History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Early American 21st

Nilo Cruz

Nilo Cruz described personal conflicts among cigar factory workers

Among plays in 21st century American theatre, "Anna in the tropics" (2002) by Nilo Cruz (1960-?) has drawn attention.

“Cheché consistently pushes for the mechanization of the factory, seeking to replace its workers with automation and removing the need for a paid lector. Santiago and his family hold fast to the traditions of their past, arguing for the continuation of hand-rolled cigars, and the need for Juan Julian to continue to read and inspire the workers. Anna in the Tropics swells with intense passion and lyricism as it enraptures its audience in a mystic, tropical spell” (Ramírez, 1984 p 482).

“Ofelia, Marela, and Conchita each experience differing kinds of sadness that I read as a critique of their conditions of existence. Each woman is viewed as a subordinate, and not an equal, by the men in their lives. However, their actions and transformations challenge those conditions. How Conchita, in particular, arrives at transformation rests on the way that Anna in the Tropics evokes and plays with the practice of embodied spirituality in its depiction of lovemaking between Conchita and Juan Julian. Recounting the experience to her husband, Conchita notes that Juan Julian asked her to show him how she loves Palomo, an experience she describes as “terrifying” and that she thought “impossible” because it allows Juan Julian to ‘occupy that space in me’ and turns them both into actors inhabiting other roles. She, in turn, asks Juan Julian ‘to pretend to be me and I dressed him in my clothes’. Through these acts of surrender, and gender-bending- that might also be read as queer acts- each is able to “enter the life of another human being.” By first showing Juan Julian how she loves, then loving Juan Julian as he becomes her, Conchita gives way, in a sense, to herself, becoming a more self-loving person. Just as important, she doesn’t hide this experience from her husband Palomo, but instead employs it to create a stronger bond” (Delgadillo, 2018 pp 349-350).

"Anna in the tropics"

To prevent factory workers' attention from flagging, Conchita reads from Anna Karenina and other novels

Time: 1929. Place: Ybor City, Florida, USA.

Text at https://pdfcoffee.com/anna-in-the-tropicspdf-pdf-free.html

Workers at a cigar factory hire a lector, Juan Julian, whose function is to read entertaining novels to prevent boredom while they work. The owner of the factory, Santiago, loses a considerable amount of money to his half-brother, Cherché, while gambling at a cockfight. At a loss to pay him back, Santiago is forced to give up shares of the company to him. After hearing the start of Leo Tolstoy's novel, "Anna Karenina", Santiago's daughter, Conchita, confronts her husband, Palomo, about his marital infidelities, and says that she has the same right as he. While discussing the love affairs contained in the novel with Juan Julian, but aware that her husband is watching, Conchita kisses him. To increase profits, Cherché buys machines to roll the cigars, but the workers worry about losing their jobs. Along with her sister, Marela, and their mother, Conchita agrees that such a move will have the unfortunate consequence of their firing the reader, who cannot be heard above the noise of the machines. The workers vote to maintain the reader. Still with the increase of profits in mind, Santiago has another idea: providing a new brand of cigar, which the workers agree is a fine one. He pays back Cherché and orders him to rid himself of the machines. He also dresses up Marela in Russian clothes to publicize the new brand. Her beauty attracts Cherché; he courts her and, when unsuccessful in his desires, rapes her. Meanwhile, Palomo requests Conchita to yield details concerning her sexual relations with Juan Julian. When she complies, they make love on the factory grounds. While discussing Anna Karenina's husband, Cherché, having lost his wife years ago to a reader, opines that he should have killed her lover. During the workers' celebration of the new cigar brand, Cherché stalks Juan Julian and shoots him dead.

John Patrick Shanley

Shanley described conflicts arising between a nun and a priest suspected of instigating sexual relations with a schoolboy. Photo of the author, 2015

John Patrick Shanley (1950-?) attracted attention with "Doubt" (2004).

