Travels of English & American Plays, Part 1: The Award Goes To…

March 5th, 2013 § 0 comments

The conventional wisdom in theatrical circles is that America is stunningly Anglophilic, that we readily embrace works from England on our stages. Supposedly we do this to the detriment of American writers, and our affection is reputedly one-sided, as the British pay much less attention to our work. So they say.

This past weekend, British arts journalist Matt Trueman began a worthwhile conversation in an article for the Financial Times, in which he suggested that most American plays rarely reach England, and vice-versa. While a few of the assertions in the piece may not be wholly accurate, I think the central argument holds true: only a handful of plays from each country get significant exposure in the other. His piece set me thinking.

Much of America’s vision of British theatre is dominated by the fare on Broadway and, I suspect, it’s the same case in the West End for America. Now we can argue that these two theatrical centers don’t accurately represent the totality or even the majority of theatre in each country (and I have done so), but the high exposure in these arenas does have a significant impact on the profile and life-span of new plays, fairly or not. Consequently, our view of the dramatic repertoire from each country to the other is a result of a relative handful of productions in very specific circumstances.

Given the resources and data, one could perhaps build a database of play production in both countries and extract the most accurate picture. But in an effort to work with a manageable data set in exploring this issue, I took the admittedly subjective universe of the Best New Play nominations for the Tony and Olivier Awards, from 1980 to today. While significantly more work is produced than is nominated, this universe at least afforded me the opportunity to examine whether there is cultural bias among select theatrical arbiters. Although each has its own rules and methodology (I explain key variables in my addendum below), they are a microcosm of top-flight production in these “theatre capitals.”

So as not to keep you in suspense, here’s the gist: new English and American plays are nominated for Tony and Oliviers at roughly the same rate in the opposite country, running between 20 and 25% of the nominees when produced overseas.

In the past 33 years of Tony Awards, 32 English plays were nominated for Tonys out of a universe of 132, or 24% of the total. At the Oliviers, 20% of the Best New Play nominees were American. In my eyes, that 4% difference is irrelevant; though there’s no margin for error since this isn’t a poll, the total numbers worked with are small enough so that a few points means only a few plays, in this case, only five.

Now, let’s take a step back and look at this with larger world view. While Americans at large may have a tendency to blur distinctions between English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish, I’m aware that these national distinctions are extremely important. Blending these countries in our view of theatrical production may be contributing to the false American perception of English imperialism on our stages.

Factoring in all productions by foreign authors (the aforementioned Ireland, Wales and Scotland, as well as France, Canada, Israel and South Africa), we find that 44 plays from outside the U.S. received Tony nominations in 33 years, for 33% of the total nominees, while in England, foreign plays garnered 52 Olivier nods, for 39% of the total. So while the gap here is slightly wider, it shows that English plays actually are nominated less in their own country than American plays are at the Oliviers.

When it comes to the recognition of plays that travel between these two major theatrical ports of call, I think it’s fair to say that, so far as each city’s major theatrical award is concerned, there is no bias, no favoritism. Even if the number of plays being produced are out of balance, the recognition is proportional. Perhaps we can put that old saw to rest.

P.S. For those of you feeling petty, wondering whether there’s an imbalance in winners? American plays  have won the Olivier nine times since 1980, while English authors have won the Best Play Tony seven times. So there.

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Notes on methodology:

  • Musicals were not studied, only plays.
  • There is one key difference between the Best Play categories at the Tonys and The Oliviers, specifically that the Oliviers also have a category for Best Comedy in many of the years studied. While it is not included in this comparison, it should be noted that, with a few exceptions, American plays were rarely nominated in the Best Comedy category. Whether this is a result of U.S. comedies not traveling to England at all, or cultural differences causing U.S. comedies to be poorly received when they did travel, was not examined.
  • To some degree, nationality or origin of the plays required a judgment call. There are Americans who have resided in England for many years (Martin Sherman, Timberlake Wertenbaker), in addition to authors of South African and Irish birth who also make their home there (Nicholas Wright, Martin McDonagh). I have categorized these authors and their plays by the country with which they are most associated, as I do not have access to their citizenship records. In all cases, I have identified nationality to the best of my ability.