The Evolution of American Drama

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Over the past 250 years, America as a nation has evolved. Its beliefs, customs, and citizens have undergone changes with the times. It seems only natural, then, that its drama would also evolve. American drama of the 20th century was far removed from that of the 18th century. The differences are stark and many, and to fully appreciate what American drama is today, it helps to know where it came from. The evolution of American drama, from its earliest form to the modern works of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, can be traced through three plays from the 18th and 19th centuries. By studying Thomas Godfrey’s The Prince of Parthia, Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, and James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, the evolution of American drama can be seen through the development of plot, character, language, and setting, each of which bring us closer to the naturalism that is prevalent in modern American drama.
The plot of each of the three plays stands out from the others. The Prince of Parthia is a revenge tragedy that centers around Arsaces, a hero and prince who is in line to take over the throne of Parthia. His younger brother, the jealous Vardanes, plots to kill Arsaces, and take the throne himself. In the end, Vardanes is mortally wounded in battle. Evanthe, the love interest of Arsaces, gets word that Arsaces has been killed and takes her own life by drinking poison. Arsaces reacts to this by killing himself and the youngest brother, Gotarzes, takes over as king. The plot obviously borrows heavily from English tragedy, especially Shakespeare. The final scene of two distraught lovers, each one unable to live without the other, seems a direct lift from Romeo and Juliet. The presence of the ghost of the murdered King Artabanus reminds the...

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... house in Death of a Salesman. The language of modern American drama is real; it is moving. It is not poetry in a Shakespearean sense. The words of Hickey in The Iceman Cometh don’t rhyme, but the passion is evident in the subject manner and through stage direction. Finally, the setting of modern American drama rings true to the reader, largely because they are real places. O’Neill spent time in bars like the ones he wrote about. We can go to Canton, Massachusetts, where Margaret Fleming was set. We can go to Brooklyn, where A View from the Bridge was set. Drama has slowly evolved over the past 250 years. The evolution started with a play that was largely influenced by English drama. Then came a play that was decidedly American. Lastly, Herne took the step to create a naturalistic work, setting the stage for what would follow and be known as modern American drama.

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