The Drama Behind the Pulitzers

Don Shirley is a Times staff writer

Southern California theaters presented the premieres of two of the three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Now here’s the bad news: The 17-member Pulitzer board, consisting primarily of newspaper editors and executives, didn’t award a drama prize, setting aside the recommendations of the five-critic jury that picked the finalists.

The two finalists that were first produced in the Southland were Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” at South Coast Repertory and Tina Howe’s “Pride’s Crossing” at the Old Globe Theatre. Neither has yet received a full production in New York. The other finalist was Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” which is playing on Broadway after an Atlanta premiere.


The Pulitzer board convened for voting in New York, where “Ballyhoo” was seen by most of the board members. “My impression is that everybody saw it,” said Pulitzer administrator Seymour Topping. At least 11 of the board members also saw Jonathan Reynolds’ “Stonewall Jackson,” which cropped up as a last-minute contender after juror Jack Kroll advocated it in a minority report.

No one on the board saw either “Collected Stories” or “Pride’s Crossing,” Topping said.

Even the jurors who recommended the three plays didn’t see all of them. Only one of the five jurors saw “Collected Stories” or “Pride’s Crossing”: Laurie Winer of The Times, who saw both.

Jury members read the scripts of the possible nominees, and scripts are distributed to board members. “There was a lot of intelligent discussion of ‘Pride’s Crossing’ and ‘Collected Stories’ based on [board members’] reading of the scripts,” Topping said. And “it’s the custom that a member who hasn’t done the reading or seen a play doesn’t vote.”

Yet a “a play is so much better performed than read,” said South Coast artistic director Martin Benson.

“Everybody would agree” that plays come alive on the stage, not the page, Topping said, but he also noted that “this is an award for the playwright, not the actors. The script becomes a benchmark.”

Benson, while noting that his theater is honored that Margulies was nominated for a play produced there, nevertheless said that the Pulitzers operate by “a system that’s not entirely fair for theater outside New York.”


In 1992, Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle” became the first play to overcome this handicap, winning the Pulitzer before a New York production was even scheduled. But it had received an unusual amount of national attention in two prior runs, in Seattle and Los Angeles. In 1993, Part 1 of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” won the Pulitzer a few days before its New York previews began, but it had already played in London as well as Los Angeles--and the New York Times reviewed it in both cities. The plays that won in 1994-96--”Three Tall Women,” “The Young Man From Atlanta” and “Rent”--all played in New York before winning, and publicists for all three productions confirmed that they took steps to make sure that most of the Pulitzer board members saw them.

Topping, in conjunction with the chairman of the drama jury, tries to keep board members informed of “what seems to be interesting” throughout the year. He also noted that the New York Public Library’s video archive is sometimes used to see plays on tape if they can’t be seen on the stage.

But videos of “Collected Stories” and “Pride’s Crossing” weren’t available, he said. He also acknowledged that the South Coast production of “Collected Stories” occurred before the play was considered a contender, so board members weren’t advised to try to see it.

Board chairman Geneva Overholser said that the board had frequently awarded the prize to a play that wasn’t playing when the board met--or one that a majority of the board hadn’t seen. She doesn’t believe that the board’s failure to see all of the finalists this year explains its decision not to award a prize. That, she said, was simply a matter of the board not being sufficiently impressed with any of the nominees.

Board member Jim Risser--who, in Topping’s words, “almost broke his neck” trying to see “Pride’s Crossing”--agreed: “All I can say is that it didn’t seem to be a very strong year in original American drama, and none of the plays that were finalists were able to secure a majority of the board members in their favor.”

Uhry--whose play was seen, if not appreciated--shrugged off the apparent snub. Because he already won a Pulitzer for his first play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” he said he was “amazed that I was considered. What are the odds of being considered for both the plays you’ve written? Am I supposed to be depressed? I’m thrilled.”


Flora Roberts, agent for Uhry and Howe, sounded less thrilled. “I’m sad about it. We had quite of lot of good theater this year. This gives the impression that we didn’t.” She said that Howe may resubmit “Pride’s Crossing” next year, after rewrites.

Jane Harmon, who co-produced Uhry’s play, said that before the decision was announced, she “had heard we won from six different sources, all unsubstantiated,” and since the news of the non-prize, she had heard “eight different rumors, all contradictory,” about the reasons.