Our Striking 'Century'

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The strike on Broadway is now over, but the writers' strike in Hollywood goes on. The past few weeks have shown how the dramatic arts, because of their dependence on sets, costumes, teamsters, actors and of course writers, are dependent on the needs of producers and money to bring them to life.

For heartbroken fans of drama out there: if you're finding this year's local stage choices slim... or you were in New York for Thanksgiving and missed the Broadway show you had tickers for... or if you're a scribe (or would-be scribe) who's wondering 'what hope is there for drama in the future if even high-priced TV writers are out of work?' Theatre Talk has this friendly reminder:

It may not seem like it, given the "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" shortsightedness of show business, but good writing does tends to get the last laugh. Now, it usually takes a long time for that laugh to be heard (which won't help writers with their mortgages) but a good show always outlasts even the worst business—just ask anyone who's read Sophocles or seen Shakespeare to name one of their producers.

An even better reminder of the lasting quality of fine dramatic writing is the newly published edition of The August Wilson Century Cycle: a box-set of all ten August Wilson plays in hardcover, with new introductions to each play by authors such as Toni Morrison, Suzan Lori-Parks, and Tony Kushner.

This collection (published by the nonprofit Theatre Communications Group) isn't cheap (it's $200 bucks retail, but I've found it for less on-line) yet for any writer it's worth it...and unlike buying, say, a DVD box-set, you can be sure the royalties are going to the author's estate, not some studio boss or media conglomerate.

All of Wilson's plays were published in his lifetime, but most people became acquainted with his vibrant dramas on stage. What makes this new edition so special—besides the quality feel of the books and their tastefully designed jacket covers—is that it unites his plays together and treats them as one long American epic.

Since Wilson's death two years ago, there has been a spike in productions of the playwright's work (many produced as a tribute to him) but that may well soon fade. This edition should help solidify Wilson's work in the American theatrical canon—and its literary canon too.

Re-reading the plays again over the weekend, the dialogue leapt from the page and sounded fresh in the mind's ear (despite my seeing many of them staged recently). Sure, Wilson's love of long speeches and his occasional heavy metaphors aren't hidden in print, but the flawed humanity and the almost-heroic frustrations of his characters are what shine brightest.

Most of all, while re-reading the plays, it was striking to see how Wilson's dramas aren't based on classical, European models, but rather, are built on the structures of American speech and music. It remains to be seen if Wilson becomes synonymous with our national identity like the plays of Shakespeare for England (or the writings of Goethe in Germany); but whatever posterity's verdict, this collection makes a strong case that for better or worse, no playwright chronicled the "American Century" more thoroughly or poetically than August Wilson.

The theater—and the art of dramatic writing in general—is experiencing turbulent times these days. It's good to know that publishers are producing books like The August Wilson Century Cycle so aficionados of great drama can read and enjoy these tragic, funny, lyric plays for centuries to come, regardless of the drama going on in the real world.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.