English 3441 Modern American Drama

English 3441 Modern American Drama


B 260, Mon. Wed. 2:30-3:45

Professor: Dr. Mark Silverberg

Office:CC 234

Office Hours: Tues. Thurs. 2-4 pm

Office Phone: 563-1150


Course Description

This course will explore modern American drama from the naturalism of Eugene O’Neillthrough the expressionism of Tennessee Williams, to the postmodern stage of David Hwang, Edsonand others. Through readings, viewings and discussion, we will consider plays as performed events, literary texts, and cultural documents. Particular attention will be paid to the way drama has helped to both construct and deconstruct American identities over the century. What has it meant to be an American man or woman? What roles have been assigned to husbands, wives, sons and daughters? How has the theatre sexualized, politicized, or aestheticizedAmerican individuals and families? These questions and many more will be considered as we move through some of the major works of realism, experimental theatre, minority drama, and the Broadway musical.


We will be reading eight full-length play plus a short play that we will consider in the first week. Students should make sure they have read the plays carefully before we discuss them in class.

Terrence McNally, Andre’s Mother (in-class handout)

Eugene O’Neill,Long Day’s Journey into Night

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Tennessee Williams,A Streetcar Named Desire

Woody Allen, Play it Again, Sam

David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly

Margaret Edson, Wit

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

Procedure, Assignments, and Workload

I want this class to be a meaningful learning process for all of us. Your participation is valued and is essential for the kind of classroom I intend this to be. Though this class will involve some lecturing to introduce topics, I hope that much of our time will be spent on fruitful discussion and analysis of the assigned plays. In order to participate fully I expect you to do a number of things:

-Attend class regularly, having completed the reading and any homework questions and being ready to participate in discussions.

-Read in a thorough and active way: i.e. marking up your text and taking notes—thinking about what is important, intriguing, odd, or worthwhile for you. Please bring your questions and observations to class on a regular basis

-Read and post messages to the class Message Board on a regular basis. You are required to complete 12 responses throughout the term, but I encourage you to go beyond this and especially to respond to other students’ messages. The message board is a great source for generating ideas and essay topics, expanding your notes, keeping up with your colleagues, etc.

A few notes for maintaining a respectful classroom environment:

  1. Please make every effort to arrive on time and stay for the entire class. If you must leave early, please inform the instructor before class begins.
  2. Please turn off cell phones and related devices during class. Phones should not be out during class.

You should allot 8 hours a week for work in this class. Those (like me) who are not fast readers may need more time than this to complete the readings.

Please feel free to see me anytime during office hours, or make an appointment for another time if these don’t work for you.

Mark Breakdown

Essay #1= 15%

Essay #2= 25% (5% for proposal)

Mid-Term Test = 10%

Presentations= 20% (5% DS + 15% Hamilton)

Final exam= 30%

Designated Speakers (DS)Presentations

A healthy classroom is one in which all members feel empowered and encouraged to participate on a regular basis. To help facilitate this discussion, and your thinking before and during the class, students will be asked regularly to take the role of designated speaker. These speakers will take 5-10 minutes to get discussion going by offering comments, questions, a supplementary reading, and/or a short passage from the assigned reading for discussion for that day. Your job is simply to raise some possibilities for discussion and further thought—you’re not expected to produce a long, formal presentation.

Some ideas that might help:

  • There is no “right answer” or correct way of doing this presentation. Your job is to find something related to the day’s reading that excites, irritates, or bewilders you and to convey your own curiosity and enthusiasm.
  • For some people it might help to choose a specific passage from the text to focus the discussion. You might choose a specific line and reflect on how it might be delivered; or look at the author’s or character’s word choice in a specific passage and consider its implications. Some people (like me) are more comfortable working on close reading of a specific passage; others prefer asking broader, more general, or more philosophical questions—either option is fine.
  • Alternatively you might look outside the text—to another text, or a current event, or an element of contemporary culture that might speak to the day’s reading in some way
  • a good way to come up with topics is read with a pencil in your hand and to mark passages that you find intriguing, bewildering, or important in some way. Going back over these marked areas once you’ve finished the text is usually a good way to generate ideas.