"The success of 'Doubt' suggests that there's life yet in the well-made play...Despite its conventional aesthetics, Doubt manipulates and frustrates our desire to empathize with a character who represents our own convictions. Most strikingly, it refuses the denouement proper to its genre: the religious hypocrite is not unmasked, and the possibility that he is not a hypocrite remains open...an imaginative drama, with its absence of forensic evidence or victim testimony, freedom to embrace contradictions...Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius enact the battle between the new Church and the old, between clerical men and religious women, between possible abuser and preemptive defender...Father Flynn is more opaque than his female antagonist; his performance, not hers, produces the mystery. His modern attitudes and his attractive insistence on 'warmth, kindness, understanding' bring Sister James over to his side...Perhaps the theatrical code of Doubt can be cracked by reference to external sources...conforming to Shanley's repeated assertion that the final act occurs between audience members after the theatre has closed" (Cullingford, 2010 pp 246-259).

“The structure of the play reveals Sister Aloysius’s suspicion in the time-honored tradition of narrative drama. Morsels of proof and disproof are tossed the audience’s way, building two rival cases: conviction or exculpation...[The priest's] departure does not end the doubt, but intensifies it. The closing line comes from Sister Aloysius, bent with emotion, comforted by young Sister James, groaning: 'I have doubts! I have such doubts."...But what does this final line mean for her and for us? The answers are layered. We should interpret her as wondering, now that victory is hers, whether she accused Father Flynn unjustly. This is the doubt of rumor and gossip, a deficit of certain and secure knowledge. But further, Sister Aloysius doesn't execute justice, but merely moves the infractions elsewhere, perhaps to a locale with no vigilant guardian. The boys of St Nick's are safe, but what of those of St Jerome down the road?...To these doubts we theorists add our institutional doubt. Part of the tragedy results from the boundaries of power set by the Church. In the early 1960s a nun and a priest could not converse without witnesses. The Church feared men and women, not men and boys. In the Church, as in the military, complaints could only be directed to one’s immediate superior; at St Nick’s this is a doddering monsignor who dismisses Sister Aloysius’s fears. The institutional order ignores justice, leaving extra-organizational action as the only recourse...Sociology, the study of people, their groups, their relations, their transactions, and their rules, knows that disputes motivate collective action. Contesting views of the true and the good generate change. Our faith is doubt” (Fine, 2006 pp 70-71). “The Catholic Church is...depicted as reprehensible in the play for not providing fair, impartial procedures for ascertaining abuse” (Hornby, 2005 p 471).

“When Mrs Muller learns that Sister Aloysius has no proof of her suspicions, she is frustrated that Sister Aloysius is dragging her son into a situation that could interfere with his education and, even worse, could get him into trouble at home with her husband...For Sister Aloysius, however, having no concrete evidence, her suspicions rest on a particular interpretation of actions that could be read in several ways…She enlists the aid of a young new teacher, Sister James...pulled into Sister Aloysius’ manipulations. Her distrust of the more progressive Father Flynn is [related] to her distrust of modernization and her need to maintain control...Both Father Flynn and Sister James reject the harsh disciplinarian style of dealing with students and can be seen as a changing church...Sister James, however, as a new teacher and a woman, is under Sister Aloysius’ control, unlike Father Flynn...In this play, truth becomes a game that is connected to power, power that can either stem from surreptitious manipulation or from formal institutional hierarchies” (Saddik, 2014 pp 288-291).


Father Flynn befriends a schoolboy who develops strange behaviors, a matter of doubt arising as to the underlying reason. Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic church, Troy, New York

Time: 1964. Place: New York, USA.

Text at ?

In a Catholic grammar school, Father Flynn sermonizes on the subject of human bonds, specifying that negative ones can also be binding. "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty," he declares. Sister Aloysius, principal of the school, criticizes Sister James for excessive friendliness towards the students. Sister James reluctantly acquiesces to this charge. She later informs her superior that the only black boy in the school, Daniel Muller, is not teased by the other boys as one would expect because Father Flynn serves as his protector. Sister Aloysius immediately becomes suspicious of this relationship. Sister James later informs her that after leaving Father Flynn's company at the rectory, the boy appeared strange in class and his breath smelled of alcohol. More suspicious than ever, Sister Aloysius asks to see Father Flynn in her office to question him about Muller. Father Flynn's explanation of the boy's strange behavior is that he stole and drank some altar wine. She does not believe this story and calls the boy's mother to learn more. But the mother knows nothing. Despite hearing the sister's suspicions, the mother prefers to let things remain as they are. However, Sister Aloysius wants to pursue the matter. To his face, she accuses Father Flynn of an illicit relation with the boy. To provoke him to confess, she pretends to have spoken to a nun at his previous appointment and learned of his guilt. Though denying any wrongdoing, he quits his position and obtains a better one elsewhere. To Sister Aloysius, his flight is tantamount to admitted guilt, to Sister James a subject of doubt.

