Recently in her Huffington Post column, Lauren Gunderson asks the question "Why Are US Literary Laureates Only Poets? Why Not a Dramatist?":
The position of Poet Laureate started officially when in 1616 King James I of England gave the title to Ben [Jonson] -- a noted poet and playwright. In 1937, the United States established a similar position that, while at first a title-only kinda gig, is now a lauded (and paying) appointment.Of course, Jonson would never have called himself a "playwright": he viewed his plays and the plays of those he considered rivals (like a certain man from Stratford-on-Avon who happened to pass away that same year) as poetry. He reserved the title "playwright" for those with less literary gifts, comparing them to wheelwrights or shipwrights: mere artisans, not artists; "rude mechanicals" if you will.
Not to crash the poet party, but why can't the Library of Congress's appointments include playwrights, fiction-writers, or creative essayists? Why only poets?
Still, Gunderson makes a great point. The relative high profile of the post of U.S. Poet Laureate which in recent decades had been held by such poets as Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins and Charles Simic amongst others, has not only increased the visibility of poetry in the American cultural landscape (for example, through Pinsky's "Favorite Poem Project") but has had a snowball effect in recent years: Indeed, most states of the United States now have Poet Laureates. While Massachusetts, where I live, does not have a state Poet Laureate, individual cities, like Boston, or Gloucester do, and Cambridge, being Cambridge, has a post of "Poet Populist." (My friend, Doug Holder, has been lobbying the city of Somerville to create a Poet Laureate post.)
Of course, many American Poet Laureates have written plays even though they are by no means most widely recognized as playwrights. However, I have to ask, as much as I would like to see theatre receive greater recognition within American culture, how would a the post of Playwright Laureate work? Not just on a national level, but on a state or municipal level? Would a Playwright Laureate be charged with composing new plays for public occasions? (Jonson and his contemporaries composed court masques.) Promoting the idea of reading scripts as literature? (Students frequently get their first exposures to Shakespeare not through performance but by reading the script in English classes, often with a teacher who has minimal theatrical experience.) Promoting theatre in general? (In which case, why specifically a playwright, when a public spirited actor or director might do?) Theatre is a collaborative artform, so while many plays can be read as literature, they are ultimately meant to be performed. Would a Playwright Laureate have access to a federal (or state, or municipal) stage? What about access to actors, designers and techies?
Now while I share Gunderson's desire for "raising the status of poetic and dramatic literature in the everyday conscience of the American public" her proposal leaves me with more questions. Would this get more people attending live theatre? More interesting plays on stage? Free up more spaces for performances? Give "emerging playwrights" a better shot at being produced? Make it easier for playwrights to make a living on their writing? Get more playwrights interviewed on National Public Radio?
Is the Library of Congress really the agency best suited to this work?