For the majority of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, it is undeniable that the USA has been a cultural powerhouse. While this can be seen quite clearly in musical theatre and screen (to say nothing of the U.S. streaming giants), stage plays that were originally written, performed and produced in America have left a lasting imprint on art in the Western world. From rich characters, to witty dialogue, to biting social commentary and satire, American theatre is not only great to watch and read, but incredibly fulfilling to play with as an actor.
In broad strokes, American theatre is largely naturalistic, based in reality but by no means a reinvention of form or function. What truly sets it apart from other examples of Western theatre—and what continues to intrigue audiences worldwide—is its focus on the minutiae of American life: the everyday trials and tribulations of the individual. This article explains some of the overarching thematic concerns you might encounter in the genre, and how best to approach them in your acting craft.
Rather than drag through an easily wiki-ed list of authors and works, trawling through the Bakers, Williams, Millers and Mamets, I instead want to draw attention to the recurring themes and dynamics that make American theatre unique and, by extension, popular with theatregoers and theatre-makers alike the world over.
Modern Tragedy and the ‘Everyman’
American theatre has a preoccupation with so-called common people. This does not mean that the characters are not extraordinary in themselves, or that the events in the play are not extraordinary, but for the most part the drama that is occurring does not radiate out into the world. These are not the Kings of Shakespeare, the Generals of Greece or the Aristocrats of Chekov. These are just people. This trend can be traced back to two major influences: the galvanising of the concept of the ‘American dream’, especially in the post-war years, and the dramatic effect of Konstantin Stanislavski and the burgeoning ‘method’ of acting.
Although common now, the focus on the individual was a revolutionary idea in the mid-twentieth century, and was the birth of what is now known as the ‘Modern Tragedy’. The focus on the individual in the American Experiment changed what was considered worthy material to stage. No longer was inspiration only found in global affairs and politics, but on street corners, offices, slums, and once luxurious plantations.
The flashiness of a murder trial is taken away from the grandiose drama of the court, and transported to a small hot room of strangers in Twelve Angry Men. Even when dealing with extraordinarily large topics like the AIDS epidemic, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America uses the lens of individuals in extraordinary times—from impoverished bohemians to rich powerbrokers.
Take a look at Arthur Miller’s essay “Tragedy and the Common Man”, written in 1949 for The New York Times; it further illuminates this way of thinking—and from the perspective of one of Modern Theatre’s greatest voices.
Domestic Drama in American Theatre
This exploration of the ‘everyman’ brought a heavy focus on family, or ‘first circle’. The smallest unit of influence one has is usually family, but in more contemporary work this evolved into co-workers and friends. The old style of European ‘drawing room’ dramas were transformed into what we now call ‘domestic dramas’, where audiences get an insight into the everyday drama of the family unit, the workplace or friendship circles. (Again, we can see the influence of Chekov and, subsequently, Stanislavski).
Although the life, death, trials and tribulations of the common individual may not affect the world, the country, or even the town in which they live, the events of the story still ripple outwards, and it is usually those closest to them that are most effective. Eddie Carbone’s death in A View From the Bridge meant nothing to Brooklyn, but Catherine and Beatrice would never be the same. No one knew for days Jasper had died in The Aliens—and few in the town would mourn the death of a vagrant junky—but to his two best friends, he was their world.
What it really boils down to is a focus on the character’s world, rather than the world the character is in. With this focus, the domestic drama moved from the drawing rooms of Noel Coward’s plays to the crowded houses of the working class and the dysfunctional family relationships caused by intergenerational trauma. Naturally, the domestic drama became a hugely popular genre, as it was immediately relatable for the audience. The bickering of siblings or workplace conflicts connected with audiences worldwide, as it was a reflection of people’s own experiences.
The American Dream in American Theatre
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Even though the founding fathers found these truths to be self-evident, it continues to be a preoccupation of American artists—playwrights included—to investigate whether, in reality, this is really the case. David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross is a prime example of this: a group of real-estate salesmen compete within a heavily capitalist environment where, by design, there will inevitably be winners and losers. Annie Baker continuously investigates characters who have slipped through the cracks, whose misery is the mundanity of their middle-class existence. And Stephen Karam’s The Humans explores how careless mistakes can destroy a lifetime of work.
People are alive, but they are really free? Although they pursue happiness, is it ultimately out of reach?
This is a common theme among playwrights who want you (the audience) to strive for a better world by showing you a worse one. In recent years, theatre has been a pointed criticism of late-stage capitalism, racial inequality and the growing disconnection between the elite and the underclass. Similar trends can be seen in screen and musical theatre, so this is clearly something that is part of a larger artistic movement.
Racial Politics in American Theatre
This is a very complex topic and one, as an Australian, I do not wish to dive into too deeply. I do not want to pass judgement or comment on racial politics, but only to highlight how important a factor this is in American plays—particularly in the mid-twentieth century.