Charles Mee


"A perfect wedding" (2004) is a comedy drama by Charles Mee (1938-?), whose characters derive from an earlier play, Wintertime (2002) (Cummings, 2018 pp 105-106).

"A perfect wedding"

A wedding party degenerates into a fight in a mud-pit, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Time: 2000s. Place: USA.

Text at http://www.panix.com/userdirs/meejr/html/perfectwedding.html

On Meridee and Amadou's wedding day, the bride's brother, Jonathan, is heard to make cynical comments. "A bride and groom start out in life with their whole marriage, the whole center of their lives from then on, based on things they think are a total lie," he says. Before the ceremony, the bridegroom decides to takes a walk in the woods without knowing there is quicksand there. Jonathan is amazed Amadou was never told of that. The wedding party start to worry as his absence is all the more prolonged. Meridee decides to look for him in the woods, where she meets James, the boyfriend of her sister, Tessa. "I saw you standing here feeling lost and abandoned and my heart just went out to you," he says. Meridee impulsively kisses him, then quickly goes on her way. When Tessa arrives, James comments favorably on the human susceptibility of feeling disoriented. "Maybe sometimes it's not bad to be lost, Tessa, to be reminded how it is to step out into the unknown, because whether a person is afraid or not there is a certain sense of exhilaration that comes from just throwing yourself into new territory; it sets you free," he says. He asks her to marry him, but she refuses. When Jonathan's girlfriend, Ariel, arrives, she appears moved at seeing James. "Seeing you standing here feeling lost and abandoned, my heart just went out to you," Ariel says, kissing the bewildered James. As he rushes out, she finds Jonathan and sounds out his feelings about marriage. He appears uninterested. After he leaves, she finds Amadou, the man everyone is looking for. Seeing Ariel in a depressed mood, Amadou kisses her. That kiss is seen by Amadou's bride, Meridee. "I thought the next big event of my life would be getting married, but now I see the next big event will be dying," she dejectedly declares. "I've pursued you and pursued you and pursued you in every way for all these years and you have rejected me and rejected me and rejected me," she complains. "I keep trying over and over to let you go, and even as I say that it takes my breath away to think that I would let go of the only person in my life I have ever loved so completely, you've been my life itself to me, that's what I find so hard to let go of and why, when I come close to letting go, it feels like the only death I'll die." To console her, Ariel kisses her, leading to more passionate kisses. When Amadou's family arrive at the party, they find no Amadou. His father, Vikram, chats about his preferences concerning the female body and his wife, Djamila, about Hindu deflowering rituals. He mentions his first wife left him. The guests and wedding planners commiserate with him. Heated words are exchanged among Amadou's family members. Willy throws a mudball at Frank's chest and Edmund retaliates in the same manner. When Vikram intervenes, Frank throws a mudball at him and a general melee ensues inside a mud-pit until Maria cries out there may be quicksand in the area. Instead of fighting, they try to extricate themselves from the mud. At last, Meridee arrives to say she no longer wants to marry Amadou. In the confusion, Frank is told that his mother has just died and sees two men carrying in her coffin. He collapses, then, panic-stricken; digs a hole to be with her, helped by the wedding guests. Seeing an opportunity to make more money, the wedding organizers propose to plan the funeral, but the guests simply join hands in a circle, keen, and ululate. Champagne is passed around. Vikram warns his son not to be overhasty in his decision. "When you come to the end of your life, what do you think will have mattered to you at all except that you knew another person and loved her?" he asks rhetorically. With the wedding paraphernalia soon to be wasted, two of the planners, Issac and Dieter, decide to marry each other, by which time Meridee surprises Amadou by choosing Ariel as a wedding partner instead of him. This agreed to, Tessa confesses having always loved Amadou and he affirms the same concerning her. In the general joy of a double wedding, Frank reaches down to take a handful of dirt and slowly pours it out of his hand over his mother's coffin.

