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Postwar Zeitgeist

June 3, 2011

As it happens, politics at the Tony Awards is not a recent phenomenon. The nefarious doings behind Avenue Q’s win in 2004 aside, “politics” seems too sinister a word. What really happens at the Tony Awards is that the voters get swept away with the spirit of the age. That is, Spring Awakening taking Best Musical over Grey Gardens might have more to do with popular ideology than touring vitality, just as it’s always been.

In 1956, five plays were in contention for the Tony Award for Best Play: two famously well-written plays—Bus Stop and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—two plays I’ve never heard of, and the eventual winner, The Diary of Anne Frank. Having read Bus Stop and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I can tell you that they both have a few things that Anne Frank does not. Just little things really, like characterization, character development, and conflict and resolution that flow necessarily from character and action. No big.

But Anne Frank had something the others couldn’t touch: zeitgeist.

Its source material, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, was first translated into English and published in 1950. By 1952, it was a bestseller in both England and America. Just three years later, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett brought their stage adaptation of the tale to the Great White Way and garnered five Tony nominations. But why, if it was artistically undeserving, did it win for Best Play?

My history professor used tell us that history often reveals more about the author than it does actual historical fact. Similarly, the Tony Award for Best Play might point less to the excellence of the play and more to the spirit of the age. The original production of Anne Frank took place when respect for the Greatest Generation was, perhaps, at its zenith. Despite its shaky characterization, feeble attempts at conflict/resolution, and blatant moralizing, Anne Frank gave postwar America what it wanted: the assurance that Nazism was just the world going through a phase and that its passing inexorably meant happy times were here to stay.

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