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Insiders/Outsiders and the U.S. Stage

Andrew DeVries, The Other Side of Eden. Courtesy of the artist.

Among the lesser discussed aspects of “mainstream” theater (and film as well as TV) in the U.S. is its overarching goal to stir proud “insider” feelings in its large-scale audiences. Realism became a major implement in that regard. What could make “us ticket-holders” feel more welcome than the stage’s invisible fourth wall: for us to see and hear through, as we sit invisible in the dark, “flies on the wall,” our only hoped for sounds to be our collective laughter, tears, or resounding climactic applause.

Needless to say, “outsiders” too are invariably, in far smaller numbers, among these audiences. Liberal, compassionate, generous, as our majority of theaters see their functions to be, they not only welcome “us” too in various ways, they also mount plays that for over a century often include some representative of “us,” a character on stage with whom “insiders” can sympathize, worry about, and pray for, reinforcing for most audience members a self-image of tolerance and understanding, while seeming to embrace, for a smaller proportion of other members, an anguished yet hopeful identification with the “outsider” individual sincerely portrayed in the spotlight.

When, in the late 19-teens, a branch of the mainstream theatrical trunk first forms in Provincetown, Massachusetts and extends to NYC’s Greenwich Village, a surge of outsider individuals comes to wider attention in the skilled hands of such playwrights as Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell. Still, there is generally only one central outsider per play, and the ambiance or social structure becomes subject to criticism short of any urgent plea for systematic overthrow. The roots of this shortchange grow more exposed as O’Neill and a handful of cohorts gain access to mainstream productions and publicity. By the mid-1950s, a tenuous bridge forms between the commercial theater and what such acute theatrical analysts as Marc Robinson come to term “The Other American Drama.”  Increasingly, plays and playwrights (soon to propel the risen star of Tennessee Williams) begin to shuttle from Village to Broadway and back. Just as Henrik Ibsen came to be cited as “The Father of Modern Drama,” an increasingly celebrated alternative or “avant-garde” legacy, in Europe and America alike, can cite expatriate Gertrude Stein as its Mother. From the 1960s to the present, the Cuban-American marvel, Maria-Irene Fornes parades this important flag of “the other American drama” through yet more decades with her writing, directing, and teaching (even now, however, she is still not fully given her due). At Smith College in the early 1990s, I had the joy of launching a seminar, titled “Irene Fornes and her Children,” examining not only Fornes’s prolific output but also that of her students, whose own plays increasingly populated alternative and Latinx stages and who, as Fornes recurrently did, visited the Smith campus to discuss their plays and professional heritage.

By the time of Fornes’s era, audiences were up and walking, houselights were on, and performance/spectator space was variously up for grabs. In Europe this anti-realist turnaround had come seventy years earlier than in the U.S., hardly many years after realism’s own rise. In the U.S., through its delayed heyday in the ’60s with the Living Theatre and Open Theatre ensembles, and the plenitude of other “underground” writers and performance artists, intelligent audiences’ theoretical compassion, too long off-set by degrees of complacency and inactive hopes for social improvement, became increasingly bombarded. Yet, despite exceptions, outsiders remained outside, at times even attacked as secret conformists for their startling collective (albeit momentary) popularity.

In fact, from Yank in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1922) or Lenny in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) on through to John Merrick, the title character in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man (1977) and beyond, conventional U.S. hit-play structures never cease to position the fringe or freak or exceedingly oppressed and terrified or outraged outsider character as a fluke, an unfortunate idiosyncratic departure from the acknowledged societal norm with whom the “insider” audience members identify. Often counter to the playwright’s impassioned intent, the deviant character does not stir sufficient audience cognizance (except among alert and socially engaged critics) of the economic, historic, sexual, biological, generational, racial, gendered, and other incendiary issues that warrant immediate and revolutionary approach. The outsider’s despair is exemplified in the extreme by the city zoo’s caged gorilla with whom O’Neill’s Yank identifies and then liberates, only to have the ape fatally crush Yank in what can be taken as an embrace, tossing his body into the cage to die.

In many more American plays than the three cited above, injustice and abuse generally close in on one victim only. Such evils are readily represented on stage as the product of a corrupt social and domestic system, even where, as distinct from The Hairy Ape, in Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine (1923), and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal (1928), the victim becomes not the murdered but the murderer. Threats to a larger victimized population can routinely be extrapolated (as audiences were prone to do from late nineteenth-century Europe onward). But in the U.S., even the grimmest plays, positioning themselves as box-office entertainment, were most likely to lead to personal nightmares rather than idealistic crowd protests and riots. In the aggregate, a marginalized character’s heart-wrenching inability to fit in might require, in a twentieth-century U.S. blockbuster, a contrasting scene partner of greater aptitude and appeal, or the noble appearance of a would-be savior (like the “deformed” John Merrick’s Dr. Treves), someone who strives to end what the sufferer has too long and intolerably had to endure.

