Over the course of the past week, I have been repeatedly asked to provide examples of the type of contemporary play that I feel illustrates the point I am trying to make. This has proven more challenging than expected for a variety of reasons, most notably, that the best plays tend not to use such stereotypes because as Adam Szymkowicz noted, "stereotype writing is bad writing. and it's writing that ignores humanity." Bad plays are usually not the ones who make it onto the publishers lists and into the anthologies where we out-of-towners in the "outback" get a chance to encounter them. There may be dozens and dozens of plays each month like Iowa 08 that use such stereotypes and run for a small number of performances and then are never heard from again. Or there may be none. It is not something I am able to comment on. So I will confine my examples to fairly major plays after making one caveat: many of these plays, in fact most of these plays, are powerful, wonderful plays that I enjoy reading, seeing, and teaching. Their inclusion in this list should not be seen as condemnation of their value as works of art, but rather examples of how even great plays can reinforce stereotypes. If there were greater balance of representation on stages, this would not be an issue at all.
In addition, I would reiterate what another blogger has already noted that the mass media is more responsible for perpetuating stereotypes than the theatre. In the case of theatre, the "sins" may be of omission rather than commission, i.e., it may be exemplified more by a lack of stage space devoted to rural or southern plays than plays that actively advance a stereotype.
OK, enough disclaimers. By request, here are a few plays that strike me as reinforcing stereotypes:
Mud by Maria Irene Fornes. Set on an isolated farm. Populated by uneducated, illiterate, violent characters, one of whom regularly has sex with a pig.
Sam Shepard has been held up as a positive example, but let's really look at some of his greatest plays.
Fool for Love. Set in the rural southwest. A violent, incestuous relationship between a half-sister and half-brother.
Buried Child. Set on a farm in Illinois. Characters include a one-legged, abusive son; another son who is seemingly lobotomized and cannot remember his own child; incest and murder. The only characters with any sense of normality are from the city.
A Lie of the Mind. Set in Wyoming and Arizona. Main character beats his wife nearly to death; her brother, also a violent psycho, shoots and holds captive the main character's brother; father of main character has tanning paste repeatedly rubbed into his feet because he thinks it helps. General sense of narrow-mindedness and intolerance.
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel. Set in rural Maryland. Incest. Stereotypical portrayal of family members.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean by Ed Graczyk. Set in a small Texas town. Homophobia. Narrow-mindedness. Lives defined by an encounter with Hollywood.
The Last Meeting of the White Magnolias by Preston Jones. Set in Bradleyville, TX. Caricatures of southern "good ole boys." Reinforcement of racist stereotypes. (In many ways, the entire "Texas Trilogy" is problematic.)
Given more time, access to some play catalogs, and most importantly, the willingness to spend additional time doing this, I could probably add to the list. But for now, let these plays stand as an illustration of the topic.