Modern American Drama

Drama experienced a slow start in the United States, largely thanks to Puritan values that frowned upon the theatre. However, by the middle of the 20th century, American playwrights began making up for lost time, and modern American drama contains some of the United States' most important dramatic works. From 1945 until today, modern American drama has produced a dizzying array of diverse work that is read and produced worldwide.

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Table of contents

    Modern American Drama: A Summary

    Modern American Drama generally refers to dramatic works produced in the United States after World War II, beginning in the middle of the 20th century. This period encompasses most of the United States's best-known classic playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953), Arthur Miller (1915-2005), and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), as well as contemporary writers such as Tony Kushner (1956-present), David Henry Hwang (1957-present), and Ayad Akhtar (1970-present).

    Modern American drama, theatre with curtain, StudySmarterFig. 1: Modern American drama began after World War II.

    Modern American drama is a diverse body of work encompassing many different genres, themes, styles, and viewpoints. It occupies an essential place in the landscape of English literature. Modern American dramas are read and staged worldwide.

    The History of Modern American Drama

    The history of modern American drama begins with the dawn of literary Realism in Europe in the mid- to late-19th century. Playwrights including Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Swedish August Strindberg (1849-1912), and Russian Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) changed the face of European theatre with their plays that abandoned traditional theatrical conventions in favor of more realistic, deeply psychological dramas.

    Realism is a literary movement that began in Europe in the mid-19th century. Writers rejected Romanticism's sentimentality and produced works that were more realistic and true to daily life.

    This new concept of drama arrived in the United States by the start of the 20th century, where it would shape the first generation of great American playwrights.

    Prior to the 20th century, American drama existed almost entirely for popular entertainment in the form of melodramas, minstrel shows, and classic works of theatre imported from Europe. Drama was not an integral part of American literature, and almost no meaningful works of original theatre were produced in the United States.

    All that changed with the work of Eugene O'Neill, known as the father of American drama. O'Neill won the 1936 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first and only American playwright to have done so, and began the movement of modern American drama. O'Neill was heavily influenced by playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov and the theatrical Expressionist movement that began in Germany in the early part of the 20th century.

    Expressionism was a theatrical movement that used exaggerated, unrealistic, or distorted staging or production elements to better express characters' intense inner emotions.

    The end of World War II in 1945 marked the start of the modern literary period, and the post-war years saw a proliferation of American drama. A number of key American playwrights had begun working in the preceding years, but they produced some of their best work after 1945. These included Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh (1946), Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949)

    Modern American Drama, theatrical masks, StudySmarterFig. 2: The first works of modern American drama were mostly tragedies.

    These playwrights brought American drama to the world stage and elevated it as a legitimate literary form. Much of the early modern American drama was highly psychological in nature. Playwrights like Williams and Miller explored the inner lives of their characters, which they used to make more universal statements about the state of the American psyche and the plight of the working class.

    As the 20th century continued, American drama kept expanding and diversifying. Several African American playwrights rose to prominence, including Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) and Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), and later other viewpoints were incorporated as well, such as Chinese American David Henry Hwang (1957-present) and Pakistani American Ayad Akhtar (1970-present).

    Characteristics of Modern American Drama

    Modern American drama embraces a wide variety of styles and themes that often seem to share few unifying characteristics. Modern productions can be hyper-realistic, totally experimental, or anything in between. They can be musicals, tragedies, or comedies; they can be brief one-act plays or full-length productions. More than anything, American playwrights are known for the diversity of their work and their willingness to experiment.

    However, for all its differences, modern American drama does share some common characteristics:

    1. Realism and authenticity: Modern American drama emphasizes realism and authenticity, depicting characters and situations that accurately reflect the social and political realities of their time.

    2. Social relevance: Many modern American plays address social issues, such as race, gender, class, and politics, reflecting the cultural and political landscape of the United States.

    3. Psychological complexity: Modern American drama often explores the inner lives of characters, delving into their motivations, fears, and desires.

    4. Non-linear storytelling: Many modern American plays employ non-linear storytelling techniques, using flashbacks, dream sequences, and other devices to challenge traditional narrative structures.

    5. Symbolism and metaphor: Modern American drama often incorporates symbolism and metaphor, using imagery and symbolism to convey deeper meanings and themes.

    6. Experimentation: Many modern American playwrights experiment with form, style, and structure, pushing the boundaries of traditional theatrical conventions.

    7. Exploration of the human condition: Modern American drama often explores the darker aspects of the human experience, such as family conflict, personal ambition, and societal pressure.

    Modern American drama is often a place for authors to unpack the nuances of American identity. Many playwrights choose to focus on the common man, the poor, or members of the working class. This marked a stark departure from previous eras of drama where classics such as the works of Shakespeare often focused on royalty or the upper classes and relied on the supernatural and theatrical gimmicks to generate intrigue. Modern American playwrights turned instead to explore the effects of American society on individuals and their relationships with others, particularly conflicts within the traditional American family.

