Commentary Magazine

I Am My Own Playwright

The one-person play is now so familiar a genre for theatergoers that many would be surprised to learn it is among the youngest of all theatrical forms—little more than a half-century old. Because such shows are well liked by audiences and cost comparatively little to mount, many regional theater companies contrive to balance their books by putting on a new one every season. One (perhaps solipsistic) indication of the genre’s appeal is that my first play, a one-man show about Louis Armstrong called Satchmo at the Waldorf, will be produced this season by two different New England theater companies. It is unlikely that either troupe would have agreed to collaborate on a production of a more ambitious script by a rookie.

Much of the perennial appeal of one-person shows arises from the way in which they allow gifted actors to display their talents in an intimate setting. The impact of watching such performances in the theater is powerful enough that it even comes across clearly when they are seen on TV, as were such well-remembered shows as John Gielgud’s Ages of Man (telecast in 1966) and Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight! (telecast in 1967).

But the way they serve as vehicles for showy actors has, to date, been the form’s distinguishing feature, for one-person shows tend in general to be of negligible quality. Only three of the dozen one-person plays to open on Broadway in the past decade—Doug Wright’s Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife (2003), Antony Sher’s Primo (2005, adapted from If This Is a Man, Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir), and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2007)—even bothered to attempt a degree of literary distinction.

So why have solo shows become so ubiquitous elsewhere, from off-Broadway to companies nationwide? Is it simply a matter of economics, or does the genre exert a hold on audiences that extends beyond the power of a great actor to seize the viewer’s imagination? And why, conversely, has so popular a genre produced so few plays that are distinguished not merely as effective vehicles for star performers but also as works of literary note? These questions—especially the last one—were much on my mind while I was writing Satchmo at the Waldorf and remain so as I await its opening night.

The modern history of the one-person show starts with Ruth Draper, whom John Gielgud called “the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Born in 1884, Draper was an upper-middle-class Manhattanite who found her métier when she began writing comic monologues that she performed in the drawing rooms of her family’s friends. Starting in 1920, Draper presented mixed bills of these monologues on stage, making her Broadway debut nine years later. By then she had toured the world, billing herself as a “character actress,” but it was her New York performances, the last of which she gave three days before her death in 1956, that definitively established her as an artist of note.1

Brilliantly witty as they were, Draper’s monologues were still miniature character sketches, not one-person plays. Indeed, full-length “monodramas” such as I Am My Own Wife and Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) were as yet unheard-of. The first such shows to be widely seen were Emlyn Williams’s Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens (first performed in 1950) and Mark Twain Tonight! (first performed in 1954). Moreover, these shows were not plays in the ordinary sense of the word, but evening-long re-creations of the much-admired lecture-readings that Dickens and Twain gave in the 19th century. They did, however, set a lasting precedent, for most of the best-known solo plays of the postwar era have been biographical docudramas in which an actor impersonates a famous person, usually a historical figure.

What is most striking about the vast majority of these latter plays is their utter lack of ambition. They do not try to do anything more than provide a shell for an inspirational star turn. Of all the solo shows about historical figures to reach Broadway since the turn of the 20th century, only one, Golda’s Balcony, was the work of an author (William Gibson) who had previously written successful multi-character plays such as The Miracle Worker. (Indeed, Golda’s Balcony was a revision of Gibson’s own Golda, produced 10 years earlier to far less effect.) The rest were written either by their performers, or by mediocrities who specialized in confecting one-person shows, among them such non-notables as David W. Rintels, whose Clarence Darrow featured Henry Fonda as the defense lawyer, and Samuel Gallu’s Give ’Em Hell, Harry!, in which James Whitmore essayed Harry Truman.

The fundamental problem with these shows is that with few exceptions, they are dramatically lifeless. They make an impression solely due to the vividness of the actor’s performance rather than the intrinsic theatrical dynamism of the script. For what, after all, makes a play dynamic? Conflict. According to David Mamet, every successful theatrical scene must provide the audience with answers to three questions: Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?

Such questions tend to go unanswered in biographical plays, whose protagonists are typically seen at or near the ends of their lives, by which time they have attained their goals and are resting on their laurels. To put it another way, they have “become themselves” and so cannot be seen undergoing the interior development and transformation that is the stuff of high drama. Instead, we hear stories about their past lives, and few things are less inherently dramatic than an autobiographical anecdote told by a celebrity.

