A Brief History of American Theater
The plays performed in colonial America were imitative of the plays performed in England. Most of these plays were commentaries or satires of life and politics. Playwriting did not truly begin until the 18th century when William Dunlap started writing plays.
In the 19th century, plays were written in America. However, they were never meant to be read. They were only to be seen and heard. Very few plays that existed were actually published. The literature was not really important as long as the play was successful on the stage.
Of course, actors were important. It was a playwright's job to provide actors with good roles. The actors would travel from city to city constantly performing plays. They were not interested in if a playwright had social commentary or literary worth. They were only interested in playing good roles.
Types of dramas that existed in 19th century America were spectacles, pantomimes, minstrel sketches, Classic tragedies, melodramas, comedies, farces, and burlesques. These were largely derived from English and French sources.
After the Civil War, people in America became much more aware of what was happening locally. This changed playwriting. Yankee plays and pioneer plays began to appear. The problem of slavery was introduced into plays. Melodramas still existed, but they dealt with American society and American problems. When plays were not so good, a better play was often written off the basis of the bad play.
Playwrights in the 20th century were concerned with a fresh interpretation of story, dialogue, and character. However, the quality of American drama was not all that high as the 20th century began. Plays were often written to order or imported from abroad. This was to make sure that the theater succeeded.
A new faith was soon shown in the high dignity and destiny of American theater. Playwrights wrote thoughtful and imaginative plays. These plays has psychological grasp and spiritual reach. Playwrights and poets did not worry about commercial claims.
After World War I, there was a huge move from amateur to professional in playwriting and in acting. This move was important for the American dramatists to be able to develop strength, skills, and outlooks.
By 1930, the industry was not as enthusiastic, but many great plays were still written and produced. Then, in the 1960s, a freshness of style and speech was introduced. An important development was "the happening." In this unidentified people pursued ambiguous and sometimes meaningless activities. By the 1970s, plays focused on social commentary.
Today, all these forms exist and playwriting and theater continues to grow.
Resource: Collier's Encyclopedia