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Since the ancient Greeks, playwrights have reimagined older myths and stories for their own audiences. Noah Haidle acknowledges Thornton Wilder’s 1931 one-act play The Long Christmas Dinner as his primary inspiration for Birthday Candles. The Long Christmas Dinner chronicles the generations of a family over 90 years, represented in a continuous, onstage Christmas dinner. We first meet Lucia and Roderick Bayard, celebrating the holiday in their new home along with Roderick’s Mother Bayard, who remembers “when we had to cross the Mississippi on a new-made raft.” Without scene breaks, time moves forward as the Bayards experience cycles of birth and death. Wilder calls for the actors to gradually age themselves up, using physicality and when necessary, adding wigs and costumes to indicate age. Wilder also imagines the set to show time passing: stage left is hung with “garlands of fruits and flowers” to signify birth, while the stage right exit is “hung with black velvet,” used by actors to signify a character’s death.   

Here are insights from a selection of other American playwrights who find inspiration in earlier works. 

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LUCAS HNATH: A Doll’s House Part 2 (2017)

Hnath sees strong connections between Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play and our own times: “Ibsen is trying to define what freedom is, and is identifying the ways in which we are not as free as we think we are. Fears about reputation and how we’re viewed in the world, and anxieties about money and social standing—I think those are all shackles that remain today.” Hnath’s play is a kind of sequel set 15 years after the original, but he acknowledges, “the earliest stabs at the play were even more of an homage.” He began by working with “a really bad translation of A Doll’s House online,” and rephrasing the original play in his own words to understand how the writing worked. Soon, he decided “not [to] be so beholden to the Ibsen style and structure. At a certain point, it made sense to strip it down to what is basically a series of two-person showdowns, like a series of boxing rounds...instead of almost doing an Ibsen tribute band.” 

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MIKE LEW: Teenage Dick (2018)

Lew’s darkly comedic take on Shakespeare reimagines the murderous Richard III as an alienated 16-year-old high school student. Treated as an outsider because of his cerebral palsy (and his Shakespearean way of speaking), Lew’s Richard plots revenge by becoming his senior class president, while manipulating and crushing every obstacle in his way. “I think that the high stakes of royal ascendency smashed into the feeling of high stakes in American high schools worked well to make the situation in extremis sing from a modern context,” explains Lew. “We also were interested in looking at the archetype of Richard III and his inherent evilness and the way that Shakespeare ties that into his disability, and connecting that with how we treat people with disabilities today. So those contrasts, and the language of high school slang vs. Shakespearean dialogue sort of swirled into this new play.”

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SUZAN-LORI PARKS: The Red Letter Plays (1999-2000)

Parks claims the idea for a play inspired by The Scarlet Letter struck her during a canoe ride with a friend. Reflecting on what drew her to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, Parks recalls, “Imagine someone who is taken by the notion of an A on a woman, and who is thinking what that might be for someone like me.” Over time, Parks developed not one but two plays: In the Blood, about a single mother raising five children, each with a different father, and F*cking A, which focuses on a female abortionist in a dystopian world. “These plays aren’t in response to Hawthorne. Bless his heart, he wrote a great book. It wasn’t like, ‘I have to do it right because he didn’t.” Parks compares her creative process to a jazz musician: “I wasn’t adapting The Scarlet Letter. I was doing a riff on it … (these plays are) contrafacts, like in jazz, where composers take the chord progression of a standard and write their own melody to it.”

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BRUCE NORRIS: Clybourne Park (2010)

Norris cited A Raisin in the Sun as one of the first American plays he was introduced to and structured his response to Lorraine Hansberry’s play in two parts. Act One is a scene that happens parallel to the original play, set in 1959, in the house that has been purchased by the Black Younger family. The white couple selling their home face pressure from their white neighbors to renege on the deal. Act Two jumps ahead 50 years, in the same house, now in a predominantly Black neighborhood, where a community debate over gentrification erupts when a young white couple wants to buy property. Speaking about the play in 2010, Norris explained, “There (was) a shocking degree of openness in (1959) to make crass assertions about race...Today, we have this received etiquette when we're speaking about race, but it is every bit as rigid and ordained as the old vocabulary—we just have a new set of words to talk about similar things.”

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An Interview with TEENAGE DICK playwright Mike Lew.News Center. Artists Rep. December 28, 2017.

Feldman, Adam. “Suzan-Lori Parks talks about politics, inspiration, James Baldwin and her Red Letter Plays.” Time Out New York, August 22, 2017.

Green, Adam. “How Rock Star Playwright Lucas Hnath Brought A Doll’s House, Part 2 to Broadway.” Vogue, June 9, 2017.

Iqbal, Nosheen. “Interview: Bruce Norris: there goes the neighborhood.The Guardian, September 13, 2010.

Martin, Jacobina. “The Long Christmas Dinner: Further Commentary.” The Thornton Wilder Society. ND. Web.

Piepenburg, Erik.  “Integration, Gentrification, Conversation.New York Times, August 3, 2011.

Simonson, Robert. “Both Sides Now: Bruce Norris Takes a Page From the Past for Clybourne Park.” Playbill Online, April 19, 2012.  Web.  Accessed Feb 16, 2020.

Specian, Eric. “The Long Christmas Dinner: Overview.” The Thornton Wilder Society. ND. Web.  Accessed Feb 16, 2020.

SignatureTheatre NY. “Suzan-Lori Parks on what inspired The Red Letter Plays.” YouTube, August 9, 2017.

Teenage Dick.”  Ma-Yi Theatre Company. Web.

Wilder, Thornton. The Long Christmas Dinner: A Play in One Act. Samuel French, 1931.