First Read Playwrights, Then Poets

August 4, 2017

Instructions to Young Poets: First Read Playwrights, Then Poets

In going through a box of archival material the other day, I found a list of playwrights I had made several years ago. The list was not alphabetical, nor was it meant to be definitive. I believe I was giving a lecture on Sam Shepard’s True West in a course surveying 20th century American literature, and drew up the list to apprise a class of young English majors as to how many significant contemporary playwrights deserved more critical attention.

Theater is in a peculiar situation, especially in terms of playwrights. Trying to make a living as a playwright is like serving as a volunteer lifeguard at Death Valley. Over the years I have heard students comment about the difficulty of telling their parents that their main interest in life has become poetry. The students love to mimic the hysterical despair of their parents. “What did we do to deserve this?” I tell them that their parents should consider themselves lucky. “You could have told them that you wanted to be a playwright.”

I myself was first attracted mainly to playwrighting rather than poetry, and my preference in terms of a contemporary canon has not shifted over the years. If I don’t feel that I have much in common with most poets I meet, my admiration for playwrights is probably the heartbeat of that mutual repulsion.

If I have any recommendation for a young person who is interested in devoting decades to the art of poetry, then it would be to avoid reading contemporary poetry magazines and anthologies until one has read a total of 100 plays by an assortment of playwrights from the following list. It would amount to an average of two plays per playwright. My personal recommendation would be to start with Brian Friel’s “Translations.” Then, and only then, spend a few months reading poetry, after which they should stop and read another 100 plays, this time by the much shorter list of earlier 20th century playwrights. I would recommend starting with Sean O’Casey.

The key to reading these plays (and this is one of the things I learned at Padua Hills) is that one must imagine oneself on stage. If one is reading a play from the point of view of being in the audience, you will not absorb the importance of plasticity in your imagery, and you will never shake off the one-dimensional passivity that infects so much of contemporary poetry.

Edward Albee
John Arden
Doris Baizley
Amiri Baraka
Stephen Berkoff
Edward Bond
Ed Bullins
Caryl Churchill
Christopher Durang
Martin Epstein
Harvey Fierstein
Horton Foote
Irene Fornes
Brian Friel
Bruce Jay Friedman
John Guare
Walter Hadler
Susan Hansell
David Hare
David Henry Hwang
Arthur Kopit
Tony Kushner
Eduardo Machado
David Mamet
Leon Martell
Murray Mednick
Marsha Norman
Cherrie Moraga
Joe Orton
Rochelle Owens
Robert Patrick
David Rabe
Sarah Ruhl
Milcha Sanchez-Scott
Ntozake Shange
Sam Shepard
Neil Simon
Anna Deveare Smith
John Steppling
Tom Stoppard
David Storey
Megan Terry
Luis Valdez
Paula Vogel
Wendy Wasserstein
Peter Weiss
Lanford Wilson
August Wilson
Susan Yankowitz
Paul Zindel