I know what you’re thinking. You don’t want to go to the theatre. It’s too risky. The ticket costs three times more than a movie—and ten times more than a rental. To make matters worse, if the performance stinks, you’re stuck until curtain-fall.
But the possibility of greatness makes theatre worth the risk. Watching a great play makes you forget you are watching. Two hours pass and you’ve not breathed once. All this without recourse to a machine-gun fight or a CGI dragon. All this with only actors on wooden boards.
Enough plumping for theatre. On with the list! The following ten plays are, in my opinion, the best since the advent of modern theatre. Twisting stories, vibrant characters, gripping themes. These plays are worth the risk.
10. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2004). Father Flynn is suspected of sexually molesting a student. To complicate matters, the boy is the school’s first African-American student. Sister Aloysius investigates him. But she is clouded by her acidic distrust of everything and everyone—students, teachers, parents. Soon you have doubts yourself. Did he really do it? (Winner of the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2005.)
9. The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter (1957). Much great twentieth century literature has been haunted by menacing, faceless bureaucracy. (Think Franz Kafka’s The Trial and George Orwell’s 1984). The Birthday Party is a classic in this theme. The thirty-ish Stanley hides in a non-descript boarding house until two ominous characters, Goldberg and McCann, find him and throw him a birthday party. But it’s not his birthday. And it’s not a party. It’s a terror-filled examination. [Side-note: Pinter was fond of writing long silences into tense moments of his plays. Playgoers have since given a name to these powerful silences: “Pinter Pauses.”]
8. The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O’Neill (1940). A brothel of bums, Communists, drunks, and prostitutes play cards, flirt, drink, and dream of tomorrow. But when dawn breaks, nothing has changed. Until the Iceman arrives. He begins to preach his message: Take control of your dreams! A harrowing play about that all-to-human instinct to flee reality for a dream world. [Side note: O’Neill is the most decorated playwright in American history. Unfortunately, his works are rarely performed because of their girth. His monologues are rain-barrels of repetition. The ideas are dense. And the length, nearly impossible. (Long Day’s Journey runs three hours, The Iceman Cometh almost four.) But when performed well, O’Neill’s plays are riveting.]
7. Waiting for Godot, Samuel Becket (1952). You may love it, you may hate it—but you won’t forget it. Early performances of Beckett’s absurdist play elicited howls and hoots from the audience forcing the director to lower the curtain during a monologue. Fifty years later it was voted the most important English-language play of the century.
6. Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen (1891). Hedda is arguably the most famous female character in modern theatre. What an enigma! Is she a proto-feminist heroine who defies rigid social expectations? Or is she a petulant villain? Teaching Hedda at Gutenberg last year, I was surprised by our students’ reaction. Almost all accused her of being a petulant villain! Perhaps their verdict was shaped by our culture’s laissez-faire attitude toward morality. I suspect their views would change if they lived in rigid nineteenth-century Scandanavia.
5. The Crucible, Arthur Miller (1952). In 1952 Miller wrote The Crucible about the Salem witch trials. The play is a thinly veiled allegory about the House Un-American Activities Committee. Four years later Joseph McCarthy summoned him to testify before the committee. He was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to identify writers believed to hold Communist sympathies. —Does life reflect art or art reflect life?
4. The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov (1904). Is Chekhov’s last play a comedy or a tragedy? Konstantin Stanislavski, its first director, performed it as a tragedy. Since then, every director has had to make a choice: Ought Chekhov’s collapsing Russian family make us laugh or cry?
3. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams (1947). When Blanche visits her sister Stella in New Orleans, she encounters the brutish Stanley (a role made famous by Marlon Brando). A battle is inevitable. Blanche is an ethereal dreamer; Stanley is a violent animal. Their relationship is a mixture of lust and spite that results in tragedy.
2. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller (1949). Miller’s plays are Greek tragedies. His plays cut two ways. First, the hero suffers for his faults. Second, the hero’s faults mirror society’s faults. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman dreams the American dream. When the dream fails, the hero conjures a new fantasy that dooms him and his family. “The chickens,” said Miller, “always come home to roost.”
1. The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen (1884). The iconoclastic Ibsen is best remembered for his proto-feminist Hedda Gabler and idealistic Enemy of the People. But in The Wild Duck, Ibsen reverses course. Instead of the victory of ideals, The Wild Duck tells a story of the violence of ideals. Gregers’s insistence on absolute truth functions as a blunt knife in the soft-tissue of family and love. Which leaves us to wonder, what is this play? Is it Ibsen’s regrets over a life of bashing? Or was he merely telling the truth about the costs of idealism?
These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?
Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics—folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone…