I was daydreaming the other day about introducing my son to the work of August Wilson — yeah, that’s what playwright dads do — when it occurred to me to wonder whether I’d recommend that he read Wilson’s ten-play cycle: 1) chronologically by the decades they represent; 2) chronologically by the years in which he wrote them, or; 3) simply by moving from play to play as his heart contents him.
Ultimately, it’s a silly exercise. Personally, I read them the third way, as it happens, doubling back to read several of them two and three times; I will one day read them the second way, too. If I’d been aware enough while he was working, though I’d have read them the first way: as he produced them. And that makes me wonder… are there other writers (playwrights in particular) whose oeuvres ought to be read in the order in which they were produced? And if so, why?
The first writer that comes to mind isn’t a playwright: Kurt Vonnegut. His early books established certain literary conventions leveraged by his middle books, and his later work extends them even further. I think it’s possible that Willa Cather might best be read that way, too, but I can’t say why, other than to note the fact that O Pioneers! owes its themes and characters to her earlier work Alexander’s Bridge. Poets, I think, all ought to be read that way; Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop, for example. But I cannot think of a single playwright about whom I’d make the same claim.
Why do you think that might be?