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June 27, 2007


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We did this play in college and I played Picasso...I also played Pozzo in high school. I can't stand Our Town, although people I respect love it.

Zack Calhoon

I would probably have to say "Waiting for Godot". Sorry to be cliche. But no one had written anything like it before. I also believe that some of the greatest plays of the last 100 years were riffs of this play, i.e. "True West", "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead", anything by Pinter, etc.) Beckett paved the way for them.


Six Characters in Search of an Author? Dunno if it would beat out Godot, but seems like it should be up there somewhere.


I can't think of a play that had a greater effect on the last hundred years than Godot. Writers are still claiming Beckett as one of their main influences.

You might almost be able to view almost all of todays playwrights as an epic battle between the forces of Chekhov vs. Becket.


I can't answer your question for most influential 20th century play, but I DO find your post very interesting. When I took my college survey of art history, they told us over and over that Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was the most important and influential painting of the 20th century. And 10+ years later I can go on and on about why that is.

But I also took a survey of theater history in college (the same year, in fact) and I can't for the life of me tell you if our teacher stressed one (or any, for that matter) work as being fundamental to the shaping of 20th century drama.

I never thought much about it until this moment, and I am finding it distressing. Is it that theater history isn't taught as thoroughly as art history? Or that there is less agreement? Or is there just no one theatrical Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to wave around. Or was my theater history professor just a bad teacher?


Tony, you should totally write a blog post about that.

Abe Goldfarb

Most influential play? If we're saying in America, easy. Death of a Salesman. Miller found a way to make O'Neill's torment more commercial (this isn't a dig, it's just true), and nary a single playwright who it it big in the 50 years thereafter wasn't still looking over their shoulder at it.

Paul Rekk

It's hard to argue with Godot, but I am a little disappointed that Ubu Roi misses the cut by only a decade -- it would have been interesting to throw that one in the fray as well.

Kerry Reid

I'm going to go with the herd and say Godot, though I actually like Endgame better.

George Hunka

While "Godot" may be most admired, I think it has to be said that "The Cherry Orchard" (1904) has been most influential. For most people, theatre is still Stanislavsky-based fourth-wall realism, and its drama family-based and naturalistic. Among Americans, Miller, Albee, Shepard, Mamet, Wasserstein, Hansberry, Wilson -- they all owe far more to Chekhov and his idiosyncratic realism than to Beckett and his more lyrical language. Beckett's theatre has had far more influence on the European stage.

O'Neill's a special case, I think; his precursors were Strindberg and the Greeks, his realism more curious.

Over the last twenty years, actually, it would be hard to say that any play has had more aesthetic and political influence on the American stage than Tony Kushner's "Angels in America."


You know, George is right here, if you think about it. The Cherry Orchard.

George Hunka

Not to mention that the most influential theatre practitioner has to be Brecht, like it or not.


How does that work with your previous point George? Not Stanislavsky or Kazan or Harold Clurman?

Paul Rekk

Fine, I'll be the guy that brings up technicalities -- are we talking 20th century or last 100 years here? The Newsweek article was partially influenced by the fact that 2007 is Demoiselles' centenary. (And it's named the most influential work of the last 100 years! How... um... coincidental!)

If we stuck to 1907 and on, would you default to Godot, George? Or is there something else batting cleanup?


It's a minor technicality, but Checkov doesn't fit into the "last hundred years" category. Though I would say I see Godot there, in large part due to it's response to the Cherry Orchard school (for lack of a better term)

George Hunka

Some theatre directors marry Brechtian technique to Chekhovian drama these days; it's an interesting marriage, really. "Our Town" is the most obvious example. American theatre is pulled in three ways, playwrights between Chekhov and Beckett, directors between Stanislavsky and (choose one) Brecht, or Brook, or Meyerhold, etc. A productive dynamic, really.

Actually, Paul, in America I'd have to say that the most influential play post-1907 is actually "The Skin of Our Teeth" or "The Glass Menagerie." In Europe, yes, "Godot." But I'd have to insist on the geographical distinction.


If we're talking about Beckett's debt to the "Cherry Orchard school," you can't overlook Synge. Sadly, "The Playboy of the Western World" is just a year outside of our 100 year scope.

Ben Kessler

When we talk about which plays have been most influential, it's important that we consider the theater as it actually is, not as we would like it to be or as academics define it.

Most influential: Probably Inherit the Wind. (Runners-up: Glengarry Glen Ross, The Crucible, Cloud 9, The Exonerated)

SHOULD have been most influential: A Streetcar Named Desire, Our Town, Angels in America, A Taste of Honey, The Blacks

Christopher Shinn

According to a literary manager in the UK (which primarily reads plays from UK writers), the most influential playwright is David Mamet -- I am told that 9 out of 10 plays he receives read like Mamet (and this person draws a distinction between Mamet and Pinter -- these are not Pinter knockoffs, they're Mamet knockoffs).

Contra George, I'd say that Mamet owes more to Beckett than Chekhov, because Mamet was (self-admittedly) created by Pinter, who was created by Beckett. There likely would have been a Mamet without a Chekhov, but there is inarguably no Mamet without Pinter and Beckett. (If we want to REALLY stretch things back, I'd say that there is no Beckett without James Joyce, and no James Joyce without Ibsen. My vote for the most influential playwright since Shakespeare would be Ibsen. And before Shakespeare, Aeschylus tops the list.)

