The Greatest American Play?

Some have suggested Death of a Salesman. Others, A Streetcar Named Desire. And lest we forget, there’s also Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

But recently, I’ve wondered if the Greatest American Play might be:

Our Town

Feel free to weigh in with your thoughts, or wax rhapsodic about this play, or even criticize it.


46 thoughts on “The Greatest American Play?

  1. Either Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or The Night of the Iguana. Yeah, not popular choices. But Death of a Salesman would be a close second.

  2. But why do you think those plays are better? I don’t agree with either choice (of your first two) though Salesman, of course, is a very great play, a little preachy, but thoroughly theatrical, character-driven, spellbinding. But so is Our Town.

  3. I saw the relatively recent Broadway revivals of Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey into Night and both were enormously powerful and jarring — they stayed with me for weeks. I give a tip, barely, to O’Neill (but this may be a result of the performance, rather than the play itself). I can’t say much about Our Town: since I read it in high school and have only seen it performed by amateurs, I probably haven’t given it the attention it deserves. As a teenager, it seemed a bit cheesy to me — “the saints and poets, maybe.”

  4. I’m amazed that you can quote from it like that Greg. Bravo for that.

    If you can get a hold of it, I recommend VERY highly the Broadway version from 1988, with Spalding Gray and Penelope Ann Miller, directed by Gregory Mosher (TV director is Kirk Browning). It strips all the sentimental claptrap off the play that it has accumulated over the thousands of performances in junior high schools over the years. Penelope Ann Miller, as Emily Webb, the girl who returns after death to catch a glimpse of her earth life, is stupendous, devastating.

  5. D., Don’t be too impressed –I had a vague recollection of a line that made me cringe, and googled it. I’ve stumbled across a version on PBS with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. Any good?

  6. Yes, this one is from 2003, co-produced by Joanne Woodward. It’s good, but Paul is the kindly old stage manager, a return to a more sentimental take on the play. The 1989 one really is better, it’s harsh.

    Though that Emily Webb scene works in all the versions. I’ve just watched 3 of them today, and I’ve been weeping for hours.

  7. Here’s a little blurb that I think provides a nice contextual overview:

    Thornton Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1897. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio and then transferred to Yale University, graduating in 1920. After spending a year in Rome, he took a job teaching French at a prep school in New Jersey and started writing on the side. Wilder published his first novel, The Cabala, in 1926, but his first real taste of fame came when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927). The royalties from this novel allowed him to quit his teaching job, and he began to write full-time. Wilder quickly became a literary celebrity, keeping company with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

    In the ideologically charged climate of the 1930s, however, Wilder came under attack from critics who branded his work escapist fare that refused to confront the gloomy reality of the Depression. Hurt by this criticism and frustrated by the failure of his 1934 novel Heaven’s My Destination, Wilder turned to playwriting. Our Town, his most celebrated dramatic effort, opened on Broadway in 1938 to rave reviews. Audiences sensed the universality of the themes presented in the play, which enabled virtually every theatergoer to participate in the action onstage and identify with the characters. Our Town eventually won Wilder his second Pulitzer Prize, and went on to become one of the most performed American plays of the twentieth century.
    In many ways, Our Town is Wilder’s response to his critics. Major works from other American writers of the time—notably Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio—exposed the buried secrets, hypocrisy, and oppression lurking beneath the surface of American small town life. In Our Town, however, Wilder presents a far more celebratory picture of a small town, the fictional hamlet of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Wilder does not deny the fact that the town suffers from social injustice and hypocrisy, and he does not intend to idealize Grover’s Corners as a bastion of uncompromising brotherly love. On the contrary, Wilder makes a point to include in the play characters who criticize small town life, and Grover’s Corners specifically. However, Wilder does not wish to denounce the community simply because it contains some strains of hypocrisy. Instead, he peers into Grover’s Corners in order to find lessons about life in a world that contains both virtue and vice. He tenderly tracks the residents’ day-to-day activities, their triumphs and their sorrows, their casual conversations and their formal traditions—not because he wants to praise New Hampshire, but because he wants to praise humanity. Perhaps a political message in itself, Our Town privileges the study of human life and its complexities over blatantly political works that point fingers, stereotype others, and otherwise divide people from one another.
    Wilder’s principal message in Our Town—that people should appreciate the details and interactions of everyday life while they live them—became critical at a time when political troubles were escalating in Europe. World War II was on the horizon when the play hit theaters in 1938. It was a time of tremendous international tension, and citizens across the globe suffered from fear and uncertainty. Our Town directed attention away from these negative aspects of life in the late 1930s and focused instead on the aspects of the human experience that make life precious. Wilder revealed his faith in the stability and constancy of life through his depiction and discussion of the small town of Grover’s Corners, with its “marrying . . . living and . . . dying.”
    The 1920s and 1930s proved to be the heyday of Wilder’s career. He enlisted as a soldier and served in Europe during World War II, and though he continued his literary career upon his return to the United States, his output decreased during the next two decades. A later effort to write a novel, The Eighth Day (1967), met with mixed reviews. Wilder died in December 1975 at his home in Connecticut.

