Closing Time, pr. 1959
The Nest, pr. 1969
Birth and After Birth, wr. 1973, pb. 1977, revised pr. 1995
Museum, pr. 1976
The Art of Dining, pr. 1979
Appearances, pr. 1982 (one act)
Painting Churches pr. 1983
Three Plays, pb. 1984
Coastal Disturbances, pr. 1986
Approaching Zanzibar, pr., pb. 1989
Coastal Disturbances: Four Plays, pb. 1989
One Shoe Off, pr., pb. 1993
Approaching Zanzibar, and Other Plays, pb. 1995
Pride’s Crossing, pr. 1997
Rembrandt’s Gift, pr. 2002
Born on November 21, 1937, to Quincy Howe and Mary Post Howe, Tina Howe spent much of her childhood on the upper East Side of Manhattan. Her writing echoes her childhood struggles to win the approval of her otherwise occupied parents. Protesting the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s (during which U.S. citizens’ civil liberties were placed in jeopardy as they were questioned about communist political affiliations), her newscaster father left CBS for a position with the University of Illinois. Her mother, a painter and Boston socialite, towered over others thanks to her five-foot, eleven-inch frame and flamboyant hats. Howe’s yearning for the approval of her preoccupied mother plays clearly in Painting Churches.
In Manhattan, Howe attended private schools. There she endured the ridicule of other children for her childhood lisp and unusual height but learned to compensate with humor. After graduation, she attended Bucknell University for two years and then transferred to Sarah Lawrence College, graduating in 1959. At Sarah Lawrence, Howe wrote her first short play, Closing Time. Upon completion of her university degree, she traveled to Paris and continued to write. By 1973, Howe had returned to New York City, where she married Norman Levy, a novelist. She taught high school English and drama, all the while writing scenes for her young actors to perform in class. Writing for high school actors proved to be wonderful training, she said, for the work she would complete later.
Howe held teaching positions in Maine and Wisconsin before moving to Kinderhook, New York, where she completed her first professionally produced plays, The Nest and Birth and After Birth. Strongly influenced by Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Luigi Pirandello, and other European absurdist playwrights, Howe’s earliest plays explored the darker side of courtship and motherhood. Both received very negative critical reviews.
Undaunted by her critics, Howe nonetheless took her writing in a different direction. She chose nontraditional settings for Museum and The Art of Dining. Originally produced with a cast of fifty-five, Museum received mixed reviews mentioning its lack of central character or clear plot structure. Her next play, The Art of Dining, featured the kitchen and dining room of an upscale restaurant. The play explored a more personal theme: Howe’s fear of eating in public. In 1983, her play Painting Churches received enthusiastic reviews. The death of her parents in the mid-1970’s enabled Howe to take the emotional risks necessary to flesh out the play’s central characters. Painting Churches received an Obie Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, among others.
Her plays written in the mid-1980’s continued to feature woman protagonists and to explore the importance of intimate relationships. Coastal Disturbances harks back to Museum and Painting Churches in its emphasis on the visual arts. Howe was nominated for a Tony Award for Coastal Disturbances and later received an Obie Award for sustained excellence. While Howe’s next play, Approaching Zanzibar, received mixed reviews, the critics commended her attention to detail.
Howe celebrated the women of her mother’s generation in Pride’s Crossing and Rembrandt’s Gift. In Pride’s Crossing, an elderly New Englander recalls events that shaped her life, while in Rembrandt’s Gift, the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt, long dead, appears to an elderly couple on the verge of eviction. While critics felt that Rembrandt’s Gift covered old thematic territory, revealing nothing new, the flaws of Pride’s Crossing were ameliorated by the talent of the principal actress, Cherry Jones.
Tina Howe is something of an anomaly in a male-dominated industry. With a career spanning several decades, Howe has enjoyed more productions of her plays than have many of her male counterparts. However, her plays have not always received the critical attention that Howe believes they deserve. She and her defenders suggest that her plays tend to alienate the paternalistic theater establishment because of her feminine perspective. Her critics counter that Howe’s flaws rest not with her subject matter but with her whimsical approach to absurdism. Despite some misgivings, her critics agree that Howe’s lyric dialogue, unusual settings, and engaging women characters have enriched the theatrical landscape. The mother of two children, Howe taught playwrighting at Hunter College in New York City and served on the council of the Dramatist Guild.