Dramatist: Definition & Famous Examples

Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

A dramatist is someone who writes plays or dramatic poetry. Look into the definition of a dramatist and the history of plays and discover famous American dramatists during the 20th century. Updated: 02/07/2022


A dramatist is simply a playwright, or a person who writes plays. The root of the word drama originates from the Greek word 'to do.' If we think about the mechanics of a play, we notice all the action that goes into a staged production. There is the character's movement, the dialogue, the stage direction and the changing scenery. All of those considerations, of course, must be written by the dramatist.


Plays have been around for hundreds of years. Back in the days of Ancient Greece, there were no television sets or mass-produced books. So as you can imagine, plays were one of the most popular forms of entertainment and served as a way for common and rich folks alike to escape from their everyday lives. This made the dramatist a sort of rock star of the time. Writers, like William Shakespeare, were as honored and revered as any movie star or celebrity is today.

Of course, things are much different now. While plays are still produced around the world, there are a million different ways for a person to be entertained. However, the art form of telling a tale for the stage lives on. And in the past hundred years, some of the most important stories have come from the minds of dramatists.

Famous American Dramatists

Here are a few of the most famous American dramatists of the 20th century:

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams wrote novels, poetry, and film scripts. However, he was certainly considered a dramatist first and foremost. Williams was a huge celebrity in his day, as plays were still very popular when he started working in the 1940s.

His first major success was The Glass Menagerie, a Broadway hit in 1944. The play is a family drama about two siblings with a mother who is upset that her crippled daughter doesn't have gentlemen suitors like she did when she was younger. Williams became known for putting his own life experiences on the stage. His own sister was severely mentally ill, and the protagonist in the play is a poet with a drinking problem and abandonment issues, just like the real Tennessee Williams.

Pulitzer Prize Willing Dramatist Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams

'Stella! Stella!' - Williams went on to write one of the most acclaimed plays in American history, A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1947. The story is about a working class couple, Stanley and Stella, who get a visit from Stella's sister Blanche. No one knows it at first but Blanche has lost all of her money and brings along a sordid sexual past. Once again, there is a major family riff going on in Streetcar. Stanley doesn't appreciate Blanche's pretentious air, and Blanche is delusional to the point where she looks down on Stanley's working-class lifestyle despite her own wreck of a life. The play is violent, disturbing, and once again, mental illness takes center stage.

Marlon Brando in the film version of Streetcar Named Desire
Marlon Brando

Williams would go on to write many more popular plays, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). He won several critical awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Williams received a screenwriter's credit for The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire (starring Marlon Brando) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor), which were all regarded as cinematic hits.

Neil Simon

Prolific is a good place to start when talking about American dramatist Neil Simon. He wrote dozens of plays and film scripts. However, he was not only productive, he was also acclaimed. In fact, Simon has received more Tony and Academy Award nominations than any other writer.

American Dramatist Neil Simon
Neil Simon

Simon's Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965) once again turned a dramatist into a celebrity. Barefoot in the Park was later adapted for the screen and starred a young Robert Redford. And of course, The Odd Couple went on to become both a massive television and movie hit.

Television Version of The Odd Couple
The Odd Couple

Simon's plays, which were mostly comedies, were extremely different from the dramatic/tragic work of Tennessee Williams. However, just like Williams, Simon often put his own life experiences into his productions. The Bronx-born dramatist wrote what he knew. Audiences got to witness still shots of Simon's life from his autobiographical trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs (1983), Biloxi Blues (1985) and Broadway Bound (1986).

What made all of Simon's plays distinct was his ability to create flawed characters that audiences could identify with. They were often described as unheroic, ordinary people with regular-life problems, such as troubled marriages and financial issues. But they all had heart, and Simon brought humor to these urban stories to create a light air for what were major life-defining problems.

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