On February 14, Tony Award nominee Tom Sturridge (Orphans) and Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain) officially open in Sea Wall/A Life, an evening of one-act monologues at the Public Theater. Sea Wall is written by Tony– and Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), with whom Sturridge frequently collaborates. A Life, by Olivier-nominated playwright Nick Payne, marks another collaboration between Payne and Gyllenhaal, who both made their Broadway debuts with Constellations. The monologues are linked by themes of love, fatherhood, struggle, and acceptance.
Full-length, one-person monologue plays, like Beckett's Happy Days, are fairly frequently produced, but it is rare for an evening of disparate monologues, like Sea Wall/A Life, to be mounted. Not unheard of, though.
Here are some predecessors that stand out:
1. On June 18, 1968, Britain’s not-yet-five-year-old National Theatre premiered In His Own Write, a one-act, monologue adaptation of Beatle John Lennon’s two published books of verse, drawings and stories In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works. Adapted by Adrienne Kennedy—the estimable African-American playwright avant gardist—in collaboration with the actor Victor Spinetti, In His Own Write was directed by Spinetti and performed by Ronald Pickup (recently seen as Neville Chamberlain in the film Darkest Hour). Kenneth Tynan, co-artistic director of the National with Laurence Olivier, premiered the piece at The Old Vic, with Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in attendance on opening night.
2. Eugene O’Neill’s one-act monologue play, Hughie, has often over the years been mounted on its own, most notably starring Jason Robards and Al Pacino, but it also invites monologue pairings. On February 11, 1975, Ben Gazzara opened as Erie Smith in Hughie at the John Golden Theatre. The evening’s second act was a new monologue play by David Scott Milton entitled Duet, this time starring Gazzara as Leonard Pelican, a paranoid Times Square hotel night clerk who thinks he is being pursued by the KGB.
3. Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s full-length play of monologues delivered by three actors playing the shaman title character, his wife and his manager, opened at London’s Royal Court Theatre in March 1981 before premiering in New York at The Vineyard Theater in 1983. Faith Healer finally reached Broadway in a 2006 revival starring Ralph Fiennes, Ian McDiarmid (who won a Tony), and Cherry Jones.
4. In October 1984, at La Mama on East 4th Street, John Densmore performed solo in a duo-monologue evening. The Doors original drummer kicked off with Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin’s Tongues, a rhythmic meditation on death and rebirth, then closed with his own autobiographical monologue, Skins. In both, Densmore invoked The Doors and the late-Jim Morrison via video and recordings.
5. Playwright Christopher Durang starred in his own evening of dueling monologues, Laughing Wild, at Playwrights Horizons in November 1987, opposite E. Katherine Kerr. Two characters without names trade 30-minute monologues in the first act that reveal how their unstable paths have inadvertently crossed, returning for a joint second act, much of it delivered in more monologues.
6. In 1993, Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels opened at Circle Repertory Company. Directed by Joe Mantello, the full-length work was composed of three alternating monologues: two book-ends delivered by Ron Rifkin as a corrupted and increasingly guilt-ridden, corporate executive, and one from Christine Lahti as his long-suffering, inexorably deteriorating wife.
7. Life Sentences by Richard Nelson followed in November 1993 at Second Stage Theatre. Another monologue play for two, Act 1 was performed by Edward Hermann, as a middle-aged English professor telling the audience about his “almost wife,” with Act 2 performed by Michelle Joyner a young literary groupie recounting her version of things.
8. Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues opened at HERE Arts Center in 1996 before moving to the Westside Theatre for a long run. Originally performed by Ensler herself, the evening of monologues about female sexuality and empowerment would go on to be delivered by an ever-shifting cast of actresses and celebrities who, to this day continue to wield Ensler’s monologues as a potent political weapon. The evening of monologues sparked the organization-meets-movement known as V-Day; from February 1 through April 30 of each year, registered productions of the play can be performed without paying for licensing rights so that all ticketing proceeds benefit V-Day, which distributes funds to national and international grassroots organizations to stop violence against girls and women.
9. Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads reached The Minetta Lane Theater in March 2003 after a screen life on the BBC, where it originated as a teleplay. The stage Talking Heads comprised six monologues performed in alternating evenings of three divided up by a cast of six: Kathleen Chalfant, Daniel Davis, Christine Ebersole, Valerie Mahaffey, Lynn Redgrave, and Grenda Whele.
10. Irish master of the monologue form, Conor McPherson, opened Port Authority at The Atlantic Theater Company in May 2008, after premiering it at Dublin’s Gate Theater in 2001. An intertwining roundelay of memories and regrets expressed by three actors—John Gallagher, Jr. as a younger man, Brian d’Arcy James as a middle-aged man and Jim Norton as an old man—the play reaffirmed the power of monologues to transport without ever pausing for a reply.