During his three-decade tenure in the department of theatre, speech, and dance, Don Wilmeth has written fifteen books and many more articles about various chapters in the history of American theater. He has also acted in, directed, and produced hundreds of plays. So in 1992 when Cambridge University Press needed someone to compile the definitive history of American theater, Wilmeth was their man.
The publication this spring of the third, and final, volume of The Cambridge History of American Theatre brings to a close a decade of work for Wilmeth and his coeditor, British historian Christopher Bigsby. The result is the first-ever definitive history of everything from Vaudeville to the circus to Broadway.
Included in the three volumes' 1,800 pages are surveys and analyses by thirty authors, each specializing in particular areas. This kind of thematic, rather than chronological, approach, Wilmeth says, "freed [the authors] to go off onto tangents and have a point of view," resulting in a provocative and compelling history.
The approach also allows the authors and editors to explore the history of American theater within the context of the development of the United States. In the book, Wilmeth and Bigsby argue that drama "in riverfront towns, mining settlements, in the growing cities of a colony that in time became a country, proved as necessary to life as anything else originally imported from Europe, but then turned to serve the purpose of a new society reaching toward the definition of itself."
One might think that a letdown would follow the completion of such a massive history, which, it should be noted, has already won several major awards. But any letdown, Wilmeth says, is minor compared to the overwhelming sense of accomplishment. "It has been a long process," he observes. "There have been contributors to the book who have died since we started, but now that it is over, it is all satisfaction."