Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Curious Case of the Missing Playwright

Last night I saw Alice Childress's play Trouble in Mind in its long-delayed Broadway run. The piece, which features an actor and a director arguing over whether or not to change the ending of a play, was rather remarkable for leaving a key figure out of the story: The playwright.

Of course Alice Childress was herself a playwright, and a rather accomplished one. By the time Trouble in Mind had its original off-Broadway run in 1955, she had already written (and starred in) Florence, her one-act play about a struggling young actress, and adapted for the stage Langston Hughes's novel Simple Speaks His Mind, and scored a professional success with her play Gold Through the Trees.

Why, then, did Childress portray a debate about how a play should be written with no playwright on stage, and with the fictitious dramatist hardly even mentioned? In the 1950s, playwrights were typically integral to rehearsals of new plays, so the absence of a writer at the rehearsals portrayed in Trouble in Mind is curious, and I don't recall the play giving any reason for his absence. Yes, his. Unlike Childress, the imaginary dramatist in the play is a man, and also unlike her, he is white.

In addition, unlike Childress, he doesn't know how to write. The scenes we get of the play-within-the-play are pretty dreadful, and generally overacted to the point that we start to wonder if Michael Frayn was thinking of Trouble in Mind when he penned his backstage farce Noises Off. Had Childress portrayed the writer of these bumbling scenes, he probably would have looked like a fool. Still, to cut him out of the process completely, and to portray writing decisions as being power struggles between actors and directors seems... odd.

Childress herself directed the original production of Trouble in Mind, during which she was ironically pressured to change the ending of the play. In her case, the pressure came from the producers rather than the actors, which makes sense, as such decisions are supposed to be between producers and playwrights, not directors and actors. Childress's sympathies in the play seem to be mainly with actors, and their powerlessness to choose the words they have to perform.

As a playwright herself, though, Childress left an absence at the center of the show that mirrors the American stage today. Unlike in the 1950s, dramatists today are frequently being left out of decisions, for the simple reason that compared to the mid-twentieth century, almost no new plays are being performed. According to, almost 70 plays and musicals opened on Broadway in 1955, the year Trouble in Mind premiered. Those plays included A View from the Bridge, Bus Stop, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, there were only 34 openings, most of them revivals or musicals. It seems unsurprising to me that Trouble in Mind is finally making its Broadway premiere only after the playwright is safely deceased and unable to object to any choices made by actors, directors, and producers. The disappearance of the dramatist from Childress's play is in some ways oddly prophetic, since playwrights are increasingly being erased from the American theatre in general.