Dramatic exceptions can not only “prove the rule,” they sometimes reveal the rule’s basis by means of the fragments that are retained, adjusted, and merged with fresh elements. In this regard, Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1952), a Broadway success tellingly misconstrued (as I explicate below), holds cultural norms of gender and marital morals up to unnerving scrutiny. Anderson’s protagonist, a boys’ prep school student, Tom Lee, strives to sustain an authentic self, yet becomes a magnet for others’ ridicule of what they view as his non-masculine behavior: He casually accepts a gay teacher’s invitation to go privately nude-swimming together; he also opts to play tennis rather than rougher team sports, and, most publicly, he takes on female roles in school plays (largely driven by a profound infatuation with his headmaster’s wife, Laura, one of the school’s few female residents, who is allowed the standard woman’s niche of being costumer for the school’s theater productions). Departing from yet another attribute conventionally held to be male, Tom does not separate sex from love, and he has a disastrous, self-questioning encounter with a female prostitute. Laura’s grasp of what Tom is all about, coupled with her perception that her husband’s repressed homosexuality fuels the self- hatred that drives him to be so contemptuous of Tom, escalates her involvement with Tom’s confusion and turmoil. She provides the play’s climax with what might arguably be deemed compassionate adultery, or (as some would reduce it) a misguided attempt to save Tom from doubting his own straight proclivity at the cost of turning herself into the school’s latest outcast. Laura’s vision for Tom and for her husband alike is to connect them to the frightening impulses they’ve fled, and it is the so-called feminine side of both males that deeply moves and appeals to her.

If Anderson had kept to just one issue, Tom’s struggle to nurture his valiant, idiosyncratic identity, the diminished magnitude and calmer moral debate in the resulting play might have kept it more lastingly acceptable. But the very import of the play’s title, the inadequacy of genteel, polite assistance to a beleaguered outcast, demanded the play’s forthright and controversial outcome, launching the roller-coaster trajectory of its stage history ever since. Significantly, gay activists I know and respect came to feel betrayed by Tea and Sympathy, because it seemed to kowtow to Broadway’s need at the time to “redeem” Tom. They view Laura as determined to save him from a presumed fear of being gay. The play’s “happy ending,” thus, would be that, when Tom accepts Laura’s sexual welcome, it proves he is “not gay after all.” That Tom’s attraction to Laura compels his behavior throughout each act, and that Laura acts only on what she has realized from the outset carries little weight in this misconstrued take on this play. Nor is validation given to Laura’s final-line concern, “Years from now, when you speak of this— and you will—be kind.” Laura’s “and you will” reveals her grasp of the mean-spirited bravado, the misogyny, of straight male attitudes toward heterosexual sex, of their use of women not as partners to love but as notches on their belts. With her climactic decision (every bit as courageous in Laura’s time as Ibsen’s Nora leaving her husband in A Doll’s House in 1879), Laura joins Tom openly as the play’s second and distinctively contrasting outsider, emphatically for the rest of her life without Tom.

Among a handful of other pioneering plays that, like Tea and Sympathy, effectively expand the template described here (where only one oppressed outsider and one compassionate insider is allowed per play), Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) deserves a particularly rousing salute. She found a home on Broadway for a complex black family that audiences of color might find both familiar and thought-provoking. Moreover, for white liberal audiences, the psychological and emotional dimensions of Hansberry’s astutely differentiated Chicago residents—who face obstacles when they make plans to move to a white neighborhood—may pose challenges to their consciousness as well as their conscience: Hansberry evokes her dream-spurred family, the Youngers, through their attachment to each other and their all the more heated kinship confrontations, only partly linked to the external racism they must surmount. Her mosaic of excitingly profound souls becomes yet more intricate when Beneatha Younger, intellectual and religious rebel that she is, in her hopes to become a doctor, brings her Nigerian boyfriend Joseph Asagai to her family home and formidable consequences ensue. A Raisin in the Sun is but the most resoundingly appreciated of Hansberry’s wide-ranging and masterly achievements within her tragically abbreviated life. The play is joined in insight, passion, and comprehensive grasp, not only of our nation’s but our world’s myriad struggling outsiders and groups, through two more of her full-length works, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and her staggeringly ignored Les Blancs, set in Africa and as ideologically and humanly mind-blowing as the courageous oeuvre of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka.   

Finally, I wish us to consider here two more instances of distinguished outsider portrayal from the past two years. In Lindsey Ferrentino’s Amy and the Orphans (2018), the playwright takes the anticipated sentimental approach to Amy, a middle-aged woman with Down Syndrome, and stands it on its head. Amy counts herself less an orphan among her siblings than her ostensibly normal brother and sister, themselves inclined to treat Amy alone as the one primarily orphaned by the death of their parents. For Amy, handed over from infancy to one institution after another with starkly varied qualities of care, her parents’ passing is sheer fact. She does not need, and definitely does not want, her siblings to take her, at long last, into either of their homes. She has her group home community, her genuine friends among its residents and staff, and, perhaps above all, her love of film and her memories of her favorite film scenes—these sustain her nicely, thank you. In Julia Cho’s Office Hour (2015), we have a student of color, silent, hat pulled down over his eyes, a young man whose graphic writing is violent in the extreme, and who strikes veteran faculty as a danger they must act to prevent. When the junior faculty member among them repeatedly tries to get through to this student, her discoveries about him and her revelations to him about herself, impulsively toss out many commonly practiced rules of civility. The outcome, though, is devastating, and in Office Hour we clearly see why: nothing short of a systematic revolution has a chance of lasting change. The North American playwrights who believe this (and multitudes of gifted dramatists are north of the 49th Parallel, too) are showing us what must be done… and how. We have at hand today a veritable army of pertinent exceptional playwrights, though too few have yet to receive the scale of recognition their brave stunning work deserves.

LEN BERKMAN, Anne Hesseltine Hoyt Professor of Theatre, has taught at Smith College for 51 years. Veteran new play development dramaturg with numerous theater companies, his latest play is We Three (Wir Drei, in Yannik Raiss' German translation).


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