When Marty Martin wrote Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein (1979) for Pat Carroll, the actress warned him: “[The second act] has to have conflict, and it has to resolve like a regular play does. I don’t want to play an entire two hours of anecdotes. There’s no emotional involvement.” Rarely do authors of one-person plays about historical figures take her shrewd advice.

Moreover, far too many biographical plays are, like Clarence Darrow, Give ’Em Hell, Harry!, and Golda’s Balcony, shallow exercises in hagiography. They presuppose the admiration of their audiences for the historical figures whom they portray instead of showing why those figures deserve our enduring respect. A stage director of my acquaintance acidly refers to such shows as “taxidermy plays.”

It’s no wonder audiences are drawn to these shows—most of us, after all, long for heroes on whom we can model ourselves. But it takes more than mere admiration, however fervent it may be, to bring a play to life on stage. A first-rate actor can, of course, stuff factitious life into the most inert of scripts, but when the curtain comes down at evening’s end, all you remember is the performance, not the play.

When I started writing Satchmo at the Waldorf, which is based on Pops, my 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong, I knew what kind of show I did not want to write, having seen so many bad examples of the genre. But I also knew that for all my good intentions, it would be perilously easy for me to write a show about Armstrong that fell victim to the taxidermy-play syndrome, seeing as how he was an admirable and likable man who in the course of his life accomplished everything that he set out to do.

So I made two decisions that were intended to help me steer clear of the more obvious mistakes made by so many authors of one-person historical plays. The first was to build conflict into Satchmo at the Waldorf by portraying Armstrong not as the smiling entertainer who was beloved throughout the world but as an angry, profane old man who believes that he has been cruelly betrayed by Joe Glaser, his white manager. I then made this conflict visible to the audience by having the same actor play Armstrong and Glaser, crossing a racial line to do so.

It is, so far as I know, unprecedented for the protagonist of a one-person biographical show about a well-known historical figure to play more than one fully developed role. On the other hand, one-person-multiple-character plays have become increasingly common in recent years. (The actor who appears in I Am My Own Wife, for instance, is expected to play some 40-odd clearly delineated parts in rapid alternation.) It occurred to me that by putting Glaser on stage, thus giving Armstrong an antagonist who could speak for himself rather than merely being spoken about, Satchmo at the Waldorf might take on some of the complexity whose absence has the unfortunate effect of trivializing so many biographical plays. I also thought this device would heighten the dramatic intensity of Satchmo at the Waldorf, though I recognized that it might instead be perceived by audiences as a gratuitous opportunity for the actor who plays the dual role of Armstrong and Glaser to flaunt his technical virtuosity at the expense of truth.

It remains to be seen whether my untried skill as a playwright will prove equal to my ambitions. It may be that I have done no more than write a fancier version of the kind of play that I have criticized so sharply in the past. If so, I will have unwittingly demonstrated the truth of Kenneth Tynan’s quip that a critic is “a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” Still, I think this creatively stillborn form will be able to establish its value only when other playwrights find ways to confront and solve these dramatic problems rather than simply trying to offer audiences a pleasant, unchallenging occasion for admiring an admirable person (and offering theater companies an inexpensive crowd-pleaser). Satchmo at the Waldorf seeks to show Armstrong as he was, and to do so in a way that is not only historically accurate—albeit in a fictionalized context—but also theatrically compelling.

Herein lies a lesson that may be of wider relevance. For if, as Longfellow famously said, we study “lives of great men” in order to remind ourselves that “we can make our lives sublime,” then one of the best ways to accomplish that goal, on stage as well as in biography, is to acknowledge that they are not saints or superheroes but flawed, doubt-ridden humans whose greatness we have some hope of emulating on a more modest scale. Aside from everything else, such honesty makes for better theater—or so I devoutly hope.


1 The belated influence of Draper’s example is evident in the monologues of such performers as Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and Lily Tomlin, who specialize in character sketches and first-person memoirs that fall under the postmodern rubric of “performance art” (a branch of theater that some anonymous wag has defined as “stand-up without punchlines”).

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, wrote about Lillian Hellman in the last issue. 

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