The O’Neill
The Transformation of Modern American Theater

By Jeffrey Sweet

Yale Univ. 319 pp. $60

This handsome tribute to the venerable Eugene O’Neill Theater Center combines Jeffrey Sweet’s knowledgeable text with a marvelous array of black-and-white photographs. Michael Douglas and Meryl Streep, who both provide laudatory forewords, are among the many notable American actors snapped in their young-adult years — and casual summer clothes — participating in the O’Neill’s flagship program, the National Playwrights Conference.

The annual conference pioneered the workshop process now employed by virtually every nonprofit theater in the country. When 26-year-oldYale drama school gradGeorge C. White sawa dilapidated mansion in his home town of Waterford, Conn., he impulsively planned to turn it into some sort of theatrical center. Talking to young dramatists, he found thatthey wanted a place where they could develop works in progress free from Broadway’s commercial pressures but with professional expertise lacking in the off-Broadway scene.

The first National Playwrights Conference took place in August 1965, and in the subsequent five decades it has launched such major dramatists as Wendy Wasserstein; Christopher Durang; and August Wilson, who workedin close collaboration with the conference’s longtime artistic director, Lloyd Richards. The O’Neill has since created conferences in cabaret, musical theater and puppetry and established the National Theater Institute, which offers intensive for-credit training.

"The O'Neill: The Transformation of Modern American Theater by Jeffrey Sweet (Yale Univ./Yale Univ.)

Sweet’s coverage of the O’Neill’s growth and evolution has the virtues and defects of most oral histories, including his book on Chicago’s Second City, “Something Wonderful Right Away.” The narrative has an engagingly conversational tone, including asides about how the center’s notoriously lousy cellphone reception helps keep conference participants focused.

People love to gossip, so the rocky transition after Richards’s retirement in 1999 — three artistic directors in five years — is reported candidly. So is the shift from the dedicated butrather insular atmosphere fostered by Richards to the more open but arguably more commercial outlook under the current executive director, Preston Whiteway.

On the down side, the author tends to ramble without much direction and doesn’t always bother to fact-check his sources. The Armory Show of avant-garde art was in 1913, not 1918; and Sweet doesn’t seem to recognize the famous opening sentence of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” when it’s parodied by an O’Neill playwright. In addition, his prose is serviceable but less than elegant. All of which is to say that the text doesn’t have the same distinction as the handsome layout and evocative photos.

Only the most rigorous theater lover will care much about such flaws, compared to the pleasure of seeing the O’Neill’s groundbreaking work captured in arresting images of, say, Angela Bassett and Charles S. Dutton in the August Wilson plays that finally gave African American actors and themes a substantial platform in the American theater.

For half a century, the O’Neill Center has offered theater artists a place to explore their craft, supported by a nurturing community. It is rightly, if not flawlessly, honored here, on the eve of its 50th anniversary.

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America.”