and he becomes increasingly irrelevant in corporate landscape littered with white collars of younger men. Loman’s personal failures are projected through the actions of his sons, Biff and Happy, both caught between wanting to please their father and wanting to find their own way as young, American men. Miller uses the Lomans to paint an achingly poignant portrait of an average family grappling with fundamental themes such as the myth of the American dream, the problems with idealized male identity, the acceleration of corporate America, and the capacity to find love, grace, and forgiveness in the face of unthinkable circumstances.
A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill, pub. 1956, Pulitzer, 1957: Eugene O’Neill wrote the book on awkward family gatherings, especially those rife with alcoholism, substance abuse, hidden resentments, and emotional disorders. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night unfolds over the course of one day at the Connecticut home of the Tyrones. James Tyrone, an aging actor and alcoholic, drifts through the interactions with his family: James Jr., a womanizing alcoholic often compared to his father; Edmund, James’ younger brother, an intellectually inclined young man, versed in poetry and Socialism, and suffering from tuberculosis; and Mary, the family matriarch and morphine addict. Broken up into two acts, the story revolves around a toxic cycle of private admissions, lethal accusations, the desire to wound, and heart breaking attempts at reconciliation and healing. Addiction, disease, and the emotional trauma that comes with living in a climate of acute psychological dysfunction form the crux of this play thought to be autobiographical in nature and one of O’Neill’s masterworks.
A Chorus Line, James Kirkwood and Edward Kleban, lyrics Nicholas Dante, pub. 1976, Pulitzer 1976: Seventeen dancers compete for eight roles. It’s just another day on the Great White Way with hard working anybodies hoping to become super star somebodies by paying their dues one high kick at a time. A Chorus Line pays homage to the legions of dancers attempting to make their entree onto American stages through blood, sweat, tears, and sheer determination. The musical follows a group of dancers on a typical audition. Zach, the faceless director who holds the fate of these hopefuls in his hands, wants to know more about these men and women then their dance moves. Through a series of musical numbers, each cast member reveals personal information ranging from insecurities over body image, anxiety around sexuality, and family resentments that are both painful and humorous. The show culminates with the ensemble number, One, where the dancers, outfitted in identical sequined tuxedos, blend together, shedding their identity and vulnerability to take up the top hat and cane of theatrical anonymity. A Chorus Line not only brought to light the grueling and demoralizing theatrical audition process during a time when theatre was surging in America, but it also pushed the boundaries of content by discussing issues such as sexuality and the show business gender double standard.
Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet, pub. 1983, Pulitzer, 1984: “It’s not a world of men,” says Roma, a real estate salesmen, “It’s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, office holders…we are the members of a dying breed.” Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is the late-twentieth century, professionally virile salesman who has replaced the anemic Willy Loman. The play presents a masculine business world fueled by greed, competition, and desperation. Set in the early 1980s, Glengarry portrays a group of real estate salesmen, preying on ordinary people for their next sale and pitted against one another, vying for clients, commission, and bonus rewards. The tension amongst the salesman explodes when a packet of prospective client names or “leads” is stolen, pushing the men to their mental and moral edges as each fights for more than his career, but for sheer survival.
Fences, August Wilson, pub. 1983, Pulitzer, 1987: August Wilson renders the post-war African American experience in searing detail. Fences illuminates the life of Troy Maxson, a former baseball player turned garbage man, and his patchwork family consisting of two illegitimate children and a brother suffering from severe brain trauma after serving in the war. Troy struggles with the tension between his former status as a respected ball player and his current plight as an over-worked, under paid family man unable to fully accept his responsibilities as an African American man, father, and husband. The play revisits Arthur Miller’s theme of the American Dream, asking difficult questions about what this dream means for African Americans. It also throws the tenuous nature of race relations and racial identity into relief, challenging spectators’ political and social beliefs.
The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy Wasserstein, pub. 1988, Pulitzer, 1989: Wasserstein’s Heidi Holland is a woman coming into her own as a young adult at the same time the American feminist movement decided to grow up. The play follows Heidi’s journey from a college graduate in the 1960s to her role as a professor of art historian in the 1980s. Feminism, in all its contradictions, hopeful promises, and shortcomings informs Heidi’s path of political, personal, and social self-discovery. In one scene, Heidi gives a lecture titled “Women Where Are We Going?” to a group of young women from a New England finishing school. Wasserstein captures the ambivilance of a generation raised on feminism’s triumphs when Heidi states: “We’re all concerned, intelligent, good women. It’s just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn’t feel stranded.” The Heidi Chronicles provides a humorous and thoughtful look back on a movement that influenced so many young women and a look around at late-twentieth-century attitudes toward women and the politics shaping women’s lives.
Angels in America: Part One, Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner, pub. 1993, Pulitzer, 1993: Tony Kushner’s epic seven hour play, performed in two parts, charts a political, social, religious, and personal rumination on the HIV/AIDS epidemic that ravaged America in the 1980s. Though other playwrights produced work attempting to break the silence around this disease, Kushner’s play offered an unflinching examination on more than the disease, but of the cultural and ideological attitudes culpable for shaping a collective understanding of the disease (and by extension homosexuality) and the public response to the epidemic. Angels interweaves narratives of characters impacted by the disease, including Prior Walters who discovers he has AIDS and his partner, Louis, who, unable to cope with Prior’s diagnosis, eventually abandons his lover. The play also re-imagines the life and demise of Roy Cohn, the notorious McCarthyist lawyer and closeted homosexual.
RENT, Jonathan Larson, pub. 1994, Pulitzer, 1996: “How do you document real life, when real life’s getting more like fiction each day?” inquires Mark, a struggling filmmaker, living with a community of friends in New York City’s East Village. These are the kinds of questions that Mark and his urban family ask themselves as they struggle to make sense of a world poised on the verge of change at the end of the millennium. RENT is a rock opera style musical that gives center stage to the lives, loves, and challenges of those living on the fringes of society. At the heart of Larson’s story is Roger, a former rock musician and recovering junky coming to terms with his HIV status. Roger is joined by Mark, Tom Collins, a friend and academic anarchist, his transvestite lover, Angel, and Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen along with her current girlfriend, Joann. Complications ensue for the reclusive Roger when he falls in love with Mimi, an exotic dancer and heroin addict, who also lives with HIV. The musical knits together issues of love, loss, community, capitalism, and racial and sexual identity with searing guitar riffs that carry Larson’s message of hope and redemption through from the first chord to the last.
Topdog/Underdog, Suzan Lori-Parks, pub. 2001, Pulitzer, 2002: Lincoln and Booth. These men bear more than famous names, they bear the burden of American history and its undercurrents of race, class, and gender. They also happen to be two brothers at the center for Suzan Lori-Parks’ riveting drama, Topdog/Underdog. Lincoln and Booth are brothers who work together managing to make a meager living on their respective games. For Lincoln it is performing a hacky imitation of the president that bears his namesake, and for Booth it is running card games. The play explores themes of sibling rivalry, greed, poverty, race, and what it means to be a black man in America. Though Parks’ style is often obtuse, the emotionally wrought play transcends any stylistic barriers to create an enthralling and terrifying journey into the heart of deep and troubled fraternal relationships.