  8. About Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which I’ve seen at least as often as Our Town, I agree that O’Neill’s intellectual achievement is perhaps of a higher order.

    But the play is a task to be … completed, more than anything else, a very great task. I appreciate the language, and it certainly provides great actors with great speeches, but it does go on, and it isn’t particularly theatrical in the sense of stage magic. It’s talk, and perhaps there was no greater talk ever in the history of the world.

    But I don’t identify with the characters, I don’t feel for them (except perhaps Mary at the end) and the sheer volume of words becomes a bit distracting.

    Our Town is more my speed, though this might point up the shallowness of my experience.

  9. Interesting choices, D. I guess a part of your challenge has to do with identifying what elements make for the best stage drama, and what plays most keenly identify with America. For me, Death of a Salesman hits the mark, as does The Crucible, although I would put Glengarry, Glen Ross in the upper category as well.

    How about The Glass Menagerie? I’m not a supreme Tennessee Williams fan…

    What is it that would make a play great? Production is very important to the greatness of a play in real life, and I find it hard to separate from the text of the plays I admire most. But we can look at turns of phrase, believability/power of characters, breadth of theme and imagery. In an American play I’d be looking specifically for depictions of the American Dream and contemporary society. Our Town is something I’ve never seen, though I’ve read much of it. What makes it so valuable for you? And why not Death of a Salesman?

  10. Oh, Glengarry, Glen Ross is indeed great. I normally think Mamet is vastly overrated, but that really is a great play. (His movie version was great as well) I should add that I saw the video version of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman which was amazing. (I think it was done in the late 80’s)

    As for why I love William’s Cat and Iguana better than Streetcar, I don’t know. I think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof captures something about the American mind and family better. As for Night of the Iguana, I know why it will be a lesser choice for most people. I really think it quite powerful and is my favorite Williams play (although The Glass Menagerie is great as well).

  11. Hey, R.W. Rasband, are you the guy who posted to Amazon about that 1989 production of Our Town? I used your post on my board, I hope it’s OK.

  12. Interesting topic. Back when Arthur Miller died and we had a thread discussing the best American playwright, I floated the name of Thornton Wilder, but there wasn’t much of a response. However, the reason I think he’s great isn’t so much OUR TOWN but THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH. It’s a great play.

    SWEENEY TODD is a great musical, one of my favorites, but it’s not The Great American Musical because it’s not set in America and doesn’t frankly have a lot to say about America.

  13. Sweeney Todd is a great American musical, though not set in America. Hamlet isn’t set in England — does that make it a Danish play? The response to Sweeney Todd, which is as much about Hollywood horror films as anything, continues unabated here. In England, Sweeney is about as relevant as our Underdog — in other words, it’s thought of as a little silly.

    The Skin of Our Teeth is indeed a very great play. Thornton Wilder isn’t usually thought of in the same light as Williams, Albee, Miller, but he’s right up there, with those 3 great plays, a great novel, and the screenplay to Hitchcock’s favorite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt.

  14. This is from the jacket of the VHS tape of the 1989 Lincoln Center production with Spalding Gray:

    Thornton Wilder was very unhappy with the 1940 film and 1957 musical versions of Our Town. Before his death in 1975 he worked with producer Saule Jaffe and director George Schaefer in an attempt to leave behind a definitive version of his masterpiece. The result of that collaboration wasn’t produced until 1977, for NBC, featuring a stellar cast including Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, Sada Thompson, John Houseman and Robby Benson, but was such an artistic triumph that the trustees of Wilder’s estate decided to never permit another television version of the play. The author had his definitive production.

