“Rabbit Hole” Honored With Pulitzer But Was Not Nominated for the Award

It was wholly unexpected that David Lindsay-Abaire would be awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama for writing “Rabbit Hole.”

Because it had not been nominated.

A small committee of theater critics and artists determines nominated finalists, and the Pulitzer Board picks a winner. Finalists that year included “Orpheus X” by Rinde Eckert, “Bulrusher” by Eisa Davis and “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue” by Quiara Alegría Hudes.

NY Times Review Rabbit Hole

Cynthia Nixon as Becca and John Slattery as Howie in Manhattan Theater Club’s production of “Rabbit Hole.”

Opening in February 2006 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, “Rabbit Hole” received wide public and critical acclaim. It received five Tony nominations, including Best Play. But it lost the top award to “The History Boys.” (Cynthia Nixon received the Tony for her performance as a mother grieving the loss of her young son.)

So the honor also took Lindsay-Abaire by complete surprise. “I was stunned,” Lindsay-Abaire said. He had turned his focus to the script for the stage-musical adaptation of “Shrek.” “I had a rhyming dictionary in my hand.”

“Rabbit Hole” had been mentioned as a Pulitzer contender, but the playwright said he “wasn’t buying it. It was produced a year ago. I didn’t know who’d be on the [jury] panel or if that would even matter.”

But the Pulitzer board bypassed the jury’s finalists and presented the prize, which includes a $10,000 award, to “Rabbit Hole.”

The playwright had been respected for such quirky, freewheeling Off-Broadway comedies as “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo,” but his more serious “Rabbit Hole” is about a family recovering from the death of a child.

How did “Rabbit Hole” win the Pulitzer?

Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, explained at an April 2007 press conference that none of the finalists nominated by the jury received a majority vote from the 19-person board. A finalist must get a majority vote from the board in order to be named a winner. As a result, the board decided to consider a work that was not one of the nominated finalists — which it can do as long as three-fourths of the Board votes to do so.

The board voted to consider Lindsay-Abaire’s play because “‘Rabbit Hole’ was mentioned favorably in the jury’s report,” Gissler said. Once the board decided to consider “Rabbit Hole,” the play then simply needed to receive a majority vote to win. Gissler indicated he was uncertain about whether this kind of special case had happened before in the drama category, but noted that it had happened before in other categories.

The jury included Ben Brantley (chief drama critic, The New York Times), Kimberly W. Benston (professor of English at Haverford College), Karen D’Souza (drama critic for the San Jose Mercury News), Rohan Preston (theater critic for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul), and Paula Vogel (playwright and professor of English at Brown University).

“The ‘Rabbit Hole’ rehearsal process was difficult for everybody,” said Lindsay-Abaire at a 2006 Tony Awards press event. “Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery (the second lead actor) have kids the same age as the boy in the play. Once we were up and running, you sort of forgot about that for a while. Then, when I’d revisit it, with friends or relatives who were experiencing the play for the first time, it would remind me how scary the stuff was that I wrote about.”

Lindsay-Abaire wrote the drama after fellow playwright Marsha Norman — who was his teacher at Juilliard — told him to write a play about something that frightened him. A father, Lindsay-Abaire began shaping a story about a husband and wife who lose their only child in a freak car accident.

According to the writer, other parents who attended performances approached him after seeing the play. Some had come to the production on purpose, having heard about the subject matter. Others stumbled upon it by accident. “It really affected parents more than anything,” he said.

According to the Pulitzer website, the award is “for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life” and “productions opening in the United States between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2006 are eligible.” The Pulitzer Prize — named for American journalist and publisher Joseph Pulitzer — was established in 1917, a stipulation of Pulitzer’s will.

For a New York Times audio slide show narrated by Lindsay-Abaire, follow this link: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/khtml/2006/02/03/theater/20060203_ABAIRE_AUDIOSS.html