This past semester I had the somewhat surreal experience of teaching a course about great American drama as people yelled about making America great again. By day I spoke with my students about how various playwrights handled topics such as “The American Dream” and the life lie, and by night I lead rehearsals with my co-director for the Target Margin Theater lab presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s Marco Millions. Marco Millions both is a terrible and great play, but it was written by a man considered to be America’s greatest playwright. What does all of this mean? What does American drama have to do with greatness? What is Great American Drama? Well, as with so many things in complicated moments of our collective lives, the New York Neo-Futurists are here to help!
Those of you who have read my pieces over the years know how grateful I am for the NY Neos. Their impressive, dynamic, ever-changing work Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind has just ended its run, and will be replaced by a series of new projects which will collaborate more with their fellow Neos in Chicago and San Francisco. Though I’m sad to see TMLMTBGB go, I am equally excited about the projects that will replace it and their newest full-length play, The Great American Drama. In case you couldn’t tell, the minute I heard about this piece I couldn’t wait to know more.
Though the Neos don’t perform the classics, per se, they are no strangers to some of the biggest names in American drama. I first encountered them when they performed The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill: Volume 1, Early Plays/Lost Plays. As the title states, the Neos performed the stage directions from O’Neill’s early plays without any of the interfering dialogue. The piece was brilliant in that it performed each stage direction in a way that both stretched and cemented the boundaries and meanings of O’Neill’s infamous stage directions. They did this again for The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill: Volume 2, with the added surprise of performing one plays stage directions “straight,” without satire or comment. This sense of smart, serious, and hilarious play is what the Neos bring to all of their pieces, and it is why they are the best people to trust with a genre as entrenched in mythos as the Great American Drama. To find out more about what they had in mind, I asked Connor Sampson, Katy-May Hudson, Nicole Hill, Dan McCoy two perhaps impossible questions to answer. Their answers are so interesting and complex that I have simply reproduced them in full for your reading pleasure.
Bess Rowen: What defines Great American Drama for you? Is there a play you can look to as a positive or negative example of it?
Connor Sampson: For me, it’s simple. A Great American Drama is a dramatic work of theatre, of a certain caliber, that was written for the American stage by an American playwright. To that end, there are thousands of examples that are both positive and negative in their representation and in their execution.
Of course, there’s subjectivity to the word great and that subjectivity, I believe, has altered the connotation of the phrase to mean a play that permeates the consciousness of our country and creates its own legacy and, to that end, there are a few plays that have become the definitive cannon (Death of a Salesman, Raisin in the Sun, Fences, Our Town, Long Day’s Journey, etc.) “Great,” however, isn’t the only subjective piece of the phrase. What does it mean to be and/or represent America? Which is a much more complicated and interesting question. Even as art has the incredible capacity to hold a mirror up to nature, there will never be a mirror big enough to capture something so vast—especially something so opaque.
I would say that most people have bought out of the American Dream as a literal truth—in its concept. But, as a country we have claimed hard work as our identity—but work for the sake of work is not necessarily something to be proud of. We have made motion our goal, but we’re divided on what direction we’d like it to be in. Everyone has a dream for themselves and this county. As with any dream, there’s the risk that we might be dreaming ourselves, and our world, somewhere other than the right direction, the successful direction, the moral direction. Some people’s dreams are in conflict with others; while other people’s dreams are to deny and take the lives of the people who dare to dream differently.
But if the purpose of any culture is to steer its participants towards happiness and balance, who’s right? Where’s right? And in a world where borders between countries and cultures continue to become smaller and more blurred, why are we so quick to assume that the culture of the technological world, earth’s most dominating, unstable, and parasitic culture, has any superiority over the Incans? Or, the culture of a river otter for that matter. We have only achieved what all those before us have; a legacy. We have written ourselves the fate we wanted. Future cultures might study us; the ones who saw their own demise but couldn't help themselves.
Or, they might study us; the ones who got lost in the woods we built, but who, together, forged their way out. The Great American Drama is an exploration into finding the best way out; into how we move successfully forward either as artists, as scientists, as Presidents, or as otters. It’s an experiment, conducted by an artist, to try and see if it’s possible to dream correctly and together. I don’t think there’s anything more important than that.
Katy-May Hudson: I believe that the Great American Drama is the tension between the idyllic notion of the American dream and the pursuit of trying to achieve it. As we perform The Great American Drama in January, we will attempt to perform every request sent our way with the all-American ethos that through hard work and determination we can be a success.
For me, the play that best embodies the Great American Drama is Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman. Each character grapples with their own version of the American Dream and the audience is left with the question: Were these ideals realistic or even real in the first place? My hope is that The Great American Drama leaves the audience in a similar state of reflection.