    Since 1938, when it was a surprise Broadway success after almost closing out-of-town in Boston, Our Town has been produced on stage somewhere every day, often by school or community theaters. Gregory Mosher, who directed the Lincoln Center Theatre’s stage version, felt that as a result the play had been “turned into a holiday greeting card, reduced by a consensus that it was a superficial, nostalgic, flag-waving poem to a lost America.” He wanted his production to reflect Wilder’s “very particular vision of what life in this century has been and might become.” The trustees were so impressed with Mosher’s critically-acclaimed, Tony Award-winning production that in 1989 they granted permission for its presentation on PBS’s Great Performances series.

    These two rigorously faithful productions have a great deal in common, but there are important differences too. Oddly, the 1989 version more closely follows Wilder’s stage directions and is performed by actors working without props on a virtually empty stage. The 1977 production takes place in a television studio, with an elegant, stylized set that was a concession to television. A more striking difference, perhaps, is Spalding Gray’s unusually feisty and combative performance as the traditionally modest Stage Manager, who serves as the audience’s guide to the story. Gray’s 1989 interpretation seems explicitly aware that Wilder’s “attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events of our daily life” is also an implicit critique of American provincialism and isolationism.

    Our Town is one of the great American plays. Epic in scope yet profoundly intimate in its depiction of small town life early in the twentieth century, Wilder’s aim was to leave a record of that life for future generations. Upon his death Wilder could not have known that his desire for a definitive television production of his play would be satisfied not once, but twice. It’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have been pleased.

  15. D., I wouldn’t say Hamlet is a Dutch play, but Sweeney Todd doesn’t comment on the “American Dream” like SALESMAN does, nor does it say anything about small town life like OUR TOWN does. In my opinion the sub-text, at least in the productions I’ve seen of SWEENEY, has been the dehumanizing effect of the industrial revolution–something more keenly felt, or at least, better illustrated in the English setting. If there’s a way SWEENY comments or reveals something insightful and penetrating about American life or the American character, I’d be interested in hearing about it because as I said I really like the play, and I think when we talk about “The Great American” whatever, what we’re really after is a work that lays our country bare.

  16. Of course, the whole “industrial revolution” effect was pasted onto Sweeney by its director, Hal Prince. There’s nothing in the script… But anyway, why wouldn’t the dehumanizing effect of the industrial revolution be as American as anything else? The industrial revolution happened here.

    Something peculiar to American plays is that they are about dysfunctional families. And Sweeney might fall right into that. It is about enterprise, revenge, and abuse of elected authorities — all perfectly pertinent to America. Written by Americans, and premiering here.

    But, curiously, this thread was about Our Town, another American play about families.

  17. Dang it, Steve Evans. After I read the that original remark I thought I was going to be clever and say that exact thing. (But then I thought, no, that would be mean.)

    Anyway, I’m surprised no one has mentioned Angels in America. I know a lot of people think it’s the greatest.

  18. So much of the love of a play is the context in which you see it. I saw “The Crucible” for the first time on Broadway with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. Saying I was impressed is putting it mildly – I was blown away.

    But Our Town is a definitely high on the list as well. I don’t follow theatre all that much, so maybe I’m mistaken, but it doesn’t seem like there’s been a reinvention of the genre or a breakthrough in a long time. Movies are still being taken to the next level from time to time, whether it’s with storytelling like Pulp Fiction or effects like the Matrix. I imagine there could be a new level of theatre, but I’m not sure what it would be and how we would get there.

  19. I’d totally forgotten about The Crucible. It’s a great play, but I wonder if it isn’t more dated in a way. There have been some great plays that seem dated after awhile.

  20. Whoops. Dutch, Danish, it’s all the same to me, but I don’t feel stupid, because I’m so dang smart.

  21. I can’t rank Steven Sondheim up there with Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. No doubt he’s a brilliant word smith, but his music … well … at it’s best it’s only trying to be brilliant.

  22. Eric:

    Angels in America is the greatest neo-Marxist, pre-Apocalyptic play about AIDS and its impact on gay Americans that features a hackneyed version of Mormonism that doesn’t really resemble Mormonism.

