August 22, 2009


It's a pet peeve of mine that so many theatre companies tend to put on the same three dozen plays, over and over, eternally.

Over The River And Through the Woods was recently locally performed twice in the same season by two different companies, and I Do, I Do was performed by two different companies during exactly the same week! A new company is about to stage Doubt even though we just had a flawless, unfollowable production of it at Actors Theatre.

And come on, people, can we please, please, please make some sort of mutual pact to never stage The Odd Couple or Grease ever again in our lifetimes?

It seems like theatre nowadays is split into two camps: one that fetishizes newness for its own sake and puts on any "new plays" that come along, regardless if they're any good or not; and the other side obsesses on a small handful of well-worn familiar plays that everyone knows and has already seen multiple times.

But what about the vast untapped ocean of plays that aren't new, but have rarely been seen in years, perhaps decades and even centuries?

I have a copy of the 1953-1960 hardcover edition of Wilson's Play Index and it never fails to fascinate me, turning its dusty pages and reading the short and bewildering plot summaries of scores of obscure plays that have probably never been staged in my lifetime. Reading these summaries for prolonged periods of time has a very disorienting effect on my consciousness. Here's just a smattering of examples:

  • He Said He Was Santa by Edith Quick and James O. Fluckey, 1953. "When Santa gets lost in Swiss Alps he is rescued by gnomes who decide to cut off his hair and give him a shave while he is asleep." Three acts.

  • My Bus is Always Late by James Gibson, 1955. "Old lady waiting for bus in suburban bus station befriends a vagrant and reconciles a young couple." One act.

  • The Prescott Proposals by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. "Charming American woman finds her work on United Nations committee jeopardized by Communist intrigue." (I was surprised to learn that this play actually opened on Broadway in 1953 for a short run. I bet it's hardly been done since then, though.)

  • The Pastor's Guiding Hand by Lois M. Sandberg. "One day in the life of New England clergyman in 1872 as he settles quarrels and problems, and is mainstay of his parish". Two acts.

  • Out of the Mist by Olive Price. "Mysterious space man figures in young man's plot to win back his girlfriend from her absorption in astronomy". Three acts.

  • Paper Foxhole by James Elward. "In order to speed up return home at end of World War II, American soldiers in non-combat zone of Pacific stage fake attack by Japanese guerillas." (This one was actually staged on live television in 1956, on Kraft Television Theatre, and it was Rance Howard's second-ever role.)

  • Crispin the Tailor by Lillian Douglas. "A tailor and a magic bird drive away some witches and restore the count's lost daughter". One act.

    Many of the fascinating entries don't even include these meager descriptions, and we can only speculate on their content from their enigmatic titles, like N. McCaslin's The Gift of Corn, and S. Sakanishi's Plop! Click!.

    Ahem. Okay, well, so maybe these aren't the best examples to prove my point.

    But nevertheless, there remains a vast treasure trove of plays out there that have been long forgotten and deserve dusting off, waiting to be rescued from the Orwellian memory hole. Next time you're tempted to stage Kiss Me Kate for the 7000th time, or to stage some half-baked "edgy" new play about lesbian serial killers who fall in love while infiltrating Al-Qaeda and share their inner feelings about global warming, why not dip back into the cobwebbed past and resurrect some lost moldy oldie that may have new ironic resonance for a new generation?



    Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com.


    Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com.