one-person shows. The genre might be said to have been made legitimate when in 1967
Hal Holbrook won the Broadway Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Play with his one-
man show Mark Twain Tonight!
In that marvelous little book of essays on the theatre The Dramatic Imagination,
Robert Edmond Jones, the great scenic designer of the early part of the 20 th century,
imagines a story that theatre was created by the solo actor. The leader of the tribe of cave
men gathers the tribe together to tell them about the hunt that happened that day:
The lion skin lies close by, near the fire. Suddenly the leader jumps to his feet. “I
killed the lion! I did it! I followed him! He sprang at me! I struck at him with my spear!
He fell down! He lay still!”
He is telling us. We listen. But all at once an idea comes to his dim brain.
“I know a better way to tell you. See! It was like this! Let me show you!”
In that instant drama is born.
The leader goes on. “Sit around me in a circle—you, and you, and you—right
here, where I can reach out and touch you all.” And so with one inclusive gesture he
makes a theatre.
So here we are at Springfield Contemporary Theatre gathered around in three-
quarters of a circle for a solo performer to reach out, touch us, ignite our imagination, to
create a theatre event.
The creation of the one-person show goes back to at least the early part of the 18 th
century. British satirist Samuel Foote has been credited as the creator. Only two theatres
in London were licensed to present theatrical productions. In 1747 he presented The
Diversions of the Morning, a satirical revue consisting of his take-offs on various
individuals, mostly other actors and public figures. He presented them at an unlicensed
theatre as matinees and invited friends to “come and drink a dish of chocolate” with him
under the pretense of “training some young performers for the stage.” He had found the
loophole in the licensing act. For the next 30 years he performed in those highly
successful entertainments. In 1764 George Alexander Stevens popularized the art of the
monologist with his Lecture upon Heads. Using papier-mache heads, wig blocks and
hand props, he “lectured” on famous individuals, historical and current, and social
stereotypes. In the time since then many actors have found the genre a profitable venture
in lean times. In the early 19 th century Charles Mathews established himself as a leading
comedian who created entertainments described as “a whole play in the person of one
man.” Many examples could be cited from that time to the present. In the early 20 th
century Sarah Bernhardt stormed the entertainment circuits in Europe and America
wearing her wooden leg presenting selections from her famous portrayals. (She also
carried her coffin with her and reportedly slept in it at night.) Ruth Draper created a series of solo character monologs that she began performing in 1921 and was still performing in
a Broadway theatre just hours before her death in 1956.
The development and popularity of the one-person shows in the latter-half of the
20th century came from necessity and a saving of expenditures, i.e., salaries for actors.
The days of Kaufman and Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner with 36 roles were
long past. Finding fewer acting opportunities actors began to develop their own
properties, or playwrights wanting to see their plays produced wrote one-person scripts
for them. For an actor with a successful venture, it became money in the bank. Sixty
years after his first performance, Hal Holbrook was still performing Mark Twain. Also,
what actor could resist such a tour de force?
The following productions have won Tony Awards for their performers:
1966. Hal Holbrook. Mark Twain Tonight!
When Mark Twain ran into financial troubles and eventual bankruptcy, he went
on lecture tours in the United States and Europe to pay his debts and earn a living reciting
from materials that he had written. Holbrook recreated those lectures. His material could
vary from night to night just as Twain had.
1977. Julie Harris. The Belle of Amherst by William Luce.
Luce used diaries, letters, and the poems of Emily Dickinson. Miss Dickinson
gives a tea party and talks about the famous people and acquaintances that she knows.
She recites many of the poems that she wrote. In the Introduction to Solo Acting by
Jordan R. Young, Harris wrote:
The first time I found myself alone on stage was when I performed The Belle of
Amherst. We opened the tour in Seattle, Washington, the Moore Egyptian
Theatre, February 1976. As I came on stage, with my tea tray, in a rush of
energy and face the audience, I was overwhelmed and even lost my place in the
script—but almost immediately found my strength and then it became fun for
me. It was like visiting a good friend and I was always thrilled to be a part of
Miss Dickinson’s world. Toward the last part of the play—where the poetry
and language become so luminous—I always felt I was riding a magic carpet,
floating through the air, and the journey would have no end.
1986. Lily Tomlin. The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane
Tomlin performed various characters that at first seemed to be a disparate group
but become unified by the “bag lady” as the play progressed. At the time the show was
considered controversial for its strong feminist material.
1986. Bernadette Peters. Song and Dance. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by
Don Black with revisions and additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Peters received the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. The
first act is song and the second is dance united by a story. The song part is “Tell Me on a
Sunday” about a young woman’s romantic misadventures in New York and Hollywood.
Lloyd Webber asked Maltby to make revisions to adapt the act for an American audience.
The girl’s name was Emma whose songs, fully staged, were acted out by Peters.
1989. Pauline Collins. Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell.
The first act takes place in the kitchen of an English housewife in Liverpool who
finds herself feeling stagnant and in a rut. When a best friend offers to pay for a trip to
Greece for them for two weeks, she packs her bag, leaves a note on the cupboard door
and off she goes. Act II is on the Greek isle where she begins to find what was missing in
her life. At the end of the two weeks she ditches the friend and starts a new life being true
The play was produced in London first where it won the Laurence Olivier Award
for Best Actress for Collins and also the Award for Best New Comedy.
1990. Robert Morse. Tru by Jay Presson Allen adapted from the works of and interviews
with Truman Capote.
The play is set in the writer’s apartment the week before Christmas 1975. An
excerpt from his unfinished novel Answered Prayers has been published in Esquire
magazine. Manhattan socialites have recognized themselves in the thinly veiled
unflattering portraits in the excerpt. They have shunned him. He sooths himself with pills,
vodka, cocaine and chocolate truffles as he muses about his life and career.
1997. Christopher Plummer. Barrymore by William Luce.
The play takes place a few months before the death of John Barrymore as he is
rehearsing a revival of his 1920 Broadway triumph as Richard III. This never happened
but in the play was the device used to tell the story. In a way a second person is involved
as the stage manager talks frequently over the theatre loudspeaker with Barrymore as he
reminisces about his career and downslide into alcoholism.
2002. Elaine Stritch. Elaine Stritch at Liberty by Elaine Stritch and George C. Wolfe
who also directed it. She received a Tony for the Best Special Theatrical Event.
Elaine Stritch in black tights and a white blouse with a tall stool in the middle of
the stage talked about her life, her career, her battle with alcoholism. She performed
songs from shows that she had appeared in. It was fascinating, funny and devastating as it
was frank, bare and naked emotionally beyond what anyone could have expected.
2004. Jefferson Mays. I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright based on his conversations
with German Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. It won Tony awards for May and also Best Play.
Wright received the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It is an examination of the life of German Antiquarian Charlotte von Mahlsdorf,
born Lothan Berfelde, who killed her father when she was a young child and survived the
Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin as a transgender woman. Mays played some
40 different roles in the play.
In addition to these that have received Tony Awards, hundreds of other one-
person shows have been developed and produced. U. S. Presidents, national leaders,
literary figures, artists, sports stars, actors, fictional characters are among the subjects of
these plays. A fascinating book on the subject is Acting Solo: the Art of One-Man Shows
by Jordan R. Young who interviewed many individuals who had acted in and created
these kinds of productions.