  23. Yes, D. Fletcher, I posted on about the 1989 production of “Our Town.” I’m flattered when anybody notices one of my reviews. I agree it’s the best production of the play I’ve ever seen. It completely strips off the sentimentality and the play is all the more devastating for it.

    The excellent critic Terry Teachout ( nominated “Sweeney Todd” as the great American musical in an essay on Sondheim in his book “A Terry Teachout Reader.” I thinkly mostly because Sondheim is a quintessentially American composer and “Sweeney” has that moral spin (“To seek revenge may lead to hell…”) that Americans insist on in their art.

  24. Oops, that’s Stephen (not Steven) Sondheim as per my last comment.

    “The excellent critic Terry Teachout … nominated “Sweeney Todd” as the great American musical …”

    Wow. I know what I’m about to say is purely subjective, but laying aside the dramatic elements of the play, should the music to the “great American Musical” be, er, musical?

  25. Sheesh, I’m a moron at the keyboard.

    That should read: “…SHOULDN’T the music to the “great American Musical” be, er, musical?”

  26. BTW – not to threadjack, but I thought it might make a nice separate thread (hint, hint). Jared Hess apparently picked a project and directing a wrestling flick for Nicolodeon. Feel free to delete this if a separate thread appears. (grin)

  27. Brian—I found you, aha! I KNEW you were blogging today. Busted.
    Perhaps it’s too recent to be considered America’s greatest play yet, but I really really really loved “Proof.” I have not been that moved by a play in years, and although I saw it more than a few years ago, it still resonates.
    I’m surprised about “Sweeny Todd”. . .I took Brian to see “Sweeny Todd” with Kelsey Grammar and Dougie Houser, and he wasn’t very impressed.
    Did I mention that he’s totally busted?

  28. Shannon,

    I loved Proof too! Another great play that uses a narrative about a semi-dysfunctional family to ask some “big” questions.

  29. The greatest American play? Wilder’s Our Town up there, as our all the other usual suspects already mentioned: Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire (though I agree with those who prefer The Glass Menagerie), Miller’s Death of a Salesman (I don’t think anything else he wrote really stands up to the test of time), O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But here are some other possibilities:

    Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful
    Sam Shepard’s True West
    Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs
    August Wilson’s Fences

    I haven’t seen Proof, but everything I’ve read suggests it may be up there as well.

    The greatest American musical? Well, that deserves it’s own thread: My Fair Lady? Guys and Dolls? Anything Goes? West Side Story? Follies?

    Wait, I’ve got it: The Fantasticks. That one takes the cake.

  30. Mmm, I like the Fantasticks a lot, but it isn’t My Fair Lady or Gypsy. Gypsy is usually considered the very pinnacle of musicals, the epitome of Broadway. Words by Stephen Sondheim, of course.

    But Porgy and Bess first appeared on Broadway, and it gets my vote for the greatest musical art piece in our history. Yes, over Gypsy, West Side Story, and Sweeney Todd. And I think that Sondheim and Bernstein might agree with me (it’s Sondheim’s favorite musical work).

    As for plays, (and I realize that choosing one over the others is a bit ludicrous), Death of a Salesman still stands tall, 55 years after its premiere. But Our Town has a more universal resonance, I think. It combines melancholy and optimism, in a completely artistic way. I think it’s been underestimated all these years, because it is fairly cheap and easy to do, so it can be produced in very amateur settings (like schools). But it is very intelligent, and quite bleak — not the Hallmark greeting card that some have made it out to be. And it appeals to almost everyone, as opposed to Long Day’s Journey, which is so difficult for most people.

    I don’t think any of your other choices meet the standards of these, but time will tell. Certainly, True West is NOT one of the greatest plays ever. Shepard’s BURIED CHILD has a better shot at the eternities, I think.

  31. I don’t know, D., Buried Child has a gothic sensibility to it which burdens the narrative, I think; I don’t believe Shepard can do “evil” the way O’Neill could. But True West has a weird, “American” darkness to it. I like it, anyway.

  32. TRUE WEST is an excellent play. I saw the NY production with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. It was amazing. Greatest American Play? I don’t think so, but what I love about Shepard the most is that he is the Playwright of the West, a region I think which is largely overlooked and underrepresented in terms of the respect it gets from the literary and theater establishments.

