I’m no authority on American drama, having seen far too little good drama on the stage, and having only scratched the surface of what’s available in print. I’ve always thought, for some reason, that Arthur Miller, Eugene O’neill, and Tennessee Williams were the Big Three, universally accepted to be head and shoulders above the rest. But now that I’ve read some of the collected works of William Inge and Horton Foote, I think Big Five might be a little more accurate. And I don’t doubt for a second that there have been plenty of brilliant playwrights I’ve never even heard of.
But, of the recent plays I’ve read, the ones that really stood out and tugged my slightly-frayed heartstrings most were Inge’s Bus Stop and Come Back Little Sheba, and Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful and The Chase. These four plays are so touching and gripping that I don’t see how to distinguish them, in terms of greatness, from the plays of Miller, O’neill or Williams.
Horton Foote and William Inge wrote plays cut very much from the same cloth: they wrote about regular small town people in the midwest or south, they wrote about being poor, getting old, finding someone to love or losing that someone. They wrote dialogue that sounds like regular small town folk. They didn’t embellish, but they somehow brought to light the deep-down problems that are real and inherent for us all.
Foote’s The Chase is exceptionally engrossing, and depicts a scenario and an issue—mob violence—that was so powerfully portrayed in Theodore Dreiser’s short story Nigger Jeff a generation earlier. But Foote’s characters are complex and conflicted, which makes the drama all the more compelling. I don’t expect I’ll ever have a chance to see these terrific plays on the stage, but at least I’ve seen them come to life in my head, and there they will stay.