Letter: Origins of The Century Cycle

Dear Professor Downing,

I’m an editor at Harper’s Magazine and have recently read through all of August Wilson’s plays. I was trying to figure out when Wilson actually began to conceive of his plays as a century cycle, i.e., one play for each decade of the 20th century. I haven’t seen reference of this in any interviews, obituaries, or scholarship. Aunt Ester doesn’t become a presence until Two Trains Running, and I don’t believe characters (or at least mentions of people and places) recur until then.

Is there evidence that Wilson had long had this idea for this sweeping prospect (which now is virtually inseparable from mentions of his name) in mind? Or did it develop organically as he set several plays in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood and then become something more firm? Any help you could offer would be much appreciated. If you could point me to any writing or other people that could offer additional insight into this aspect of Wilson’s oeuvre, I’d be interested in that as well.

Thanks so much.

Best,

Ben Austen
Harper’s Magazine
666 Broadway, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10012

**********

Dear Ben,

Wilson’s interest in writing the Century Cycle began in the mid-1980s.  He had already written Jitney and Ma Rainey‘s Black Bottom and he was moving toward Joe Turner and Fences.

Jitney was written in 1979 and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was published in 1982. Joe Turner was published in 1984 and Fences in 1985.  It was at this time, Wilson’s idea for the Century Cycle was beginning to bloom.

It’s safe to say, therefore, that Wilson’s idea for his Century Cycle came to him in or around 1983.

While the entire project wasn’t fleshed out for many years (he actually wrote the bookend plays last), Wilson needed a vessel for his plays and he chose history as his template.  In addition to his sensitive ear for language and his dramatic structure, this is yet another reason he is so often compared with Shakespeare, who also used history as a vehicle for numerous plays (now commonly known as his “history” plays).

I suggest you contact Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to get his take on this question.

If you come up with more other opinions on this topic, please don’t hesitate to share.

Thanks for writing.

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