THE BLOG
12/08/2010 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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 Johnson -- 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.

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?

At the moment the only thing getting in the way is tradition and the details of the job description:

raising the status of poetry in the everyday conscience of the American public.

I think novelists are taken care of in this department -- the American Public has fairly easy and abundant access to novels (anything you can buy at an airport is doing just fine). Creative essays are also fairly accessible -- The New Yorker, The Atlantic and their ilk regularly serve this kind of thought-provoking work.

That leaves playwrights. And why the hell not? Though I'm obviously biased, I see no reason why the US couldn't have a Playwright Laureate. The shifted responsibility would read:

Raising the status of poetic and dramatic literature in the everyday conscience of the American public.

Playwrights and poets share a literary heritage. We often spring from the same creative well, attend parallel MFA programs, earn the same tiny living (if earning a living at all from our art), and if notable we receive Pulitzers, Nobels, and other similar writing awards.

The father of modern American Drama, Eugene O'Neill, was the second American Nobel Laureate in Literature (six years after Sinclair Lewis). T.S. Eliot (a sometimes playwright) was the first American poet so honored, a decade after O'Neill.

Plays have shifted the cultural seas over the decades since O'Neill with the complex, uplifting, challenging, and fiercely American creativity of such luminaries as Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Edward Albee, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Marsha Norman, Doug Wright, David Henry Hwang, Lynn Nottage, Sam Shepard, Sarah Ruhl, Susan Lori Parks, Tracy Letts, and on and on. The tidal force of Broadway on the world's stages is thanks to the generative spirit of American dramatists, lyricists, directors, and on and on through the dedicated teams that make original plays and musical happen.

The country that invented musical theater should have a representational dramatist in its highest official center of literature.

How about it, Library of Congress?

* Thanks to Alison Carey for the genesis of this idea.