Drama unfolds after Pulitzer snub of playwrights Commentary: Board ignores jurors' nominees in drama category.


This year marks the 14th time in its 80-year history that the Pulitzer Prize for drama was not awarded. No original American play dealing with American life -- that's the wording of the criteria -- was deemed worthy of the Pulitzer's national cachet.

It happens every so often with the journalism awards. In 1993, for instance, no prize was given for editorial writing.

But in the arts and letters categories, where the works under consideration are themselves more subjective, the awards process is also more prone to complications. Ten times since 1918, there has been no award for fiction, the last as recently as 1977.

But 14 times for drama is the record.

What, are there no significant American plays out there? As playwright Craig Lucas said: "Any Pulitizer Prize adjudicator who didn't feel sufficiently awed by, and grateful for, 'One Flea Spare,' by Naomi Wallace, 'How I Learned to Drive,' by Paula Vogel or 'Golden Child' by David Henry Hwang we can no longer take them seriously."

Lucas, Obie-award-winning author of "Reckless" and "Prelude to Kiss," is a little bit right but mostly wrong, and the theater community, which has let fly at the drama jury with unusual vehemence, is wrong, too.

It's not the drama jury -- a panel of theater critics whose job is to keep tabs on the year's drama offerings -- that's to blame for 1997's blunt "No award." The jury sends its recommendations to the 14-member Pulitzer board, composed of senior editors, writers and publishers, and it's there that the drama award is ratified or rejected.

Three plays recommended

In fact, this year's drama jury, in its genteel way, is madder than hell, for it had no trouble finding three plays to recommend.

The mechanics of the drama prize process are as follows: Each year, the board picks a jury of five theater critics whose job is to survey and cull the field, then nominate three finalists to the board. The list of finalists goes to the board, and a chairman's report goes with it to explain the jury's choices. The board then has the option to accept the nominations and choose one for a winner; to reject them and come up with its own choice; or to refuse to issue the award at all.

In the journalism categories, the board is known for horse-trading, moving a candidate from one category to another to strengthen its chances. In arts and letters, it's more common to defer to the jury's expertise -- except in drama. After all, everyone's a critic.

There are problems with the drama process. Anyone can send the jury a script, including such advocates as playwrights' agents and Broadway producers. It's not uncommon to have 40 or more scripts to wade through, all but a handful of questionable merit.

Though journalism entries must come from the prior calendar year, submissions for drama can -- and do -- continue until March 1. Once when I was on the jury, we were in the midst of voting when a messenger from the Pulitzer office came to the restaurant and deposited late-arriving scripts on the table, as though the jurors were to read them then and there. We made a speedy executive decision not to.

Until the mid-'80s, the jury consisted of three critics, almost always from New York. After 1986, the board expanded the jury to five and tried to diversify its membership with critics more familiar with regional theater, where most new plays are generated.

But no matter how diverse and knowledgeable the jury, it can only recommend. The board rules. And though the award is for script, not production, the board prefers plays it can see on a stage in New York, right before it votes.

This year, the finalists were "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," by Alfred Uhry; "Pride's Crossing," by Tina Howe; and "Collected Stories," by Donald Margulies.

The jury that selected them was chaired by Jeremy Gerard, former drama critic of Variety, now a news editor at New York magazine. The other members were Jack Kroll, Newsweek; Christine Dolan, Miami Herald; Laurie Weiner, Los Angeles Times; and Clive Barnes, New York Daily News, filling out the term of the New York Times' Sunday critic, Vincent Canby, who withdrew for health reasons.

I can make a good guess as to the board's reasons for rejecting the finalists. I've neither seen nor read "Collected Stories," but it premiered at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif., and none of the board saw it.

"Pride's Crossing," which premiered at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, is based on the life of Gertrude Ederle, the American swimmer who was the first woman to swim alone across the English Channel, in 1926. Michael Phillips, theater critic of the San Diego Union-Tribune, told me that playwright Howe had let it be known that "Pride's Crossing" was slated for a thorough rewrite before it opens at Lincoln Center next fall. She could have another chance at the prize next year.

Uhry's "Ballyhoo" (which was the jury's unofficial favorite) is about the internecine conflict between the cultivated, assimilated German Jews of Atlanta and a brash, loud, Eastern European emigre Jew from New York, who stirs up things on the eve of the premiere of "Gone With the Wind."

However much the play mirrors the experience of other American immigrant groups, Uhry has already won a Pulitzer Prize, for "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1988. It blended the theme of Jewish assimilation and the civil rights movement into a much more thought-provoking script.

When the board could not agree on any of the jury's nominees, it took a minority recommendation (from Kroll) and saw "Stonewall Jackson's House," by Jonathan Reynolds. This pointed comedy, which pokes fun at political correctness and arts funding, is probably too acerbic, and certainly too sarcastic, for a Pulitzer Prize, whose 66 previous drama awards have honored noble sacrifice and earnest patriotism.

Opening was too late

Paula Vogel's play opened too late for submission, but even so, a drama about an amiable child molester is never going to get past its subject with the Pulitzer board. And Naomi Wallace, though an American, wrote "One Flea Spare" about the plague in century London. No matter how much of an analogy can be drawn to AIDS, this is not a play about American life.

As for "Golden Child," it didn't make the cut. That, no matter how much it displeases Craig Lucas, is the jury's prerogative.

I guess it's asking too much to give the prize to Roger Guenveur Smith's brilliant portrait of America gone wrong in "A Huey P. Newton Story," which played a pre-New York run at Center Stage in November. That would have been my choice, but the board isn't that brave.

So: no award.

The Pulitzer board can be forgiven for not wanting to pick the wrong play. Its track record is nothing to be proud of. The board still smarts from the 1945 prize to "Harvey" by Mary Chase, which it picked over "The Glass Menagerie" by a then-unknown playwright, Tennessee Williams. Then there was 1963, when the board issued no award rather than dignify the drunken, swinish profanity of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" So sordid!

But this is 1997, and the board has insulted its own jury (yet again!) in a year that has produced an acceptable crop of American drama. No one may be writing the next "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (Eugene O'Neill's fourth Pulitzer, awarded posthumously in 1957), but we have also learned to weed out "Harvey."

Are there no good American plays out there? Somehow, the drama jury always finds three. But who knows what this Pulitzer board is looking for? If it were presented with "Long Day's Journey," how many of them would stop reading before the end of Act 1? It's repetitive. It's depressing. It's got drugs in it. And it's just ... so long.

Judith Green was theater critic of the San Jose Mercury News when she served on the 1994 and 1996 Pulitzer drama juries. She now lives in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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