This year, when The Pulitzer Prizes were announced, the not entirely delightful news is that no Pulitzer was awarded in drama.
While the decision is unsettling, the prudence of it must be acknowledged, since, affection for the theater and those who make it aside, there was no drama to consider.
Let us have the courage to ask why and, along the way, try our best to understand everybody’s culpability or innocence.
If you keep tabs on Broadway, just so you’ll know if, by some surprising concatenation of events, a drama you might actually be interested in seeing comes along, you know that the usual fare this past season was once again a series of enthusiastically promoted trifles.
But the financial realities on Broadway make it exceedingly chancy for producers to put up anything that isn’t already proven at the box office and, even more importantly, with the critics, who can even disable a previous box-office success. All very understandable. The producers are not in the business of nourishing unproven works, no matter how worthy they may suspect or be advised they are. Not understandable.
The small and regional theaters are seldom managed by people who have any sense of what mainstream appeal might be or they very likely wouldn’t be working in a little or regional theater. Perfectly understandable.
Even if a small or regional theater puts up a work that might attract a wider audience than the reliable coterie whose interests are decidedly offbeat, the likelihood that a well-known critic or even a second-string critic will show up is discouraging. Understandable. During the theater season, little theaters put up shows with withering frequency in New York and all over the country. The critics whose names people might known do not flock to any production that doesn’t have some kind of major preproduction cache. Their primary job is to review the little shows in the big venues, not the remotely possible big show in a little venue, and their secondary job, should they occasionally be inspired to assume its obligations, is to cherry pick smaller productions that present some precondition of influential interest. Also understandable.
The current crop of critics, when confronted by a work in any theatrical venue that smacks of being mainstream, are unlikely to find it suits their own offbeat temperaments. Not understandable. It is such temperamental selectivity that prevented, among countless lesser knows, a relatively mainstream playwright like Arthur Miller from getting a rave review during the last two or three decades of his life, and even a popular confectioner like Neil Simon from getting one for many years.
The inescapable fact is, offbeat people usually prefer offbeat works. Very understandable. We’re all human.
But what would be really refreshing is for a major critic or two to surface whose tastes would incline them to help nourish intelligent theater that deals with the major text and subtext of contemporary mainstream American life. Once we were fortunate enough to have them, like the legendary Brooks Atkinson and the more recent Walter Kerr, we could be far more hopeful that mainstream works would have a chance of surfacing. After all, critics are the first significant audience for any work, and so they are necessary partners in the attempt to rejuvenate intelligent and widely relevant American theater.
As for the playwrights, we must understand their plight, too. Simply put, comes the hopeful new playwright with a mainstream sensibility, where can he hope to find an outlet? And, if he does, can he hope to have a critic show up, let alone one who is on the same page with his sensibility? Quite a rare – and, year after year, an apparently impossible – combination.
Even Actors Equity is aligned against the poor talented soul. Should the playwright somehow find a theater that will put us his or her work, he or she will get what is known as a showcase presentation, which provides for four weeks of rehearsal and a four-week run, possibly extended to five weeks. Since the rehearsals must be conducted with actors who have to participate in their spare time, due to the meager honorariums showcase appearances provide, it’s difficult to get a production that does the work justice. And a four-week run simply is not long enough to build word of mouth.
Between the scarcity of venues that have a predisposition toward a playwright who has a sensibility that might reach mainstream America, the difficulty of getting a production that showcases the work in a way that renders whatever excellence it may hold, the brevity of the run, and the scarcity of critics who might arrive, compounded by the unlikely prospect that any who do might appreciate it, can we blame the playwright who finally decides that he’s involved in a hopeless puzzle that, at best, is merely baby sitting him as an intellectual. Is it any wonder that he may sulk between disappointing efforts and finally walk away into a writing career where there is some hope of getting somewhere. Understandable, at least.
So there you have, as best as we can explain it, why no Pulitzer was awarded for drama.
But we could never leave you without whatever hope there might be.
The one factor that hasn’t yet entered contemporary theater that has influenced, for better or worse, film and television, is the advent of the self-funded writer-producer. Considering the gauntlet that faces the mainstream playwright without his or her own resources, such a writer-producer, maligned as he may initially be as self-aggrandizing by the theatrical establishment, may be the only hope left.
Meanwhile, we must reluctantly admit, better not to award the Pulitzer at all than to award it to a trifle, masquerading as a piece of consequence. At least, some sort of standard has been indicated.