Also contra George, I think that there is no Miller or August Wilson (if that's the Wilson he meant) without Ibsen (Miller quite clearly used Ibsen as a role model, and August Wilson's ghosts and hauntings from the past are inconceivable without Ibsen's work having served as a model). And if you buy my linking Beckett to Ibsen via a Joyce who worshiped Ibsen (and I think, say, the circularity of Rosmersholm, or Ibsen's later dramas with their more circular structures, clearly anticipate Beckett's circular structures), then you'd have to say that Ibsen was ultimately more important to Albee than Chekhov.

And for our greatest playwright Eugene O'Neill, he may have favored Strindberg, but there would have been no Strindberg without Ibsen and vice versa -- they inspired and challenged and infuriated each other in equal measure. Did you know that Ibsen had a portrait of Strindberg hanging in his studio, staring down at him while he wrote?!


Cherry Orchard or Godot - must we chose? I go with Godot, cuz during the Cherry Orchard time period there were other plays close in form, whereas Godot was much more of a departure from its peers. And by the way, wasn't Godot a big flop in its first US productions?

And if you stick to the US and 100 yrs, I'm going with whatever play the Abbey Theatre was doing when they came to the US in 1911(?). Not only did that start the Provincetown Players and Washington Sq. Players (thus birthing Off Broadway), but it was a big influence on the, what, the Chicago Little Theater, i think, and the "Little Theater" movement.

George Hunka

The lineage of a style -- ain't it fascinating? And I think it is a question of style. While both Mamet and Tom Stoppard have claimed Beckett as a predecessor, I'd have to say that the influence of Beckett on either playwright was superficial though not negligible -- and I realize that's splitting hairs, in a way, but doing so in a way that leads to interesting distinctions. There's little in Stoppard's work after (or even within) R&G that resembles Beckett EXCEPT FOR some readily identifiable stylistic tics; the same goes for Mamet. Beckett, especially later Beckett of "Not I" or "That Time" or "Footfalls" is more readily seen in Europeans like Kroetz -- better still, a playwright like Irene Fornes. Mamet and Stoppard may evoke and imitate Beckett's style, but they do not ultimately share his concerns. (Whereas Pinter does share Beckett's concerns, I think, especially over the past 25 years or so of his career.)

I agree with Chris that one can't understand contemporary theatre without recognizing Ibsen's outstanding contribution to theatre style, especially in his last four plays; there's all of Chekhov there, and Beckett, and Strindberg, and certainly Synge and Joyce. But since "When We Dead Awaken" was written in 1899, and Ibsen himself was unable to write between then and his death seven years later, he lies outside this arbitrary 100-year or 20th-century mark (whichever it is). No twentieth century playwright has matched the remarkable string of plays that Ibsen produced from "Hedda Gabler" on, and within a single decade.

You and I will have to disagree on Aeschylus, Chris. I'm putting my money on Sophocles.


Yes, it's undeniable that Mamet owes to both Pinter and Beckett, both of which he proudly acknowledges. But he also acknowledges a debt to Chekhov, which primarily manifests itself in the "gang comedy" structure of plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and Romance.

Mamet, in his introduction to his adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, notes that the play has no protagonist, that the entire dramatis personae serves that function. While it's fun to debate to what extent different Mamet plays operate in that way, there's no doubt that some certainly do.

And, yes, if we go back longer than 100 (or 103) years, Ibsen certainly looms very large as well. It's fun also to debate about which of our favorite contemporary writers owe more to Ibsen or Chekhov.


For me it's hard to view Chekhov without Ibsen or Strindberg. But in terms of influence, Chekhov's director probably makes him more influential on the work that followed the three of them.


I'm glad you opened up the lineage box, Christopher - especially as you've got a better grasp of the particulars to hand than I do.

But I have to go with George on this one. Mamet's owed to Pinter a sensitivity to language, but his approach was always decidedly naturalistic (I heard a rehearsal quote from him to the effect of, "This is a scene about two guys at a table") and his characters were desperate people driven to action by the crushing reality of everyday life - salesmen, abandoned wives, two-bit theives, etc - characters and concerns you can see throughout Chekhov. Mamet may look like Pinter on the page, but it plays completely differently, too.

But to the question at hand, while the kitchen-sink naturalism of Chekhov is undoubtably the predominant style of theatre today, it's inception is outside the scope of our 100 year sample set - so we should probably be looking for something smaller. OUR TOWN and GLASS MENAGERIE both use non-realistic, blatently theatrical devices (direct address, non-linear plot) to tell stories that could just as easily have been teh subject of a rigidly naturalistic treatment - which we still see today in plays like ANGELS IN AMERICA. Were these the first? Is this willingness to step ouside the naturalistic lines a Brechtian influence, even though not employed for the "alienation" Brecht intended? George, Christopher, help me out here.

George Hunka

You strip Brecht of ideology and politics, join him to a less acidic Sherwood Anderson, and you pretty much get "Our Town."

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