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George Axelrod

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ESSAY

The One Hit Wonders of 1960-1975

By Andrew White, PhD

Pop quiz: What do Tad Mosel, Howard Sackler, Charles Gordone, Paul Zindel and Jason Miller have in common?

A lot, actually. From 1960 to 1975, only Frank Gilroy (The Subject Was Roses) and Edward Albee won Pulitzer prizes for drama as previously-established playwrights. Albee won twice in that period, with 1967's A Delicate Balance, and in 1975, when the prize came back to him for his sea monster play, Seascape. During the rest of that decade and a half, only Mosel, Sackler, Gordone, Zindel and Miller won Pulitzer prizes for original dramas. In four of the years, the awards committee deemed no American play worthy. All five men were unknown playwrights who had never had any kind of Broadway success; in fact, only Miller had ever had a play produced professionally.

And not one of them ever wrote a successful play again.

Of the five, only Zindel, whose The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds won the award in 1971, ever got another play on The Great White Way, with his short-lived Miss Reardon Drinks a Little. They were the ultimate one-hit wonders, scaling the heights of playwriting success, and never returning.

What was going on?

Beginning in 1960, the realization dawned on the theater world that the salad days of American theater had come to a crashing end. Eugene O'Neil was dead; Arthur Miller had settled into repetition, political preaching and failed experiments in comedy (Miller was just not a funny guy, but thought he was.) Tennessee Williams' talent had waned with increased drinking and depression, and every new play he unveiled was criticized as something he had done better before or should not have attempted at all. Albee was the heir apparent to these acknowledged Greatest American Playwrights, but after Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ( which the Pulitzers snubbed) he was struggling to write a play that could be simultaneously profound and watchable. It seemed like no great plays were being written any more, and no great playwrights were around to write them.

In 1960 and 1962, the Pulitzers punted and selected musicals rather than dramas as the best of the American stage: Fiorello! and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The truly exciting playwriting seemed to be occuring in Great Britain and Europe, where Ionesco, John Osborne, Peter Schafer, Harold Pinter and Samuel Becket were at or near the peaks of their talent. So the Pulitzers, like the New York critics and audiences, began searching for The Next Great American Playwright, with their hopes being successively pinned to five unknowns: Mosel, for All the Way Home in 1961; Sackler, for The Great White Hope in 1969; Gordone in 1970 for No Place to Be Somebody; Zindel in 1971; and Jason Miller for That Championship Season in 1973.

Significantly, none of them were committed playwrights. Miller was as much an actor as an author, and indeed was more active on screen during his career than at his desk. So was Gordone, a major figure in the development of Black theater, who was active as a teacher, director, political organizer and award-winning character actor. Tad Mosel (actually George Ault, Jr.) was a television writer who had great success in that medium, notable as the Emmy award-winning writer of the PBS dramatic series, "The Adams Chronicles." He wrote screenplays too, such as "Up the Down Staircase," which made Sandy Dennis a star. All the Way Home was a special project, an adaptation of James Agee's novel "A Death in the Family" that was a surprise success. Mosel didn't consider himself primarily a playwright even then.

Sackler and Zindel, on the other hand, tried to stay on Broadway but failed. Then each found success in another realm of the arts and was successful. At the time of his death, Zindel was one of the stars of the teen fiction world, with more than a dozen published novels to his credit, one of which, "The Pigman," is a classic of the genre. Howard Sackler was a successful screen-writer, adapting his script of The Great White Hope for film and penning the screenplays for such successful films as "Jaws II" and "Grey Lady Down." He is also said to have written Quint's famous monologue about the S.S. Indianapolis in the original "Jaws," although others attribute it to Robert Shaw, who played the haunted shark-killer in the film and was himself a successful playwright.

This group of One Hit Wonders display many of the characteristics we associate with the breed. Gordone, Zindel and Miller all drew strongly on autobiographical material for their single Broadway success; Sackler adapted the biography of a real historical figure, and Mosel turned someone else's novel into a play. The five may simply have lacked inspiration for a second compelling story. None of them wrote many plays after their Pulitzer prize-winner, seeming to confirm the theory that the Muse eluded them. All were versatile and multi-talented enough, however, to be able to make a good living without Broadway. Thus none of them felt the urge or dedication to endure hunger, poverty and ignominy while they labored to write another classic. Sometimes such desperate and stubborn playwrights succeed after years of failure. Sometimes, they just get old, frustrated and hungry. But neither Mosel, Zindel, Gordone, Sackler nor Miller ever felt that desperate. Not all of them had that much time to create another drama: three died relatively young: Zindel at 66, Miller at 58, Sackler at only 52. (Gordone died in 1995 at the age of 70; Mosel is still alive at 84.)

It may also be that it is expecting too much of any playwright to deliver a series of successful plays. Those who have written three or more like Williams, Miller, O'Neill, Hellman, George S. Kaufman, Elmer Rice, and Terence NcNally are a very select and remarkable group; we should not be critical of those who do not reach that level, or scratch our heads in wonder that a playwright couldn't "do it again." It is impressive enough for any writer to do it once.

The career paths of the One Hit Wonders also convey an ominous message about the future health of the theater. Once Broadway success was a popular path to fame and riches; once promising writers of dialogue and drama would be drawn to the stage as a first choice and the source of most prestigious and profitable careers. No longer. The gold is in movies and television, and most promising playwrights move to Hollywood long before they have given their playwriting skills the chance to bloom. This is what caused the sudden shortage of new playwrights at the beginning of the 1960s, and while the Pulitzers have settled into lesser standards, the problem is worse today. Had they been born a generation or two earlier, we may now have had many more memorable stage works from the quintet of Mosel, Zindel, Gordone, Sackler and Miller.


~ Originally published in 2007 in the Audience Guide for TACT's production of That Championship Season.


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