Lost and Obscure Plays

  • Posted on: 16 March 2010
  • By: Eric

As I have been reading through the Tennessee Williams plays not actually collected in the 2-volume Library of America set (to be fair, it only claims to be Plays, not Collected Plays), I first turned to the 8 volumes of The Theatre of Tennessee Williams, which fills in most of the gaps, except for his very earliest and last plays.  Two fairly recent New Directions books (Mr. Paradise and The Traveling Companion) cover these gaps, though his final full-length plays must still be tracked down independently.  There is still one significant omission, namely, 5 very short plays in American Blues put out by Dramatists Play Service.  Fortunately, the library had a copy and I started leafing through the book.  While most of the plays in American Blues are weak (and thus I can't really fault Library of America for omitting them), I was still glad to take a look at them.

I was struck by the ads for other plays available by Dramatists Play Service. Most of them remain terribly obscure and perhaps deservedly so. Some of the ads trumpet "Every play a hit," but here are two more restrained pages.

Under the heading "New plays"

  • The Days and Nights of Beebee Fenstermaker
  • Whisper Into My Good Ear and Mrs. Dally has a Lover
  • Today is Independence Day
  • The Room
  • A Night Out
  • A Slight Ache
  • Come on Strong
  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Breakfast in Bed
  • Natural Affection
  • The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore

Under "Recent Releases"

  • Nobody Loves an Albatross
  • The Catch Colt (Musical)
  • Semi-Detached
  • The Collection
  • The Dumb Waiter
  • The Lover
  • High Cockalorum
  • The Family Man
  • Interurban
  • Jo (Musical)
  • Next Time I'll Sing to You
  • The Other Player
  • The Street of Good Friends
  • Utopia, Inc.

Out of 25 plays, 2 that are firmly in the repertoire (Virginia Woolf and The Dumb Waiter) and Milk Train, a rarely produced play but one I'd at least heard of, perhaps solely because it was by Tennessee Williams.

It strikes me that, as hard as it is to get a play produced in the first place (and accepted by Dramatists Play Service), how much harder to get a second production.  Creating a play that actually enters the repertoire is as hard as bottling lightening.  Incidentally, this is essentially the same situation for contemporary composers of music in the classical tradition.

As a quick aside, I just looked at the DPS website for the first time, and they do seem to be keeping all these titles in print, although they are hardly pushing these forgotten plays.  What is somewhat unusual to me is that virtually all full-length plays have a flat fee (for non-professional theatre) of $75 for a full-length and $35 for a one-act play.  While there is a certain simplicity in this, it turns out that it is not uniform.  Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon all command $100 for a full-length play and $40 for a one-act (interestingly Eugene O'Neill is in the lower price bracket).  I'm sure contracts prevent it, but I would find it an interesting experiment if DPS took 20 or 30 plays that haven't been produced anywhere in the last 10-20 years and dropped the performance rights to $50 to see if they did re-enter circulation.

In future blogs, I will explore whether it is indeed such a bad thing that these plays are unproduced, whether theatre should focus on new productions (rather than remounts), the implications of the "star system" that means even mediocre work by well-known playwrights circulates while worthy plays by unknowns essentially vanish, and perhaps some reflections on today's canon and which members are likely to remain and which will be forced out.