The Practical Idealist

Playwright popularity: the Poets win!

Shakespear's Globe Theater in London

Playwrights Popularity: the Poets win!

“There are lies, damn lies, statistics, and marketing.” Neil C. Olsen, c. 2000

Quod Vadis” Pontius Pilate, c. 33 A.D.

I recently looked at Wikipedia entry on Henrik Ibsen  http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Henrik_Ibsen.  The article on Henrik Ibsen had citations, if dubious ones, on the claim of production popularity:

“He is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare,[2][3] and A Doll’s House became the world’s most performed play by the early 20th century.[4]

Is this true? How could you tell other than citing the opinion (marketing) of advocates?  In Wikipedia, citation replaces truth.  But what about the citations.  How did they know the truth?

The current theater databases, even restricted to Broadway, are incomplete and hard to search.  Nevertheless, I went to the Internet Broadway Database.   A search for ”Ibsen” as  a count of 100 productions between 1889 and 2012. “Shakespeare” returned 473 between 1750 and 2013.  If you take only productions from 1889 to today there are about 429 Shakespearean productions, 4.3 times as many as Ibsen in the same period.

Restricting searches to the period between 1943, which is arguably about the time the United States became a cultural and world power if not the great democratic Hegemony, to the present in mid-2013,  we find that in the last 70 (and a bit) years the following:

Rank Productions Type Playwright

1

107

Verse William Shakespeare

2

100

Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II

3

67

Lyrics Noel Coward

4

57

Prose Tennessee Williams (starting in 1946)

5

48

Lyrics Stephen Sondheim (lyrics only, starting in 1957)

6

43

Prose George Bernard Shaw

7

35

Prose Arthur Miller

8

30

Prose Anton Chekhov

9

22

Prose Henrik Ibsen

10

21

Lyrics Andrew Lloyd Webber starting in 1973 often with Tim Rice)

11

20

Prose Tom Stoppard (starting in 1968)

12

18

Lyrics Bertolt Brecht

13

15

Prose David Mamet (starting in 1977)

14

13

Prose Thornton Wilder

15

11

Lyrics Sophocles

16

8

Prose Oscar Wilde

17

7

Prose Samuel Becket (starting in 1956)

18

4

Verse Racine

The dramatists were selected from “most popular” and “best to read lists”, and personal observation, and I may have left some off – Euripides, Aristophanes, Goethe, and a host of others, particularly the lyricists of musicals come to mind.  It is only a snap shot, and not even a top 18 list. It is English Centric, or American centric – actually New York City centric.

It only covers the Untied States.  And only Broadway, not the many regional, college, school, and community theaters: but then we are looking for “popular” not “somewhere produced”, which hints at a monetary motive. The innocent reason of making a buck prevents skewing towards academic influences. Thornton Wilder, for example, is wildly popular in armature productions: so much so that he isn’t done much on Broadway.  Some of the later playwrights (Stoppard and Mamet) may not have staying power.  Also, a better metric might include number of performances in the run of a production: I’ll leave this to some theater doctorate candidate or to the energetic reader with better database access than I have to figure out.

But admitting all that, we cast a doubt on “most popular” in the United States most influential and lucrative theater district as measured in productions is Shakespeare, followed by the Lyricist and prose playwrights Hammerstein and Coward.  Ibsen isn’t even the most popular non-English speaking playwright: Chekhov has had more productions.

But perhaps the best take from this is the popularity of verse or lyrics.  The prose revolution, begun in the restoration period in England and continued on after, isn’t produced much until Tennessee Williams and Bernard Shaw, number 4 and 7 on the list.

“Old fashioned” verse has 21% of the production share.

“Prose” is 36% of productions

“Lyrics” with either a mix of verse and prose or verse is only 42% of productions.

A category of “Poetry”, including verse and lyrics would hold a solid 64% market share.

 

 

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