Last reviewed: June 2018
November 16, 1951
Paula Anne Vogel was born to a working-class family in Washington, D.C. After her parents’ divorce, she was raised by her mother. Vogel’s family life, education, and early career were not free of problems, but the challenges and failures she faced taught her lessons and helped her build the resilience necessary for life as a writer. She first became interested in drama in high school and began working as a stage manager for school productions. She began college at Bryn Mawr but lost her scholarship and finished her undergraduate education at Catholic University in Washington, where she earned her B.A. in 1974. She hoped to attend graduate school at the Yale School of Drama, but her application was rejected. She entered a Ph.D. program at Cornell University but left in 1977, not having completed her dissertation. By then her playwriting career had begun to experience some success. Paula Vogel.
Vogel’s first theatrical success came with Meg, a three-act play examining the life and martyrdom of the Catholic saint Sir Thomas More, as seen from the perspective of his daughter Margaret. The play won the 1977 American College Theater Festival award for best new play and was produced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Vogel’s interest in exploring traditionally male stories from the vantage point of women characters can also be seen in Desdemona, in which the story of William Shakespeare’s Othello (pr. 1604) is retold from the point of view of Othello’s wife. Vogel turns the innocent young woman of Shakespeare’s play into a wicked, deceitful character embodying Othello’s worst nightmares.
A major breaktrough in Vogel’s career came in 1992 with The Baltimore Waltz, a play inspired by the time she spent helping her brother Carl in his final battle with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The play is a tribute to her brother and an indictment of the medical establishment and of society’s treatment of terminally ill patients. Despite its dark subject matter, The Baltimore Waltz has a surreal story line and a comic touch. The play won the prestigious Obie Award for best Off-Broadway play.
If The Baltimore Waltz secured her place in the canon of American theater, it was How I Learned to Drive that brought Vogel to the attention of an international audience. The play takes an unusual approach to the difficult subject of child abuse by portraying the abuser as a complex, sometimes even likable, figure, rather than a one-dimensional villain. The play earned for Vogel many of the top honors for New York theater in 1997, among them the Obie in playwriting, the Lucille Lortel Award for best play, and The New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award. In 1998 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Vogel's 2003 one-act play The Long Christmas Ride Home, dramatizing a road trip undertaken by two parents and three children to visit relatives for the titular holiday, is notable for incorporating Japanese bunraku puppetry, often accompanied by shamisen music. Vogel has said that the play is an homage to Thornton Wilder's The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, also a one-act taking place during a family road trip. 2008's A Civil War Christmas provides a different perspective on the holiday, portraying multiple characters' experiences of Christmas in 1864. The historical figures in the play's ensemble cast include President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln; Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant; and Elizabeth Keckley, a woman who purchased her freedom from slavery and became a sought-after dressmaker in Washington, DC.
Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq (2014) is the story of a soldier who returns from the war to find that his lover is missing and, in searching for her, stumbles into a surrealistic journey through the history of Philadelphia. The play is based on Ödön von Horváth's 1936 Don Juan Returns from the War; it has been described as an antiwar play and was widely praised for its moving depiction of the issues veterans face when returning home.
Indecent, which premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015, explores the controversy surrounding God of Vengeance, a Yiddish play set in a brothel and featuring a lesbian relationship that opened in English on Broadway in 1923 and not long afterward had its entire cast arrested on charges of obscenity. Indecent thus deals with the impact of anti-Semitism, homophobia, and censorship on the history of American theater. The play moved to Broadway on April 18, 2017, the first of Vogel's plays to do so, and was nominated for a Tony Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and a Drama Desk Award for best play.
In addition to her original works, Vogel’s contribution to American theater has included teaching young playwrights and nurturing new talent. She served on the faculty of theater arts at Cornell from 1978 to 1982 and in Brown University’s M.F.A. program in playwriting beginning in 1985. She has also served as a consultant and taught playwriting workshops at a long and varied list of institutions, including the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska; the Saratoga International Theatre Institute; McGill University in Montreal, Quebec; St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.; and even a maximum security women’s prison.
By the time she wrote The Baltimore Waltz, Vogel had publicly acknowledged that she was a lesbian and had begun to discuss the ways in which it influenced her writing. Though she made clear in interviews that she did not intend to write “lesbian plays” or to speak for the entire gay community, her works do often deal with some of the more complex and less frequently acknowledged aspects of human sexuality and family life, from pedophilia and incest in How I Learned to Drive to the lives of older prostitutes in The Oldest Profession to lesbian adoption and parenting in And Baby Makes Seven.
It is not only in her choice of subjects, though, that Vogel pushes artistic boundaries. Her work also shows experimentation with theatrical form and narrative voice, and it is this that most attracts critical attention to her work. In addition to the numerous prizes she has garnered for individual plays, some of her more prestigious awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, several National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a McKnight Fellowship, the Pew Charitable Trust Senior Residency Award, and a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. The success of Vogel’s writing has allowed her to continue expanding her artistic reach and to begin working in new forms, including musical theater, film adaptations of her plays, and long fiction.