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Notes on my time as drama editor at PRISM (c. 1979-80)

Jill Mandrake, file photoBy Jill Mandrake

A brilliant one-act play, “Houdini” by Kirby Wright, was published in the most recent issue of PRISM (51:1, Fall 2012). It was so gripping, I felt moved to write and thank the drama editor for choosing such a fine work. I saw on the masthead that PRISM no longer had a drama editor, so I addressed my email to the editorial board. I was then invited to share my experiences on one-acts, dramas in print generally, how PRISM handled it, and how/if things have changed since then.

I can recall at least some of the goings-on at that time. My mentor (the drama editor who preceded me) was the multi-talented Kico Gonzalez. I noted when I first came on board (issue 18:1, Spring/Summer 1979) we had no drama submissions to publish. Few, if any, writers had been sending us plays, and I resolved to go out and solicit what I could.

Fortunately, I was in correspondence with James Purdy who, several years earlier, had published two cutting-edge plays, “Children is All” and “Cracks” (New Directions Press: 1963). Even though Mr. Purdy was primarily a fiction writer, I knew he was continuing to write drama as well.

For issue 18:2, he sent us a programme of four one-act plays, entitled Out of a Clear Blue Sky. We didn’t have room to publish all four, so we settled on two: “Adeline” and “Wonderful Happy Days.” The other two in the programme were “What Is It Zach?” and “Now.” I’m afraid I locked horns with our other editors in terms of which to publish; I remember thinking “What Is It Zach?” succeeded on its own terms, much better than did “Adeline.”

We published even more drama in the same issue: “’Tis Said He Comes from Elam” by Daniel P. Stokes, a verse play that had previously been produced in Dublin. I’m fairly certain that our advisory editor, George McWhirter, had solicited this work, as he had a number of contacts in Ireland.

Next was issue 19:1, where we published no drama at all. I had solicited a play from David Freeman, whom I considered one of Canada’s best playwrights. His “Creeps,” “Battering Ram,” and “You’re Gonna Be Alright, Jamie-Boy” provided the most truthful images of life I’d seen in a while. Mr. Freeman responded to my request by sending PRISM a one-act play, and once again, I locked horns with the other editors, and ended up in the awkward position of returning Mr. Freeman’s play with a rejection letter.

I don’t consider myself the “locking horns” type, and I feel that the problems we editorial staff experienced, concerning which plays to publish, boiled down to two issues: Too many cooks in the literary soup; and each genre-editor not having enough of a final say, or enough autonomy.

For the 19.2 issue (Winter 1980), we were fortunate to publish “Summer Screen” by Lennox Brown. Mr. Brown’s play had already received a professional reading in Frank Silvera’s Writers Workshop in NYC. By this time, the current PRISM editors were making way for their successors, although we remained on the editorial board for another year. I was succeeded by the delightful Joe Martin, who published George Ryga’s “Prometheus Bound” (a modern adaptation of the drama by Aeschylus).

Another more controversial play, published in PRISM around the same time, was “Red Devil Battery Sign,” by the one and only Tennessee Williams. At this point I had finished my stint at PRISM; just the same, I felt a lot of pride about how we dared to publish Mr. Williams’ work amidst all the unjustly glib reviews.  For the details of how “Red Devil Battery Sign” contentiously made its way into PRISM, go to this link.