What's New on the Rialto
The Best Plays Theater Yearbook
By George Reddick
Reading Ingrid's message from Lhasa explaining the squares as Tibetan prayer flags, [Swoosie] Kurtz's staccato delivery grew fluent, her tone curious:
According to current editor Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, the purpose of The Best Plays Theater Yearbook series, founded by Burns Mantle, has been to create an "armchair view" of the theatrical season. The challenge of the series has been to capture that ephemeral, elusive moment of connection between playwright, design team, actors and audience. The series now numbers some eighty-five volumes, having captured almost a century in American Theatre and in so doing, provided an encapsulated view of eighty-five years of American History through the eyes of its dramatists. The series has won awards, including a special Tony Award for founder Burns Mantle, and has become a standard of theatrical libraries. The ability to bring some permanence to the momentary lives of American plays is its invaluable lasting legacy
Today, one can pull out any year's edition and get a glimpse of what was being produced in American Theatre at the time and how those plays interacted with and reflected changing American culture. The series has been through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, the whole of the Cold War, and the current war in Iraq as well as the Civil Rights and the sexual revolutions, the women's movement, and gay liberation. During its impressive run, the series' editorship has included founder Mantle, a one-time printer, drama critic and annalist whose criticism was featured in the New York Daily News for over twenty years; his immediate successor on the Best Plays series and at the Daily News John Chapman who wrote the "Mainly About Broadway" column in the 1930s; and Henry Hewes who edited the series in the early 1960s and remains a consulting editor. By far the longest term of editorship was filled by Otis Guernsey, Jr., the prolific theatre editor who helmed thirty-six consecutive editions of the series before Jeffrey Eric Jenkins took over in 2000, shortly before Guernsey's untimely death. Jenkins has written for numerous publications including The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Theatre Journal, Periphery, and The New York Times, is a full time faculty member at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and served on the board of The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), as chairman from 1999 to 2001.
In addition to providing an encapsulated, insightful view of ten select plays in each volume, The Best Plays Theater Yearbook provides an enormous catalog of information on the theatrical season in New York and around the country - the current index alone comprises seventy-five pages. In recent years, winners of the ATCA/Steinberg Awards have been given special attention (in the 2003-2004 edition, the 2004 winner Intimate Apparel was also one of the Ten Best Plays). Also cataloged are major theatrical awards and prizes, including an index of The Pulitzer Prize for Drama winners, Tony, Obie and Lucille Lortel Award winners as well as many regional awards such as Washington, D.C.'s Helen Hayes Awards and Boston's Elliot Norton Awards.
As times have changed, the series has continued to grow and change itself. In the early 1960s, Henry Hewes brought Off-Broadway to special attention in the series (though Jenkins states that Off-Broadway or its direct ancestors have been noted in Best Plays volumes since as early as 1934). A more recent change is the dropping of excerpts from the Ten Best Plays in favor of more reflective essays on the works, a decision made in light of the recent growth in play publishing which often results in the publication of a play before it opens on Broadway. Another notable change is in the number of women playwrights represented. In what has traditionally been a male-dominated field, nine of the eleven playwrights and collaborators responsible for the 2003-2004 plays are women.
The series has also expanded its reach to cover not only the theatrical world of New York, but around the entire country. As regional theatre has become the starting place for many of the Best American Plays in recent years, the series has expanded to include entries from over 90 theatrical companies across the country.
Jenkins notes that, as the scope of the series may have expanded, he hopes its level of criticism has deepened. Once, theatrical and dramatic criticism reflected a more ticket-driven objective: "Go see it" or "Don't." Today, as theatre's national place has moved culturally, criticism has changed to reflect this. Jenkins and his team hope to offer "a sense of where a play locates in culture today." American theatre has always reflected culture to some degree, as Jenkins points out, so today, Best Plays essayists ask "How does a play tell us who we are ... and how does it locate in our culture today?"
Of course, no two people will ever agree on which ten plays from one season are the ten best, but the Best Plays Theater Yearbook attempts to provide as accurate a glimpse as possible into the total American Theatre season, through its expansive coverage of plays across the country. Its Best Plays are chosen as the top of that very full list.
Some Broadway enthusiasts may note that musicals have played a rather small role in the history of Best Plays, though as Jenkins notes in his essay in the current edition, for most people Broadway has become almost synonymous with musicals - they are the greatest tourist attraction and provide the long commercial runs that keep Broadway in business. In the 2003-2004 edition, one of the Ten Best Plays is a musical, Kushner and Tesori's Caroline or Change, a challenging work which premiered Off-Broadway at The Public Theatre before transferring for a brief commercial run uptown. And, though the focus is not on the larger musicals, the series has always included musicals of note and influence, and cataloged their history in its many indices.
An important feature of the 2003-2004 edition of Best Plays is the Off-Off Broadway essay by the late critic Mel Gussow, cultural editor for The New York Times and author of such books as Edward Albee: A Singular Journey and Theatre on Edge: new Visions, New Voices. This essay completes a series on the topic of Off-Off Broadway Gussow wrote for Best Plays.
American Theatre, like American culture, is made up of ephemeral, elusive moments. Each year, new plays come and go, some last long and continually reappear in new productions or are adapted to the screen, achieving some level of permanence, but as every avid theatre-goer knows, what happens in the theatre can never be repeated. Each performance is a little bit different and can never quite be captured. For over eighty years, The Best Plays Theater Yearbook has provided our closest connection to those lost moments of our cultural and theatrical history and, thankfully, it continues to do so.
Look for the 86th Edition of The Best Plays Theater Yearbook covering the 2004-2005 season in Spring of 2006.
Search What's New on the Rialto