Shelf Life

A passion for playwriting

Howard Zinn’s three plays will be published in a single volume.
Howard Zinn’s three plays will be published in a single volume.
By Jan Gardner
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2010

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Howard Zinn’s playwriting, if it was mentioned at all, was little more than a footnote in tributes that have appeared since his death last month. Yet he was passionate about the role of theater in his political awakening, and the three plays he wrote about Emma Goldman, Karl Marx, and the arms race have been widely translated and produced.

On March 15 they will be published in a single volume for the first time. “Three Plays: The Political Theater of Howard Zinn” (Beacon) offers a window on this less celebrated part of his oeuvre.

Zinn was 16 when he saw his first play, a Federal Theater Project production of “One Third of a Nation,” its title derived from FDR’s statement, “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” In the play, a fire sweeps through tenements, leaving many homeless. “That experience suggested to me, early on, the power of drama in conveying a message of social significance,” Zinn wrote in the introduction to “Three Plays.”

While living in New York, he and his wife, Roslyn, watched the original productions of “Native Son,” “Death of a Salesman,” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Over the years Roslyn and the couple’s children, Myla and Jeff (now artistic director of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater), took on acting roles in Atlanta and New York.

Zinn remained an activist and historian, best known for “A People’s History of the United States,” the bestseller that highlighted the legions of ordinary citizens who joined forces to exert influence over the nation. Yet the lure of writing for the stage was undeniable, as he makes plain in his introduction to the upcoming volume: “I discovered that writing for the theater had a quality missing in the writing of books and articles. Those were solitary endeavors, but when you wrote a play it quickly became a collective experience.”

Beacon Press and Suffolk University will present “A Tribute to the Theater of Howard Zinn” on March 24 at 6 p.m. Chris Cooper and other actors will give readings from Zinn’s plays, and Jeff Zinn will have an onstage conversation with former Boston Globe theater critic Ed Siegel. The free event will take place at Suffolk’s C. Walsh Theatre, 55 Temple St. To reserve a seat, call 617-573-8282.

A Stone unturned
“Split Image,” the new Jesse Stone novel by Robert B. Parker, hits bookstores on Tuesday. Parker, who died at his desk in January, had two other books in the pipeline. Putnam plans to release “Blue-Eyed Devil” in Parker’s Appaloosa series on May 4 and the Spenser novel “Painted Ladies” on Oct. 5.

Bookstore moves
Lorem Ipsum has moved to 1299 Cambridge St., closer to the heart of Inman Square.

Coming out
“The Infinities,’’ by John Banville (Knopf)

“Big Girl,’’ by Danielle Steel (Delacorte)

“We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication,’’ by Judith Warner (Riverhead)

Pick of the week
Caitlin Doggart of Where the Sidewalk Ends in Chatham recommends “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’’ by Maaza Mengiste (Norton): “This riveting novel, set against the violent backdrop of Ethiopia’s revolution in 1974, focuses on the primacy of family relationships. Hailu, a prominent doctor, and his two grown sons experience their country’s tragedy and their own family’s grief through very different prisms of understanding yet they remain connected, even through the gruesome terror overtaking their city.’’

Jan Gardner can be reached at