Nicole Hill: As I answer, I'm brought to mind of bulk shopping in cavernous big box stores (that I'm not a member of) or of the portion distortion of big American plates thrust before me (tasty enough but full of morsels not particularly meant for my palate). Indeed, this seeming land of plenty historically referred to as “The Great American Drama” (and any examples I might proffer about it) feel steeped in notions of access, both as far as my being able to afford to see as much of it as I'd like (especially with a mind to the hottest tickets) and how much I’m able to see of myself in it overall, mostly with a mind to race. Not for nothing, my belly is empty on both accounts most often. Times I've felt well fed to this end however: Home, From the Mississippi Delta, Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk (which I had the honor of performing in) and The Colored Museum.
Dan McCoy: If the history of America is a drama, how would we describe its "structure?" What has been its "character arc" so far? How do we "track its journey?" These are the 20th century terms we still tend to impose on drama when discussing its form, and maybe they're useful in this context.
If our history is a drama, what act are we in the midst of? Maybe the third, in which we've reached a crisis point and the remainder of the action will be fallout? In the exciting opening scenes of act 1 we rebelled and established our identity, then struggled internally with, and triumphed temporarily over, the evil lurking within.
In Act 2 we grew in power, marched onto the global stage via industry, invention, and combat. We fought wars both hot and cold, and became used to triumph, until cracks began to show in the armor.
Now, in Act 3, the cracks are gaping, and the enemy lurks both without and within. Our protagonist doesn't know what it sees when it looks in mirror. Is this crisis of identity our hero's main obstacle?
Or is the structure of our drama less American after all, and more French and circular? Are we getting better with each repetition? I hope so, though presently, I'm filled with doubt.
Also, forget all that. I think it's ludicrous to summarize the experiences, stories, struggles and victories of the by-now more that 1/2 billion humans who have called themselves "American" in the container of something as limited as "drama." Our lives don't fit a dramatic structure, certainly not one meant to get me out of the theatre in 90 minute minutes, and in the end, that's what our, or any, national "narrative" consists of: a bunch of individual lives intersecting and providing the raw material for whatever stories you can make of them.
BR: What is it about this concept that make it important to reconsider now?
[Note: Connor and Dan spoke to both of these questions in their answers, so I did not break their words up to falsely separate them.]
KMH: I'm Australian, and the Australian dream and the American Dream aren't too different. Except that the world is watching the U.S. and are modelling their systems based on this tried and tested superpower. America is the crème de la crème of success, the personification of it, but this shining jewel in the crown of democracy is becoming undeniably lackluster. Iraq, Trump, Flint Michigan: the veneer of this Norman Rockwell-esque, all American fantasy is devolving rapidly. Within the framework of The Great American Drama, we are attempting to show the audience, their wildest, most fantastical desires and dreams played out in real time. Can we give them everything they want? Will they like us? Will we be a success in their eyes? In our own? Or, like great America herself, how long before those dreams and desires devolve? I believe it’s an important and interesting experiment, somewhat like the Stanford prison experiments, because in letting people loose on their utmost desires, their carnal voyeuristic nature, that's how we hold up a mirror to ourselves and society at large.
NH: I identify as I an artist first and foremost, therefore I can and do enjoy all manner of theatre without the seemingly narrow tether of things like race/gender/sexual orientation/age etc. However I do believe that it is the theater’s ability to enable you to see yourself reflected with artistic specificity, that ushers its transcendence from mere entertainment to true greatness. The measure of this laudatory rise is subjective as hell of course, especially since we are not just one thing, we are all the things. And we are all perpetually ravenous and yearning to be fed across the board. Hey, why not reconsider recalibrating the apparatus for theatrical feeding?
To this end then, our “Great American Drama” serves as an experimental 90 minute “All you can see of yourself buffet.” Get your tray and be ready to dig in and tell us what you like(d) and or didn't. And we’ll (re)flavor it accordingly. Sure other people may have tastes for what goes on the plate but you may find yourself in it too. Or not. Oh hell… FOOD FIGHT!
I would just like to take a minute to say that answers like these are why it’s so fun to be able to ask brilliant creative people about their work. After leading a group of 22 students through just such questions about how words as complex as “American” and “Drama” can exist together, let alone with the word “Great,” I will say that the differences and similarities in our collective storytelling history comes to the surface. The form might be different, but even at the height of the post-WWII prosperity, one look at the great American plays at the time revealed that there was still much work to be done. There is both a comfort and blatant challenge in all plays considered Great American Drama, and I look forward to what the Neos dynamic new look at this form will reveal to us all about our past, present, and (Neo)future.