A “Cast of One”: The History, Art, and Nature of the One-Person Show
- By Paula T. Alekson
In the world of the theatre, the one-man show is perhaps the closest thing to having it all, a supreme test of assurance and ability, of magnetism and charisma. The format is both seductive and frightening; there’s no one to play against, to lean on, to share the criticism. But, for an actor, the prize at the end of a successful solo performance in not only applause but also acclaim—unshared.
— Enid Nemy, from “Four for the Season,
Alone in the Spotlight", New York Times (October 5, 1984)
The American one-person show found its roots in the “platform performances” of the late-nineteenth century, in which authors, public speakers, and actors “masquerading” as professional elocutionists gave readings or recitations from published works of literature to polite audiences for their cultivation and edification. These events were purposely held in non-theatrical venues as a way to distinguish them from theater entertainments (such as vaudeville), which, due to the long history of antitheatrical prejudice (i.e., a bias against or hostility toward the theater and those associated with it) were still regarded as immoral amusements created by sinful and degenerate individuals. The lecture, Lyceum, and Chautauqua circuits featured American platform personalities such as Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Graham Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Daniel Webster, Anna Cora Mowatt and Charlotte Cushman. When Charles Dickens toured both Great Britain and America reading excerpts from his various works, he caused a sensation by embodying his numerous and diverse characters as he read. Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) spent much of his non-writing career appearing on the platform as lecturer and humorist, and he perfected a presentational technique which transformed his literature into performance texts. Lectures and readings eventually metamorphosed into one-person performances on the platform circuit as the focus of the performative material turned from literature to character sketches and monologues written expressly for performance. Eventually one-person showpieces began to appear on both the vaudeville and the legitimate stages, and sketches and monologues gave way to monodramas, or one-character plays. A surge in the number of one-person shows occurred in the American theater in the 1950’s and has never really decreased, owing not only to the popularity of the form, but also to its economical nature—a cast of one and, quite often, no set!
One-person shows—or solo performances, as they are often called—of the late-twentieth century to the present are largely artistic vehicles designed to display actor virtuosity and stamina, to highlight an actor’s ability of impersonation (of either one character or a variety of characters), to present a theater-going audience to a larger-than-life historical (or sometimes living) figure, and/or as a means of intimate autobiographical exploration and expression.
There are two modes for one-person shows: monologue and monopolylogue. A monologue features a single character speaking to a silent or unheard listener (most often the audience, who may be ignored or treated as observer, guest, confidant, or as a specific character). A monopolylogue features multiple characters, all performed by one actor; some monopolylogues feature dialogue in which the various characters talk to or converse with one another.
There are many types of one-person shows, and some defy clear classification. The most straightforward forms are biographical or autobiographical in nature. A biographical one-person play involves an actor directly impersonating or presenting his or her interpretation of the essence of a living or historical personage. Examples of this form are Mark Twain Tonight! written and performed by Hal Holbrook, William Luce’s portrait of Emily Dickinson, entitled The Belle of Amherst, which was originally performed by Julie Harris; Golda’s Balcony, in which Tovah Feldshuh first created William Gibson’s dramatic depiction of Golda Meir; and Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife in which Jefferson Mays created the role of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and thirty-four other characters with whom she interacts (including the playwright). In an autobiographical one-person play, a writer/performer appears as him or herself and tells sometimes extremely intimate stories about his or her own life. Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride, and Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part are representative of this form.
Many contemporary solo performance pieces defy broad and clear categorization. For example, Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, utilize documentary material, such as personally recorded interviews and archival video recordings of public and private persons, which Smith weaves into a tapestry of monologues to tell the stories of and comment upon two dramatically explosive socio-historical events. Jane Wagner’s The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, written for and performed by Lily Tomlin, at first glance seems to be a series of largely unconnected, self-contained, whimsical character monologues, but the play slowly reveals itself as a satirical critique and outline of the Women’s Movement in the latter half of the twentieth century. Monopolyloguist Nilaja Sun’s No Child… draws from the playwright-performer’s true-to-life experience as a teaching artist in the Bronx to present a monodrama of Sun’s attempts to mount a production of Our Country’s Good with a group of disaffected high school students. In one scene of the play, Sun embodies at least seven characters in an amazingly animated conversation between a classroom of students, Sun, and their teacher.
Regardless of their mode or form, one-person shows give the solo performer power, control, and complete responsibility over the work in performance. For the artist who is both writer and performer, there is absolute artistic freedom in the creative process and performance of his or her work. Perhaps one of the greatest reliefs for the solo actor is that he or she doesn’t have anyone depending upon him or her in the midst of a live performance, but therein lies the challenge, as he or she has no one but him or herself to depend upon—it is just the actor and the audience. It is a risky and exhilarating proposition for both sides of the theatrical equation.