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February 23, 2005


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Some playwrights that I thought were pretty cool in late high school/early college (and still think are cool, for that matter.)

Athol Fugard: Aparthied is dead, but his blending of political thought with human stories is great...A Lesson from Aloes is one of my favorite.

Tom Stoppard: I know...its an obvious one...But Arcadia is one of the best scripts writen in the last 50 years.

Shakespeare: I know that they are probably studying him already...but there is a difference between being made to read something, and choosing to read it...I sugest you student chooses to read some...I remember really liking Titus about that time. Measure for Measure, too.

Sam Shepard: every angry young man should read him...Tooth of Crime is hilarious, and frightning, and weird. His shorter plays are fun, too...Cowboy Mouth. Avoid the later works.

David Hare: This is tough...I don't think that all of his work is playable or readable...However, Skylight is great, and I love the Judas Kiss. I still have not gotten through Fanshen, however, and am ashamed to say I don't see what all the fuss about Secret Rapture is.

Read Uncle Vanya...You don't have to get into Checkov entirely, but Uncle Vanya is wonderfull. Read it now, and give yourself a baseline for when you come back to it in a few years...and a few years after that...and a few years after that. One of the greatest plays ever.

This is in addition to all of Issac's sugestions (Top Girls by Churchill is amazing...one of those plays that you think is loose, but there is not a wasted word).



I hate putting together Top Ten lists, but we all do it, so here's mine. I'll try to limit my choices to the last 100 years or so; college will give you a chance to get at the classics.

BLASTED by Sarah Kane is one of the most influential and controversial plays over the last decade; Kane herself took her own life a few years ago. It's in her COMPLETE PLAYS book.

If you're at all interested in the Theater of the Absurd, natch, Eugene Ionesco is the way to go. Everybody reads RHINOCEROS and THE BALD SOPRANO (and there's a pretty bad movie of RHINOCEROS out there somewhere), but THE LESSON is an even better play.

Nobody's mentioned Brecht yet. The later plays, like GALILEO and MOTHER COURAGE, are masterpieces in the Shakespearean vein, but don't ignore his early plays. DRUMS IN THE NIGHT is a great Expressionist play about a soldier coming home from the war to find chaos at home (sound familiar?); MAN EQUALS MAN is about how an everyday fellow can become a killing machine in battle; and if you can find a good recording of THE THREEPENNY OPERA (music by Kurt Weill), give it a whirl.

I would disagree with Jack's recommendation of Sam Shepard's early plays; there's some gold there, but a lot of dreck, too. On the other hand, BURIED CHILD can be a bit of a yawn. THE CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, though, kind of a first-draft for BURIED CHILD, is an epic of family hysteria that can hardly be beat.

For American satire, go out and rent the film of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, a play by David Mamet. At any rate, you'll know the kind of culture American artists are up against.

For avant-garde playwriting, Charles Mee is a good place to start; some people might find Mac Wellman an inspiring writer, too. Try the plays in his book CELLOPHANE. (And don't forget Richard Foreman, whose book UNBALANCING ACTS: FOUNDATIONS FOR A THEATRE contains texts of a few of his plays but some very inspiring essays as well.)

Wallace Shawn's MARIE AND BRUCE will tell you everything you need to know about the shape of American romantic relationships.

Finally, here's a very special recommendation: go out and try to find some plays by Heiner Muller, Brecht's successor at the Berliner Ensemble. Some extraordinary work, bizarre texts which retranslate Shakespeare (his play HAMLETMACHINE is every bit as weird as it sounds) and ancient myths in the context of contemporary history.


And, oh -- couldn't let you get away without suggesting Samuel Beckett. But don't read him. If productions of Samuel Beckett plays are rare in your neighborhood (and I suspect that they are), annoy your librarian until the school purchases the Beckett on Film collection (yeah, they can get it through amazon.com). If you try to read WAITING FOR GODOT, ENDGAME or CATASTROPHE, you'll miss 90% of what Beckett has to offer; he is a playwright who literally comes alive on stage. And he may be, arguably, the best and most important playwright of the 20th century.

And if Isaac didn't mention Beckett while he was talking to you guys, Elliott, let me know so I can hit him when he gets back to New York.


Ugh. I wish I had my stuff here in Austin so I could look over at my bookcase and start rattling off my favorites. A few that come to mind:

FEFU and HER FRIENDS by Marie Irene Fornes. An environmental drama written back in 1977, but based in the 1930s.

TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS by Connie Congdon. This is about personal taste, but I liked the play. Maybe because I heard her speak about how she put it together. Originally, it started as a bunch of unrelated fragments.

Lonnie Carter's work is quite interesting, especially for his use of rhythm and language. He's finally getting some recognition.

Tennessee Williams "Camino Real" often gets overlooked, probably for a very good reason. I still think it's a worthwhile play, even if it was viewed as a dismal failure by many.

The one Sam Shepard thing I'd recommend is JOSEPH CHAIKIN & SAM SHEPARD: LETTERS AND TEXTS, 1972-1984 - edited by Barry Daniels. It contains the texts SAVAGE/LOVE and TONGUES along with a few other assorted pieces. Also, it traces Chaikin and Shepard's collaborative relationship. This is one of my favorite theater books. I just happen to have it with me as I'm writing this. A really terrific book.

George already mentioned Foreman's book - UNBALANCING ACTS, which I also have with me right now. I second his nomination for it.

Early 90's theater depresses me for reasons I should probably be in therapy over. But since your students are probably too young to remember George Bush the first, you could throw in Karen Finley, Mac Wellman and David Greenspan. Again, more for the learning experience...

There are a few solo performers with texts worth reading - Bogosian, Anna Deavere Smith, Moms Mabley, and Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin.

That's off the top of my head. I avoided the well-known ones because I thought it wouldn't be helpful. If I think of others, I'll let you know.


If you're having a hard time getting into more out-there stuff, I'd recommend, as an ease-in to absurdism, UBU ROI by Alfred Jarry -- silly, dirty, fun, knocked down walls without actually being all that pertinent itself.

And if Expressionism isn't quite your bag, yet, see if you can locate BEGGAR ON HORSEBACK, by Kaufman and Connelly. It's half parody of, half triute to German Expressionism. Weird, fun ... unproducable.

On a MUCH more conservative bent (I can always be counted on for that), I loved TEA AND SYMPATHY in high school. The play is WAY dated, of course. But I think it captures a particular sort of adolescent agony quite well.

Every high school theatre person in the world has already discovered David Ives, right?


Oh, and if I may beat John-Paul to the punch, here, HENRY IV, PART 1 is highly underrated. Also a play that really speaks to youth.

(I know you aren't interested exclusively in plays about young people, but I don't want you winding up like all these Brandeis undergrads I know who keep staging plays like DINNER WITH FRIENDS and THE TALE OF THE ALLERGIST'S WIFE, which are all about middle aged people)


Dreck I think is a little strong...Though I agree a lot of Shepard's early shorts get away from him. If Faulkner was in a band and did a lot of smack, he'd have written Shepard plays.

But the reason I recomend earlier Shepard (up to mid 1970's) is because he was a guy who was experimenting. Some of it is messy, but it is good messy if that makes sense. Elliot can get a sense of a playwright in training without having his vision obscured by too much polish. With Shepard, the mess is part of the fun...that is pretty unique.

Oh...I love the playwrights of the 1930's...Hecht, Barry...the high comedies with social import...Paris Bound, Front Page, Craig's Wife...even the Road to Rome (which is just plain weird). Great plays...maybe not plays 101, Elliot, but once you get through some of the others. And a lot of these plays were made into Cary Grant movies...which if you havent' started watching Cary Grant, start right now.

And...Elliot...don't feel bad if you don't like Brecht (I know that I am going to get some heat for this)...I've never really liked his plays. I've never seen a production of his work that I enjoyed, and have never read a script that I wanted to read again. However, he is HUGELY influencial...pretty much everthing since has been written because of him, or against him. Its worth looking at.


Isaac Butler

If I may offer some follow up comments--

George, I didn't mention Beckett, because Clay already covered it.

As for absurdism: Ubu Roi is a wonderful introduction. As for Ionesco, I find his play "Victims of Duty", which is probably his most "out there" one, to be quite a bizarre and entertaining treat (amongst its many features: a woman sitting watching the play who does nothing and a man forced to eat a loaf of bread that is actually the branch of a tree).

"Tea and Sympathy" is dated. And, although for its day probably progressive, rather extremely homophobic in retrospect (tragic queers and child molesters kind of stereotypes).

Other plays I forgot:

George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan was the first play I ever saw (age 7) and I love it just as much today.

