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Lee Blessing is a Minneapolis-based playwright noted for the varied themes and topics of his plays. He has won numerous awards and praise, most notably for A Walk in the Woods (1986), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Unremarkable Upbringing
Lee Blessing was born to a typically American Midwest household. His upbringing was fairly conventional. His parents were not great lovers of the theater, and Blessing himself seemingly stumbled into play writing when, while still in high school, he chose to pen a short piece in lieu of writing a thirty-page term paper on a subject he was not particularly interested in. However, Blessing found he had a knack for writing plays, and soon had determined upon a career path as a playwright.
After graduating from high school, Blessing attended the University of Minnesota for two years before enrolling at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1971. As a reward, his parents, who had become enthusiastic sup porters of his writing, offered him the choice of a used car or a trip to Russia. He chose the latter, traveling to Moscow. He would return to the Russian capital nearly two decades later to stage a production of his most acclaimed play, A Walk in the Woods.
Success in Local Theaters and on Broadway
After his time abroad, Blessing returned to the Midwest, attending the University of Iowa from 1974 to 1979. He spent his years there first earning a master of fine arts in English, then taking an MFA in speech and theater. He supported himself by teaching playwriting, which he also would later teach at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis from 1986 to 1988.
After writing and producing five plays between 1979 and 1985, Blessing began to garner critical attention with Eleemosynary, a tale of three generations of gifted women and their complex familial relationships. Time reviewer William A. Henry, III felt that ”every woman, and everyone who knows and loves one, will recognize too familiar truths in the dilemmas Blessing depicts.” The following year, A Walk in the Woods premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford, Connecticut. The play would go on to runs on Broadway, in Moscow, and in London, where it would star esteemed actor Sir Alec Guinness. An adaptation of the production also aired on the Public Broadcasting System’s American Playhouse.
Although his plays have been staged around the world and on Broadway, Blessing maintains his focus in his hometown of Minneapolis, and prefers the intimacy of small theater productions. He continues to write on a variety of themes and subjects—his 2004 play, Whores, for example, concerns the rape and murder of Catholic nuns in El Salvador in 1980, during a period of civil war and instability, a result of Cold War meddling by the United States and the Soviet Union, each of which backed a rival faction in the conflict.
A Variety of Themes
Such heady political drama is no stranger to Blessing, but he also writes about more personal subjects. Several of Blessing’s works—Cobb (1989), Cooperstown (1993) and The Winning Streak (2002)—have incorporated his love of baseball into their storylines. He has also written plays dealing with as wide a diversity of subjects as serial killers ( Down the Road, 1989), AIDS (Patient A, 1993), the clash of art and politics ( Chesapeake, 1999), and the experience of being gay in America (Thief River, 2000).
Works in Literary Context
Noted for his eclectic choice of subject matter, Blessing’s plays focus on politics both private and public, and on human relationships, most notably in the family unit.
The combination of sports and theatrical drama has a history stretching back to the ancient Greeks. The ups and downs experienced by athletes both on and off the playing field, along with their heroic status counterbalanced by their all-too-mortal fallibilities, make for naturally gripping storytelling.
Blessing’s own love of baseball has spurred him to write two plays and a teleplay, all of which examine much broader themes through the medium of sports. Cobb is a biographical sketch of notorious Detroit Tigers centerfielder Ty Cobb, sports’ first millionaire and, by his own admission, ”the most hated man in baseball.” Blessing uses this dichotomy to examine, as Time reviewer William A. Henry, III put it, ”… Blessing’s thesis is that Cobb changed baseball in exactly the ways that the twentieth century changed America, by bringing the techniques of science and the mentality of all-out warfare to what had been a pastoral pastime.”
Blessing also used sports metaphors to explore much more personal territory. Inspired by his father, who was dying of cancer but who clung to life long enough to root for a San Diego Padres winning streak, Blessing wrote Winning Streak, an emotionally charged work about a grown son reconnecting with a father, a baseball umpire, he never knew.
Works in Critical Context
Blessing’s works have been mostly well-received by critics. In addition to receiving Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominations for A Walk in the Woods, the play also won him the American Theater Critics Association award in 1987 and the Dramalogue Award in 1988; in 1989, Blessing received a Guggenheim fellowship. He was also awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and received a 1997 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Writing as well as the Great American Play Award, and the George and Elisabeth Marton Award, among others.
A Walk in the Woods Critics singled out A Walk in the Woods for its sensitive and humorous treatment of a very weighty issue. Frank Rich said the play drives home the message that ”all people and nations are fundamentally alike, and that all world problems could be solved if only the adversaries might build mutual trust by chatting face to face on a park bench.” In a review in the New Yorker, Edith Oliver wrote that ”one of the many pleasures the play affords is that of watching the molds crack as the characters deepen and, above all, connect.” Chicago Sun-Times contributor Hedy Weiss described the play as ”a series of riveting discussions between two men possessed of exceptional intelligence, powerful egos, and intense but carefully disguised passions.”
- ”Eleemosynary.” Drama for Students. Edited by Sara Constantakis. Vol. 23. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
- ”Lee Blessing (1949-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz, and Sean R. Pollock. Vol. 54. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989.
- Kilian, Michael. Review of Whores, interview with Blessing. Chicago Tribune (July 24, 2003): 9.
- The Playwrights Database. Lee Blessing—complete guide to the Playwright and Plays. Retrieved September 24, 2008, from http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsB/blessing-lee.html
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