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Literature and Writing

American Literature: Drama

psychological realism, British models, British actors, British influence, American stage

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American Literature: Drama, literature intended for performance, written by Americans in the English language. American drama begins in the American colonies in the 17th century and continues to the present.

Most American plays of the 18th and 19th centuries strongly reflected British influence. In fact, no New York City theater season presented more American plays than British plays until 1910. The reasons behind this phenomenon are complex, but a common language and the ready availability of British plays and British actors offer the most obvious explanation.

Although the British repertory dominated the American stage for so long, American drama had begun to diverge from British drama by the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, from 1828 to 1836. British plays, which typically reflected the attitudes and manners of the upper classes, were by then in conflict with more egalitarian American values. Despite this growing divergence, British actors, theater managers, and plays continued to cross the Atlantic Ocean with regularity, and most American plays copied British models until the early 20th century. For this reason some critics claim that American drama was not born until the end of World War I (1914-1918).

By the end of the 19th century American drama was moving steadily toward realism, illuminating the rough or seamy side of life and creating more believable characters. Realism remained the dominant trend of the 20th century in both comedies and tragedies. American drama achieved international recognition with the psychological realism of plays by Eugene O’Neill and their searing investigation of characters’ inner lives. As the century advanced, the number of topics considered suitable for drama broadened to encompass race, gender, sexuality, and death.


Wainscott, Ronald, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor of Theater and Drama, Indiana University. Author of "The Emergence of the Modern American Theater".

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