Let me second Shakespeare's Henry IV part 1, the one Shakespeare play I've ever directed. I would also say Winter's Tale is really wonderful. If you want to see what other people of the era were doing, "The Revenger's Tragedy" (usually attributed to Thomas Middleton) is like Hamlet on crack, "The Changeling" is a wonderful saga of sexism and revenge, and, of course, "The Duchess of Malfi" by Webster is amazing. Shakespeare was in many respects far more conservative content-wise than his peers and the cluster of playwrights who followed in his footsteps. The Jacobean writers are bloody, scandalous, sexy, sensational and, at times, quite poetic.

August Wilson! Who can forget August Wilson! I love "Two Trains Running" the best, probably.

Any more suggestions? Abe? Mac? Dan? Steven? Bueller?


Just thought I'd add my two cents:

Another nod for Beckett and although I do enjoy reading his work, I think George's suggestion of SEEING a production is right on. Beckett was notoriously particular about how he wanted his plays staged and did not condone deviations from his written stage directions! I found an interesting essay about this here.

I am yet another big fan of Richard Foreman's "Unbalancing Acts" for a really wonderful and detailed look at the method behind his art and his attempts to explore the motives of the human unconscious through theater.

Harold Pinter's "The Birthday Party", Maria Irene Fornes' "Mud", Charles Mee's "Orestes"....

O.K., rather than keep repeating the many good suggestions you've already gotten, a couple of unmentioned ones that I'd throw into the mix are:

Jean Genet - "The Screens" and "The Maids" are great if you like political theater (see Isaac's recent post, for a discussion on that!)

He's more of a poet than a playwright, but Tony Harrison's version of "The Oresteia" is soooo beautiful to read - and I would love to see it staged!

And at some point, you should read Antonin Artaud's "The Theater and its Double" - a radical theatrical manifesto of sorts that was extremely influential in 20th century avant-garde theater.

Meanwhile, I'm taking note of everyone's recommendations and adding to my reading list...


Errr...here's the link about Beckett I was referencing above...



Wow, didn't think I'd start this. Guess I need to catch up on my reading.

Lately while I've been going to Barne's and Nobel's looking for $6.50 scripts, I've discovered AS BEES IN HONEY DROWN (which I adore) also WOMEN IN WALLACE (which is a wonderful peice about teenage boy anxiety, wonder why I like it so much) and THIS IS OUR YOUTH (which I haven't started yet). I have been delveing into Ionesco I've read RINOCERIOUS and JACK or THE SUBMISSON (that one threw me for a loop) I've read ANGELS IN AMERICA twice, but I've yet to see a full production :-( Unfortunatly I haven't been reading the "modern playwrights" as much as I should. I.E. Beckett, Williams, Miller, O'Neil , Stoppard etc. I think I need to get on top of that.

I have yet another question. Where can I find the actor version of scripts. Paperback ones with no foreward, afterword, etc. Because the ones I find at bookstores are far to expensive ranging from $9-13.

Thanx for the help everybody, keep the suggestions commin!

Isaac Butler

To separate out our various threads:
1) "Actor scripts" are the versions published (usually) by one of two rights controlling houses, Samuel French Inc. or Dramatists. If you go on, say, Amazon, and you see the really really cheap versions, that's usually it. Or, if you look at the front of the book, it will say something like "for all performance rights questions contact X" and you could contact them and get the performance copy.

2) I like Ken Lonnergan a lot and most of his plays concern people under thirty, which is nice. THIS IS OUR YOUTH and LOBBY HERO are both awesome.

3) I would argue that other than for historical reasons, to track influences etc. there's not that much reason to read O'Neill or Miller. I find the first didactic and repetitive and the second just plain dull. They both have their good moments, but I'm not a huge fan. Who wants to fight me?


You can also order these "actor scripts" online at www.dramatists.com (for the Dramatists Play Service) and at http://www.samuelfrench.com/store/index.php (for the plays that Samuel French carries). And don't forget interlibrary loans.


I'm not very partial to O'Neil, but I like Miller. CREATION OF THE WORLD... very funny. And I've always been partial to the CRUCIBLE.


I don't want to fight you, Isaac...

And I agree that early O'Neil is more academic than enjoyable. However, the late family plays are as human as it comes. Great works of pain and banality and hope.

And any son who has a father should look at All My Sons. Better than Death of a Salesman in capturing the earthshaking disapointment when a son finds his father is not the perfect man he was supposed to be. Magnificent stuff to see acted, and to be read by theater people who can see the triviality and redundacy and human behavior.

Anyone who has ever talked with my mother would know that we repeat ourselves.

Hell, after reading more than one blog, I can avouch that WE repeat ourselves.


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