Sifting the Dustbin of Literary History





JONATHAN BANK, the artistic director of the Mint Theater Company, swings his arm over the clutter of his desk and plucks out a small piece of ruled white paper. On it are written, in cursive hand, the titles of eight obscure plays, their authors penned in next to them.

“Somebody handed this to me a long time ago,” Mr. Bank said. “I don’t remember who or when. I put it away. I slipped it into a book. Then I found it again a year ago.” Whoever wrote the list might have been some sort of clairvoyant. “ ‘John Ferguson’ by St. John Ervine, which we have since produced. ‘The Truth About Blayds’ by A. A. Milne, which we produced. ‘Hindle Wakes’ by Stanley Houghton, which I’m going to produce someday. I looked at this and thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

Strangers often stuff little pieces of paper in his hand, Mr. Bank said. They also send him e-mail messages and call with unsolicited suggestions. They know he’s constantly on the lookout for plays that are gathering dust in some lonely used-book store due to no fault of their authors. In his thirst for these neglected works Mr. Bank’s Off Broadway company has proved that just because a script isn’t known or produced doesn’t mean it’s not good.

More often, though, it’s not one of these over-the-transom proposals but a choice of his own that makes the cut, Mr. Bank said. And those lost plays can present themselves in various ways. For instance, the company’s current production, “The Power of Darkness” — an unfamous play by the very famous Leo Tolstoy — has been awaiting its moment for two decades.

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