Andrzej Lukowski: The New York Times list of the best US plays would be annihilated by its British equivalent
The New York Times has caused something of a stir with a piece ranking the best 25 American plays written since Tony Kushner’s landmark Angels in America a quarter of a century ago.
What dismayed me about the list – drawn up by joint lead theatre critics Ben Brantley and Jesse Green and three freelances – was not that the grand old NYT was succumbing to writing listicles, but that it’s a pretty bad list.
This is not to say that Brantley and chums don’t know what they’re talking about. Indeed, I’m reassured they do by the fact there are some pretty amazing works in the top ten: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s piercingly clever An Octoroon, Annie Baker’s millennial masterpiece The Flick and Anne Washburn’s brain-melting Mr Burns. I haven’t seen the list topper, Suzan Lori-Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, but I would assume it is a spectacular piece of writing.
But here’s the thing: the equivalent British list would annihilate this one. In fact, a British list would be a stupid idea, because distilling the last quarter-century of our theatre down to just 25 plays would be ridiculous. Whereas for America… while there are some clear omissions, I’d say a list of 25 seems perfectly adequate, depressingly enough.
I’m pointing this out not to bang a drum for British theatre (though there is that), instead it feels like what should have been a celebration feels instead like a headstone, a presentation of evidence that America is greatly diminished as a dramatic force.
Clearly it would be a much better list if it were not limited to one entry per playwright. And hearteningly, some of the best stuff is very recent, with 30-somethings like Baker and Jacobs-Jenkins really just getting started.
But outside the top 10, there are few spots of genuine genius: it’s interesting one-hit-wonders and well-crafted middle-class dramas about family reunions.
Which might be okay so long as you at no point compare them to Sarah Kane. Or Caryl Churchill. Or Debbie Tucker Green. Or Lucy Prebble. Or Simon Stephens. Or Alice Birch. Or Mike Bartlett. Or Alistair McDowell. Or Martin Crimp. Or Kwame Kwei-Armah. Or Jez Butterworth. Or Martin McDonagh. Or Mark Ravenhill. Or. Or. Or…
There has been a lot of talk in the run up to this year’s Tony Awards about whether it’s fair that the Brits are so dominant in the play categories, with London transfers – principally Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Farinelli and the King and The Children – virtually shutting out the homegrown competition.
There are legitimate questions about why the best US drama is not making it to Broadway and is thus ineligible for its big awards. But as a rule, I’d say the reason British dramas are doing so well in the US is because British drama is in a healthier state than its US counterpart.
Sure, the Americans still annihilate us at musicals. Remember, they are having an ongoing golden age of television. And never doubt that their best playwrights are as good as our best playwrights. They just don’t seem to have as many of them these days.
You can speculate about why this is (theatre subsidy looms large) but the fact is that a weak US play scene is a blow to all of us – here’s hoping the next 25 years can take inspiration from Kushner’s mad masterpiece, not plod stolidly away from it.