  33. True, Brian. But is “the West” so regionally its own thing that it can’t communicate anything about life in America to audiences everywhere? Tennessee Williams wrote about the South (and specifically the deep, racially haunted, faux aristocratic South); Our Town is New England through and through. They use their “regionalism” to build a larger platform; I think, arguably, True West does the same thing.

    That John C. Reilly/Phillip Seymour Hoffman production sounds intense–I’ve only ever seen the Malkovich/Sinise version on tape.

  34. I totally agree, Russell. The West and its stories and storytellers can and do communicate something about America as a whole. What happens I suspect is that the literary and theater establishment, centered in The East generally, and New York specifically, just don’t give The West the attention and consideration it deserves. The South, I think, just has such a strong tradition of amazing writers and such a rich and detailed history that it merits more attention.

    As far as the Reilly/Hoffman production, it was intense. Hoffman was chewing up the scenery a bit, but it was great to watch. I wanted to return the next night to watch it when they swapped roles, but unforunately I had to leave NY.

  35. I saw Malkovich and Sinise in the theater. That production MADE them, I mean, their careers. Malkovich went immediately into movies and Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman, and it catapulted Sinise’s theater company Steppenwolf in Chicago to the stratosphere.

    There was also a taped production with Bruce Willis, on Showtime last year.

    P.S. Although Shepard wrote about the “West,” he wasn’t from there, and never lived there. I’m not sure what the “West” has to do with his work, anyway. Larry McMurtry would seem to be more a writer representing the west than Sam.

  36. The very first Utah/U.S. Film Festival, which became Sundance Film Festival some years later, was held in Salt Lake (at the old Trolley Corners theaters) in 1978, and I was there for something like 48 hours of it. It was divided into three classic American themes, The City, The South, and The West. (Admittedly, this was about screenplays, not stage plays.)

    Curiously, though, it’s quite notable to me that film noir, such an entrenched genre or philosophy of films, is almost always set in California, and usually in L.A. The Maltese Falcon is in San Francisco, but most of the others, including all the neo-noirs, take place in L.A. and its environs.

  37. Shepard didn’t live in the Southwest for a while? I thought I read that he’d based True West in the region where he grew up (i.e., “40 miles east of Los Angeles”). I’ll have to look that up.

    That’s an interesting observation about noir film and L.A., D. Of course, the people who made those movies, and the people who wrote the pulp novels and magazine stories they were based on or borrowed from, were just focusing on the city and environment they knew best. Still, if you think about it, there’s a certain kind of sterile, empty edginess to the darkness of the noir films; it’s not rich or deep or spooky, just blank. Kind of like the downside of the urban west, where the white men of America fled to buy a nice suburban tract home and content themselves with the banal. Someone help me: is there a single noir classic that prominently features ethnic or religious characters? Or slums? I can’t think of one–everyone (except for the rich dames) seems to live in middle-class apartments or bungelows. Hmm, there’s an essay in there somewhere.

    Arguably, the greatest of all neo-noir films, Chinatown, provides some sort of take on this, arguing that the peculiar whitebread corruption of the urban West was built into its very settlement.

  38. I just think that film noir has more to do with Hollywood, with living among the most glamorous people in the U.S., the royalty of the U.S. New York is (almost) never the setting for noir films, because New York is too urban, too ethnic, too much about ambition, money, power rather than glamor. New York is also too busy — noir requires quiet, desolate urban landscapes, like one might find in L.A. New York’s crime stories are inevitably about the Mafia, or slum business crime like drug trade. Laura is set in New York, which is why it’s borderline noir.

    Shepard grew up in Illinois? I think, and his entire career was spent in New York. I could be wrong, but that’s what I know about him. He lives in Minnesota now…

  39. Anybody who is seriously interested in looking at a videotape of the Lincoln Center production of Our Town from 1989, and can read DVD-Rs, email me and I’ll see what I can do.


  40. Glamour vs. power: that’s a good analysis, D.

    Do you have a separate e-mail address than the one your name links to? I e-mailed you a while back, but I don’t know if you ever received it.

  41. I got your other email, Russell, about Holiday, but I haven’t had a chance to do anything about it yet. I’m planning on sending it out, but I’ll put Our Town in there too!

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