    Many American playwrights frequently draw on current social issues and critique American social norms, showing the effects of modern society on the everyday lives of American people. Modern American drama has also become a repository for a diverse array of voices that represent the many facets of the American experience.

    Examples of Modern American Drama

    There are many excellent examples of modern American drama. This selection helps to illustrate the breadth and variety of dramatic works produced in the United States.

    Early Modern American Drama

    The early years of modern American drama, beginning in 1945, included some of the most canonical works of American drama. These included:

    The most influential plays written at the start of the modern period were mostly tragedies that established modern American drama as a part of American literature worthy of international attention.

    Late 20th Century American Drama

    By the late 20th century, American drama had expanded into the diverse array of work we see today. Some key works include:

    Much of the subject matter of the best-known American plays from the late 20th century remained quite serious. However, writers became more diverse, exploring feminist themes, the African American perspective, queer points of view, and more.

    Contemporary American Drama

    21st-century American drama has continued to expand and diversify. Some noteworthy examples include the following:

    • Miss Witherspoon (2005) by Christopher Durang (1949-present)
    • August: Osage County (2007) by Tracy Letts (1965-present)
    • Disgraced (2012) by Ayad Akhtar
    • Hamilton (2016) by Lin Manuel Miranda (1980-present)
    • The Hot Wing King (2020) by Katori Hall (1981-present)

    Some works, like Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, revisit themes that have appeared in American drama for years, including dysfunctional family dynamics and interpersonal relationships. Other works from the 21st century present themes previously absent from the American stage. For example, Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced explores Muslim American identity and Islamophobia in the post-9/11 United States, and Katori Hall's The Hot Wing King features the first mainstream production to feature a gay African American couple as leading characters.

    Lin Manuel Miranda's Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton is one of only ten musicals to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

    Major Themes of Modern American Drama

    Some major themes of modern American drama include American identity, social issues, and the American family.

    American Identity

    An important theme in modern American drama is exploring the nuances of American identity. American playwrights delve deeply into the psyches of individual characters to explore ideas central to the country's sense of collective identity, such as the American Dream and the construction of the American nuclear family.

    One classic example is Arthur Miller's 1949 tragedy, Death of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman pours himself into pursuing the American Dream. He believes that becoming a successful salesman will make him happy; however, reality fails to meet his expectations and undermines his sense of identity, leading to his eventual suicide. The play explores Willy's experience while simultaneously critiquing the illusion of the American Dream and the failings of capitalism in the United States.

    Modern American drama, Times Square, StudySmarterFig. 3: Popular theatre on Broadway has continued to diversify in recent years.

    In recent years, American drama has continued to diversify, allowing for various perspectives on American identity. Including writers from various marginalized communities has helped modern American drama create a more complex, complete, and multifaceted vision of American identity.

    Social Issues

    Many American playwrights frequently draw on current social issues and critique American social norms. Playwrights use their work to examine important social, political, and environmental issues and explore their effect on the everyday lives of Americans.

    Works like Megan Terry's Viet Rock (1966) protested the Vietnam War, Tony Kushner's Angels in America dramatized the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced (2012) explored Islamophobia in a post-9/11 United States.

    The American Family

    American family dynamics are a reoccurring theme in much of modern American drama. From Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams to Sam Shepard and Tracy Letts, dysfunctional American families have long populated the American stage.

    Works like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, Tennessee William's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sam Shepard's Buried Child, and Tracy Letts' August: Osage County have all but established the dysfunctional family drama as its own genre of American drama.

    These and other works generally explore the disintegration of an American family as members deal with addiction, secrets, and failed expectations.

    Modern American Drama - Key takeaways

    • Modern American drama refers to drama written in the United States from 1945 to today.
    • Modern American drama includes many of the most important pieces in the canon of American drama.
    • Just a few of the many playwrights associated with modern American drama include Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Lorraine Hansberry, and David Henry Hwang.
    • Some important works of modern American drama are Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, and Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda.
    • Some key themes of modern American drama are American identity, social issues, and the American family.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Modern American Drama

    What are the characteristics of modern American drama?

    Modern American drama is a diverse body of work that shares a few common characteristics such as realism, authenticity, social relevance, non-linear storytelling, experimentation, and psychological complexity.

    What are modern drama examples?

    Some examples of modern American drama are Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, and Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda.

    What is American drama?

    American drama is generally defined as theatrical works written in English by authors in the United States.

    Who established modern American drama?

    Eugene O’Neill, regarded as the first great American playwright, began working in the early 20th century. His work spilled into the period of modern American drama and had a great impact on the movement’s development.


    How is modern American drama different from traditional drama?

    Previous to the start of modern American drama, the theatre produced in the United States was purely for popular entertainment and had little literary merit. The first playwrights of modern American drama wrote plays of high literary quality that were more serious and realistic than the theatre traditionally produced in the United States.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which is NOT a common theme in modern American drama?

    True or false? All modern American drama shares the same easily identifiable characteristics.

    Which author is NOT a modern American playwright?

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