Six Tons of Sand and a Dream: Remembering Playwright Tina Howe

Posted on August 29, 2023

by Eric P

Most playwrights aren’t household names, sometimes not even in their own households.  But in the theatrical firmament there’s always been a rich seam of American dramatists who write and get produced and keep working all their lives and even if you don’t know their names maybe you’ve seen some of their stuff, or if you haven’t then you’ve seen stuff that’s informed by their stuff, or if not that then you know some of the actors and other artists who got famous after working on some of their stuff.

And even if those playwrights aren’t on magazine covers – which, fine, because who wants to look at a bunch of playwrights? – their career longevity is invariably buoyed by the good opinion of their peers and a certain degree of reverence among their students, acolytes, and spiritual descendants.

I’m basically describing Tina Howe, the active and venerable playwright who died recently at the age of 85.

After seeing a production of Ionesco’s play The Bald Soprano while studying at the Sorbonne, Howe became a playwright and never looked back. Despite those absurdist origins, Howe’s plays – often about visual artists, often set on or near beaches – usually tended toward naturalistic verisimilitude, expressed however with an almost defiantly maximalist sense of expressive ambition: one of her earliest plays had dozens and dozens of characters; another featured a beachside set built with six tons of sand. One of her most recent plays, Singing Beach, a meditation on aging and climate change clearly informed by her caretaking of a husband with Alzheimer’s, bounced from one theatre to another before getting picked up for production because nobody could figure out quite how to stage it.

Her most famous plays are probably Painting Churches – which was a finalist for the Pulitzer – and Coastal Disturbances – which was nominated for a Tony for its Broadway production starring Annette Bening. But reading any of Howe’s plays will offer a glimpse into the warm and generous empathy that sent so many of her colleagues and former students to sing her praises on social media after her death was announced on August 29.

Four Plays


Birth and After Birth


Pride’s Crossing


Did you like this blog post? Keep up to date with all of our posts by subscribing to the Library’s newsletters!

Keep your reading list updated with our book lists. Our staff love to read and they’ll give you the scoop on new tv-series inspired titles, hobbies, educational resources, pop culture, current events, and more!

Looking for more great titles? Get personalized recommendations from our librarians with this simple form.