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The early years of the twenty-first century saw several losses for the American theatre but also marked the emergence of a new generation of exciting playwrights. In this book, Christopher Bigsby explores the work of nine of these developing talents, and the importance of issues including race, gender and politics for their writing. Increasingly, these new figures are gaining their reputations not on Broadway but in small theatres and small towns or even abroad, bringing fresh and diverse perspectives to contemporary American drama. With a focus on female writers and on issues of personal and public identity in contemporary society, this volume investigates the styles and techniques these playwrights favour, the themes they raise, and their role in a changing America and a changing world.
The function of an hour drama is to reassure the American people that it's O.K. to go out and buy stuff. It's all about flattering the audience, making them feel as if all the authority figures have our best interests at heart. Doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists: sure, they have their little foibles, some of them are grouchy, but by God, they care.
So what's ‘The Sopranos’ about?
It's not about that.
Mob theme stories are always hot.
Amy Safir, Development Girl in The Sopranos
The Mafia, as a national power, was disintegrating as surely as a species of blighted trees.
In 1999 Bill Bonanno published a book entitled Bound by Honor, an echo of his father's autobiography, Man of Honor. It was dedicated to that father – ‘For the example of his life’, a man ‘who throughout it all remained scrupulous to his principles’ – and to his wife to whom he had been married for forty-three years. That father, Joseph, was the head of a Mafia family who had had a child by another woman. Somehow the words ‘honor’ and ‘principles’ seemed to have acquired a specialised meaning. For Bonanno, the Mafia simply represented another immigrant group finding a way of gaining a purchase on a new country:
[T]he Sicilians, like the Irish, the Germans, the Poles, and the Russians, eventually shed their old-world ways and joined the market economy…The Mafia, like a successful American corporation, threw itself into the market economy, devoting itself exclusively to profit…Everything I learned in my life in the Mafia grew out of tradition. I am an American…Strength, to me, is about the way people are connected to one another. Honor and respect are meaningful to me in the sense that they form the basis of all relationships, whether they are political or personal.
Who you are on that field tonight is who you are going to be for the rest of your life.
Despite its distant British origins, football is a quintessentially American game that plays a major role in the national psyche, and even more in the life of a city. When the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts, in the 2010 Super Bowl, it was seen as doing something to restore pride to a city shattered by Hurricane Katrina, in which many of the dispossessed had taken refuge in the Saints' home, the New Orleans Superdome. In that same year American football accounted for eight out of the top ten US television audiences. In 2011 the Super Bowl, in which the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, was the most watched programme in the history of American television, viewed by more than half the population. Advertisers paid $3 million for a 30-second spot.
For 35 years, you've systematically deindustrialized [American] cities. You've rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you've alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods … It's all over except for the tragedy and the shouting and the wasted lives…What's the solution?…The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick…My intent is to tell a good story…about what it feels like to live in the American city.
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness opens in a city, London, whose moral contamination is reflected in a language drained of redeeming warmth. A port city, it is a place whose civilities have been traded for greed. It offers itself to the world as a place of distinction whose history is to be celebrated, the site of national endeavour. There is, though, another current flowing, and always has been. There are dark stories to be told of its past, and darker still to be told of its present. The shadow of slavery reaches back into the London fog, cruelties perpetrated in the name of trade. Deeds committed in a distant land leave their residue so that for the narrator of this story, as for the storyteller within it, there is a bleakness that seems to embrace even the natural world. To approach the heart of the city is to see the sun become ‘a dull red without rays and without heat, as if about to go out suddenly, stricken to death by the touch of that gloom brooding over a crowd of men’. The place itself becomes monstrous.
Something has happened in the world of television drama. For the last decade and a half America has assumed a dominant position. Novelists, screenwriters and journalists, who would once have had no interest in writing for television, indeed who often despised it, suddenly realised that it was where America could have a dialogue with itself. The new television drama was where writers could engage with the social and political realities of the time, interrogating the myths and values of a society moving into a new century. Familiar genres have been reinvented, from crime fiction to science fiction. This is a book as much about a changing America as about the television series which have addressed it, from The Sopranos and The Wire to The West Wing, Mad Men and Treme, in what has emerged as the second golden age of American television drama.