For that matter, Robert Sherwood's 1938 play, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," borrowed largely from Lincoln's writings and speeches and was awarded the Pulitzer. "A Chorus Line," built by Michael Bennett and James Kirkwood from interviews with Broadway dancers, won the prize in 1975. There are many more examples of successful stage plays--Jay Presson Allen's "Tru," Eric Bentley's "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?," "The Diary of Anne Frank," by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett--that were shaped from the words of real people collected from existing writings or transcriptions.
Searching for the roots of Smith's "Twilight" method in so-called "documentary theater," one looks all the way back to the fabled Living Newspaper of the Federal Theatre Project during the 1930s, the Group Theater's "Waiting for Lefty," by Clifford Odets (that addressed the 1937 New York taxi strike) or to the earlier Taper shows "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer" (1968) and "The Trial of the Catonsville 9" (1971). There is, of course, the work of Emily Mann ("Still Life" and "Execution of Justice"), who directed "Twilight" at the Taper. Even so, there seems to be no clear precedent for what Smith has done at this professional level. She appears to have established a new genre, and at the moment she is a genre of one. This is a mixed blessing at awards time.
She has also been nominated for best featured actress in "Twilight," but traditionalists in the theater may not be ready to grant her full status as a writer, as an established older American playwright confided to me recently, while requesting anonymity. "It's an eloquent performance all right, but there's a lot of concern among Tony voters that it's not a play," said the playwright.
Robert Schenkkan, author of "The Kentucky Cycle," which won the 1992 Pulitzer and is nominated for a Tony tonight, holds a similar view. "From a dramaturgical point of view, it's not a work of the imagination," said Schenkkan. "This is not to take anything away from her performance, which is amazing. I think of it as performance art, not as a play."
Others feel differently.
"I think it's going to be an issue for some critics and some people in the theater," said Emily Mann, a leading proponent and practitioner of documentary theater. "But a lot of writing, if you will, goes into one of these pieces. There's an incredible amount of craft involved. You still have to make a play."
"I thought it was wonderful," said Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright who won the Pulitzer in 1989 for "The Heidi Chronicles" and one who speaks up in Smith's behalf. "I think of it as a work of art. There is an individual voice there, the eye of the observer. It's constructed in a theatrical way. It moves. It's documentary theater but it's different from 'docudrama' because she's dealing with character. It begins with character, which is what it has in common with a lot of other plays."
Tom Moore, who directed the Pulitzer-winning " 'night Mother" on Broadway and the radio documentary play "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers" for L.A. Theatre Works, said about "Twilight": "It's the way one shapes reality that makes theater. Not anyone could come up with a way of doing that. There's an argument to be made that she did write part of it since she asked the questions.
"Theater is becoming a form that no one thinks is relevant, and here is a piece that has shown relevance and vibrancy, that is important, clever and well-done. So why in the world should it be excluded?"
"That connection that is made between the stage and an audience and between the audience and the artist, that is what the theater is about," said Lloyd Richards, director of August Wilson's plays "Fences" (Pulitzer, 1987) and "The Piano Lesson" and for 30 years director the National Playwrights Conference. Did he consider "Twilight" a play? "Categorizing it is something that's imposed on it. It's not what the art is about. One can say about something, what is the creative element in it? Sometimes assemblage is creative. I was moved or I was provoked or I was enraged or I was entertained by it. That's where it's at."
Oskar Eustis, a director at the Taper who worked with Smith as an adviser during the development of "Twilight," made this observation: "Categories are invented before an art form is invented. When you have category confusion, the artists are usually ahead of the judges."