Wednesday, November 20, 2013

August Wilson: American Master

Please, Library of America, 
publish The Pittsburgh Cycle now!

Playwright August Wilson
     August Wilson, who died too young at sixty in 2005, was one of the five best American playwrights of the 20th century.  I think the other four were Eugene O’Neill, Sam Shepard (grossly underappreciated and deserving of a major revival), Edward Albee, and Tennessee Williams – the greatest
playwright on the world stage of the entire century and he didn’t win the Nobel.  Goes to show that they make many mistakes as they had plenty of chances to recognize him.  My next five American playwrights would be Neil Simon, Lillian Hellman, George S. Kaufman (with various collaborators), Arthur Miller, and David Mamet.  For a baker’s dozen, I’d add Arthur Laurents, John Guare, and Wendy Wasserstein.  

Dexter Looks Around Pittsburgh's Hill District
     Wilson wrote one play for each decade of the twentieth century that chronicled inhabitants of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  He used that African-American neighborhood as a microcosm for the cultural and political changes that took place in the U.S.  His subtext throughout the cycle is that people create culture and vice versa, but the parameters to their behavior are set by politics and history, seemingly impermeable, which have to be challenged if society as a whole is to progress.  

     Wilson’s language possesses his characters in a rhythm that’s poetic and steadily overpowering in its incantatory force.  These people may not own much, including a sense of their own freedom, but they create their meaning through their words.  The eloquence of the vernacular arising from elemental conflicts set in elegantly realistic plots turn into myths.  Wilson is a direct descendant of Sophocles and Euripides, but the milieu of these plays is as detailed and natural as those of Ibsen, Chekhov, or Williams.  His peer in fiction is Toni Morrison.

Ensemble Theatre's Production of
Gem of the Ocean
     I’ve seen three of the plays:  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom about a recording session in the 1920s that turns tragically violent (The Denver Center Theatre Company), The Piano Lesson about a family’s plans for an heirloom piano in the 1930s (CBS/Hallmark), and Gem of the Ocean about a group reclaiming their history while a strike goes on in the 1900s (Ensemble Theatre Company hosting a transfer production from Chicago).  Each was electrifying, though Wilson works his magic to a greater extent in the live theater. 

     Okay, the Library of America has published American classics with consistent industriousness, so please can’t it collect these plays in a volume and get them out there? Is Wilson’s estate holding things up?  I hope not.  

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