Hamilton Presentations

Our last, and most contemporary play is the current musical, Hamilton, that’s takenBroadway by storm and generated a lot of excitement for the past few years. I will ask each student to choose a song from the play as the basis for a longer presentation that might include some of the following elements: close reading of the text (as lyric, as rap, as character revelation); consideration of staging, costuming, and other performance elements; historical context—revolutionary and contemporary; the text’s additional information on the song and performers; other critical responses and research—what have people/critics been saying about the play and how might it connect with your song? You’ll hand in a 1-3 page write up which will be worth 5%, while the presentation itself will be worth 10%nhh


#1 – Play to Film (5-6 pages) (15%) (Due Feb. 27)

Students will compare one of the plays from the course with a filmed version of the play. Your essay should not be a general summary or evaluation of the film but rather present a specific thesis about how the film handles the play. In order to stage or film a play, directors must make innumerable choices—from decisions on settings, costumes, props, and stage business, to questions of interpreting characters’ actions, motivations, and underlying themes and subtexts. This essay asks you to focus on one specific decision—something you think the director has done right or wrong—and to analyze the consequence of that decision on the text. Does Elia Kazan allow Marlon Brando to be too captivating as Stanley Kowalski and thus shift our sympathies away from Blanche? If so, how and why does this happen and what are the consequences?—how does it direct the audience’s experience of the play? What happens when David Hwang’s or Woody Allen’s play texts are converted to narrative films? What does either director lose or gain by this move? Your job in this essay is to find some specific feature of the film to focus on and discuss how this feature enriches, deteriorates, or interprets the play in a particular way.

#2 – Research Paper (8-10 pages) (25%) (Proposal: Mar. 13, Essay draft:Mar. 29, Final: Apr. 3)

For the final essay you will develop your own thesis on a text and topic of your choice, though you may not focus on a play discussed in your first essay. Your essay should make use of secondary sources, which should come from peer-reviewed, professional essays found in published books, journals, or university-based websites (not from SparksNotes, Wikipedia, or similar on-line resources). Essays can be found through various databases available through the library website (particularly MLA and Academic Search Premier). If you need help locating sources, please talk to a librarian or to me. If you find something on-line and are unsure if it is acceptable, please send me the web address to confirm. The point of your research is to discover what kinds of conversations are ongoing about the play of your choice. Your job at that point is to figure out how you want to enter the conversation—by expanding on something already written, taking an idea in a new direction, contradicting a critical position, putting two critics into dialogue, showing a new application for an older idea, etc. etc.

Refer to the Course Outline for general guidelines on format and presentation of essays. All primary and secondary sources must be documented using MLA style, that is, with parenthetical page references and a list of Works Cited. All essays must engage with texts through: 1) Research, 2) Close reading, and 3) The organization of a coherent argument, based on a well-specified and interesting thesis, supported with appropriate literary evidence. While evidence of a biographical, historical, critical, or theoretical nature is also welcome, it cannot take the place of primary close readings of the text.

Essays Guidelines

All graded work must adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Essays must be word-processed, double spaced, with a one-inch margin on both sides and at the top and bottom of the page. All pages should be numbered. Staple or paper clip pages together. Use as standard size font—Times Roman 12 point is a good choice (you do not want a font much bigger or much smaller). Please avoid fancy graphics or distracting fonts.
  • Essays are due in class on the assigned date. If you are unable to be in class that day, make an arrangement with me at least 24 hours in advance. Late assignments will receive a penalty of –2%/day late (–10% for up to one week late). After a week I will not accept assignments. Please keep a copy of all your assignments even after you’ve submitted your hard copy in the unlikely event that a paper goes missing.
  • Essays must meet university-level standards for basic grammar, mechanics, sentence structure, and formatting. To meet this standard essays can have no more than 3 errors of any type per page. Papers that do not live up to this standard will receive a full grade (10%) deduction. Papers with considerably more errors may not pass.

A Note on Plagiarism and the Internet

Plagiarism means taking another person’s words or ideas as your own without properly acknowledging their source. This can include anything from buying an essay, downloading one off the Internet, copying sentences or phrases from an unacknowledged source (cutting and pasting lines from internet sites), or using someone else’s ideas (whether in direct quotation or paraphrase) without giving them credit. Plagiarism is a serious academic offense with serious consequences. A full definition of plagiarism and the university’s official procedure for dealing with instances of plagiarism can be found in the current Academic Calendar. Avoid unintentional plagiarism by making sure you keep careful record of any ideas or text you’ve borrowed from other sources. When working with text on the internet, always cut and paste the URL at the top of your page so you’ll be able to easily refer back and cite your source.

(On a related topic: Sparks Notes and similar on-line resources are not suitable sources for academic essays. Read them if you want, but please do not cite them in your papers.)