As an immigrant nation, the role of race, lineage and heritage for characters can not be underestimated. We may view a character in modern terms as ‘White’, ‘Black’ or ‘POC’, but depending on time and context of when the play was written, this definition may be reductive. Stanley from A Street Car Named Desire wouldn’t have thought of himself as white, but as Polish. The experience of a Muslim character in 1999 is very different to one written in 2002. It goes without saying that the African American experience is evident in plays throughout the American canon, and what was once thought progressive at the time of writing may be obtuse to a contemporary audience. An interracial affair may not be important now, but for the women in Crimes of the Heart, the racial segregation in the town added an additional layer of scandal that could endanger lives.
Try to look at a play through the context of the time it was written. This is not to defend the playwright or the material, but to understand what might lead to certain points of view in a work we might now deem to be problematic. If you are staging a production from another time, investigate its context and the racial politics of the individuals within it, rather than imposing a modern reading.
Playing Characters in American Theatre
So apart from an understanding of the major themes and trends, what are some of the focuses an actor should have when performing American theatre?
Of course, there are the great theorists you could look to. America has produced many fine acting schools and with them, theories and theorists including the infamous although often misunderstood “Method”. But these theories are for acting generally, and the lessons within these ideas apply equally to any naturalistic text, whether American or not.
What is more important is to focus on some of the common aspects of American theatre that drives characters or scenes. To an American, some of these things I will mention may be self-evident or even subconscious, as they have been immersed in their own theatre culture. But for those of us on the outside, this small list of focus points you should help you get the most out of performing American texts.
“Where are you from?”
If, in your travels, you have asked an American abroad “Where are you from?”, it is more likely that they will mention the city and state they live rather than their nationality. This is because there is nuance and specificity to a person’s experience, based on the state or city they are in. The experiences and accent of a New York banker are very different to those working rigs in Alaska—even though they share a flag.
Although, admittedly, I have spent this article making broad brushstrokes, that is not a wise thing to do when playing an American character. The United States is a very large country, with a diverse population, spread out over a massive landmass. Within the States are some of the largest cities in the world, lush forests and also sparsely populated deserts. Tech hubs and agricultural centres. Take time to research your characters’ place within this nation: where they come from and how they fit.
North vs South / City vs Country
Broadly speaking (apologies, but I trust you can find the specificities yourself), a character’s placement on the spectrums of North to South, Red to Blue state, rural to metropolitan is going to dictate certain cultural elements in the text that should be understood when playing these characters. Terms like “Southern Hospitality,” or “New York Minute”, or “Island Time” exist for a reason and speak to a range of cultures and experiences.
Ultimately, specificity is key. So when doing your character research or looking at a story, don’t stop at the nationality and instead make sure you know the culture and climate of the state and city the character lives in. For those of us outside the United States, the “general American” accent is definitely useful, but could probably more accurately be described as a northern suburban American accent. Even the New York accent can be divided into which borough the character hails from. So keep things as specific as possible, and be aware of the diversity of experience within the nation.
Competition and Power
One of the biggest notes I give to young Australian actors when doing American scenes is “Attack! Play to win!” This is because competition, whether civil or not, is a massive part of American theatre.
Characters are always competing for power, real or perceived. As a result, they more than happy to speak their mind. The need to be the best, get “one up” or to ‘win’ is a huge part of the American psyche—influenced, of course, by capitalism and an individualistic mindset. This is not to say that all Americans are aggressive or competitive, it is simply a major theme in their storytelling tradition: from Wild Bill Hickok to Captain America.
This can be obvious like in Glengarry Glen Ross, or subtle like in Death of a Salesman. The drive to get ahead, often at the cost of someone else, is a big driver of story. As a result, being polite, acquiescent or accommodating can take the fire out of the character and make the story flat and uninteresting. Instead, focus on getting what you want. No need to be nice about it.
Honour, Integrity and Reputation
“Because it is my name!”
As explored by Arthur Miller in The Crucible, the integrity of the individual is very important. Although they may not be a president, or have a strong desire to live a worthy life, being true to themselves is very important. Any slights, lies or deception from one character can significantly affect and disturb another. Coming from some cultures, this may seem petty or unimportant, but ignoring these moments can dilute the stakes of the story. If your character’s reputation is besmirched, you must do everything to rectify it.
For the actor, this can be realised in a strong objective. What do you want? I keep mentioning this in my articles and in my teaching because I believe it is the single most important question an actor can consider. For American plays, your super-objective (the overarching drive of a character, opposed to their immediate goal scene-to-scene) should include how your character wants to be perceived, how they want to be remembered and how their honour might remain intact. Often, this has tragic repercussions, but that is the story being told. It also ensures that your character is staying true to themselves, yet remains in contact and in relation with all the other characters around them.
Conclusion: American Playwrights to Read
To be honest, this list would be way too big. With over a century of plays, and at least 80 years of those reaching across the world, knowing where to start can be hard. Do you go all the way back to Williams, Albee and Miller? Or do you start with Jeremy O. Harris and work backwards from the 21st Century?
Luckily, there is a cheat sheet available that will help you get the journey going: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This is the most comprehensive list of influential American plays and can easily be found with a simple search. From there, find who you like and keep reading. It’s hard to go wrong.