Neil LaBute

LaBute highlights teen-teen and teen-parent clashes

Troubles among youths are the subject of "The distance from here" (2002) by Neil LaBute (1963-?).

“The picture that emergences from ‘The distance from here’ is of a group of teenagers who sense their exclusion but affect not to care. Two of them have not yet entirely given up on the possibility of escaping their situation, but the third- misogynistic, racist- looks for meaning in spasm of violence which is his only route to self-definition, like Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas in Native Son, seeking to raise himself above his circumstances by proving himself capable of the unthinkable...Rich...is reminiscent of Stanley Kowalski [but lacks his] shrewdness...For Darrell, to cheat, to steal, is his way of winning a victory over a system in which he can see no other way of succeeding. He mocks Tim for working...The climatic moment...comes at the penguin pool...In the final scene...Tim and Jenn return to the penguin pool. He intends to go in the water and find the baby, though why is not clear. They both confess to vague dreams of escape, even as they are drawn to this place. It seems clear that they will never leave the world into which they have been born. Nobody is going anywhere...Darrell and Tim exchange playful punches, which always threaten to devolve into something more serious. Rich slaps Shari as an intimation of intimacy, and, finally, Darrel kills a baby in a gesture which compacts a lifetime of frustration” (Bigsby, 2007 pp 119-128).

“In The Distance From Here, there is no aesthetic appearance to offer a disintegrating reality and the figures are impoverished, failed by the school system and banished from the American dream...If these youngsters are the abandoned generation, there will be no babies to follow them...Scenes in the zoo and in a pet shop switch with living room scenes, implying a clear equivalence” (Innes, 2014 pp 138-141).

“Just as violence in LaBute remains without redemption, it also remains without punishment. There is no poetic justice. LaBute’s ordinary burghers simply get away with their everyday brutalities…occasionally ‘lighting out for the territory’ (as Darrell does in The Distance from Here)...As in Restoration comedy- which the playwright uses as a dramaturgical model for a number of his works (particularly Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men)- the LaButian universe is effectively emptied out of moral concern; it is a world in which moral concern itself is mocked” (Saal, 2008 p 332).

"The distance from here"

A penguin pool becomes a scene of child murder when Darrell discovers that Jenn aborted their progeny

Time: 2000s. Place: USA.

Text at ?

Two teenage friends, Darrell and Tim, are shopping at a mall. While Darrell waits around expecting to find his girlfriend, Jenn, he impatiently heads out to get a refill of his drink. When she shows up, Tim hands her a gift, a compact disk Darrell once gave him. Because she is in a hurry, Jenn does not wait for Darrell and asks Tim on her way out to avoid mentioning to him that she passed by. At home, Darrell's stepfather, Rich, invites him to see stock-car racing. He accepts. The next day, in the school parking lot, Darrell discovers from a friend that she saw Tim talking with Jenn at the mall. Back home, Darrell prepares to sleep when Shari, Rich's daughter, invites him to sleep next to her. He declines. The next day, he confronts Tim about his omission at the mall and asks him not to do so again. At the end of the afternoon, Darrell, Tim, and Jenn are held up for different reasons at the school's detention center. Darrell encourages Tim to leave early with him, but Jenn, in fear of being expelled, declines to follow. Short of money, Darrell asks Rich to loan him some to buy a gift for Jenn's birthday, but he pretends not having any. A frustrated Darrell sneaks out with the keys of Rich's car and heads to a pet shop to buy Jenn a puppy. An employee at the place remembers having seen Jenn on a videotape of a friend's house engaging in oral sex and getting beaten up by him. Darrell is stunned. With Darrell absent, Rich goes out with his daughter to the stock car race. At the same time, Darrell takes hold of Shari's baby, drives out in Rich's car, and heads for the zoo, where he meets Tim and Jenn in front of the penguin pool. He confronts Jenn about the videotape, threatening to throw the baby into the pool unless she speaks the truth. She admits that two years ago the man on the videotape hit her stomach to abort Darrell's progeny and that oral sex was the man's reward since she was out of money to pay him. He nevertheless throws the baby into the pool and prevents Tim's attempts at rescue. While Jenn defends Tim from being pummeled, the baby dies. Although Rich and Shari worry about Darrell's absence as well as the baby's, they console themselves with lover-like kisses while awaiting for news.