Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Well the top ten theatre practitioners list did not seem to spark much conversation, so I am going to try a different take.
Building on the theme of Fantasy Playwrights draft, I want to expand the list to become global. The idea is still the same, list your top ten playwrights. The criteria is somewhat up to you, but basically we are looking at scope of work, importance and impact of work and just plain quality.
I will take Shakespeare off of the table. He may not be every one's favorite, but there is no denying that he is one of the most important figures to not just the theatre, but the entire English language. We owe much to the Bard and I hereby name him, all around number on pick, period. you can argue the point if you wish, but I will stick to my guns on this one.
So without further Ado, here is my list:

1. Henrik Ibsen -- Without Ibsen, there is no Miller, or really any other 20th century western playwright. I am not always his personal champion, not really a fan of a lot of his plays, but there is no denying his impact and importance.

2. Aeschylus -- Many will know that I am not a huge fan of the Greeks. In honesty that probably ha a lot to do with not having seen it done well. Like bad Shakespeare, bad Greek tragedy is worse than a root canal. Aeschylus is the father of tragedy. Probably more influential than pretty much anyone in theatre, with the possible exceptions of Shakespeare and Ibsen. I drop him to second due to lack of the majority of his work.
Aeschylus brought forth extra actors from the chorus, thus adding conflict to the stage. He also penned the only remaining complete trilogy, The Orestia, we have in total. In Greek times, plays were presented as part of a large religious festival. Three plays would be presented followed by a Satyr (basses of satire) which basically makes fun of the shows, and stories. The stories being told on stage were pretty well known, it was the method of storytelling that made each play unique.

3. Arthur Miller -- The only American on this list, and my first entry that I actually really like. Miller had a gift of taking the simple to explain the complex. His writing was strong, and political, but was also personal and touching. O'Neill may have brought attention to American Playwrights, but Miller is the best we as a nation have had.

4. Anton Chekhov -- Apparently no relation to the young Russian ensign Pavel Chekhov (which is a shame to this geek), but hugely influential all the same. Although Anton Chekhov is better known for his short stories, and in truth did not write a lot of full length plays, what he did write, and more importantly what happened with the plays has left a huge mark on Theatre as we know it. The original opening of The Seagull was a disaster, the play was booed, and Chekhov was ready to give up. But a director was impressed with play and convinced his friend Constantin Stanislavski to remount the show. the use of the Stanislavski technique enabled the actors to find the depth of meaning in the pauses, in what was not written.
The combined force of Chekhov's writing and Stanislavski's directing/acting technique has reshaped forever the way we look at the art of acting.

5. Vaclav Havel -- Czech playwright, activist, political dissident and president, Vaclav Havel used theatre to literally change the world. His work is not widely know in the US, but his 20 some plays are a wonderful study of how political art can, and should be. A leader of the bloodless revolution that toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia, he was also the nations first president, and later the first president of the Czech Republic after the split with Slovakia.

6. Moliere - Actor and playwright, and master of comedy. Moliere was also one to suffer for his art. Although a darling of French and Parisian society, Moliere's satire of moralists, the church and other established institutions earned much scorn. Moliere is also on an esteemed list as an actor who dies while acting.
Molière suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, possibly contracted when he was imprisoned for debt as a young man. One of the most famous moments in Molière's life was his last, which became legend: he collapsed on stage in a fit of coughing and hemorrhaging while performing in the last play he'd written, which had lavish ballets performed to the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier and which ironically was entitled Le Malade imaginaire (The Hypochondriac). Molière insisted on completing his performance. Afterwards he collapsed again with another, larger hemorrhage before being taken home, where he died a few hours later, without receiving the last rites because two priests refused to visit him while a third arrived too late.

7. Oscar Wilde -- After Shakespeare Wilde is the most performed English language playwright. Not only a successful playwright, also a novelist, writer of short stories, children's literature and all around witty guy. On visiting the United States when asked if he had anything to claim by the customs agent, his response was "Only my genius." His wit and ability to spear the British society made him hugely popular as a speaker, and writer. Sadly Oscar Wilde was undone and ruined at a relatively young age for the crime of having homosexual relationships, a crime under Victorian laws. He spent a great deal of time imprisoned and never fully recovered.

8. Bertolt Brecht -- His plays alone may not be enough for this list (although the work is certainly important) but like many others his overall influence is huge. His theories on theatre (epic theatre) have had an immeasurable impact on western theatre.

9. Samuel Beckett -- Another one of the playwrights on this list that I personally do not care for, although again, a lack of decent productions may be as much a part of that as anything. Beckett is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He was a key writer in the theatre of the Absurd, but is better considered a modernist. He influenced many writers, Vaclav Havel and Harold Pinter (a very close runner up on this list), and has had a huge impact on much of the writing of the 2nd half of the 20th century and beyond. Waiting for Godot is one of the most important plays written in recent centuries.

10 Athol Fugard -- a personal favorite Athol Fugard is a South African writer that for years was a voice against apartheid. His plays, such as Master Harold and the Boys, took a frank look at the horrible state of life in South Africa for blacks. His plays are filled with great stories and lush writing. He has also written about his love of theatre, and its place in the world. Fugard is also an actor, having appeared in many of his plays, and in film.

Runners up: Harold Pinter, Christopher Marlowe, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams, and many many more.

I admit that although I call it a "Global List" I have little knowledge of playwrights outside of western theatre. There is no doubt writers from a less-European background that deserve placement on this list, sadly I am woefully ignorant of their place. There are also ones on this list that, like the last list, are on the list partially because they are among my favorites. Like all Top 10 lists, this is completely subjective. I welcome your comments, and even more, your lists.


Steve Martin said...

Aeschylus may have invented theatre, but Sophocles has to be considered the most important playwright -- Aristotle's Poetics have dominated theatre criticism for thousands of years, and Aristotle was gaga over Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex." I've gotta place Sophocles at #1.

I've got to think a bit about the rest of my list, though.

Steven Koehler said...

I am ill equipped to have a debate about the Greeks, but The Orestia was written almost 30 years prior to Oedipus, thus the influence thing. Without the work of Aeschylus developing theatre as we know it, would we have had Sophocles.

I was also looking at this from a where we are now, hence Ibsen as slightly more important than Aeschylus.

Of course, just like the last playwrights list, my favorites list would look very different.

Steve Martin said...

Along with listing my Top 10, I'd also like to suggest my favorite play written by those I've listed.

1. Sophocles. Perhaps to the dismay of college theatre students everywhere who will learn about Sophocles and "Oedipus Rex" through Aristotle's "Poetics" in every class they ever take from freshman year on, he is the most influential writer. Playwrights are still influenced, thousands of years later by his plot structure and characters. "Antigone."

2. Euripedes. "Medea," plain and simple. Before him, people were dramatized as being no more than pawns of fate or the gods. He changed that and "Medea" is the best example. A character who acts out not because she is fated by the gods to act out, but for emotional, personal reasons. Although there's a deux ex machina, we're starting to leave the world of preordained conflits and enter the universe of free will and personality. "Medea."

3. Henrik Ibsen. Realistic drama, character-driven driven drama, sometimes issue-laden drama that can be misinterpreted as being untimely now, (but isn't). Ibsen offers rich character studies of people who must battle and plan and survive, often against surprising antagonists. "Hedda Gabler."

4. The European absurdists. Why does absurdism have such a stronger grounding in Europe than in North America? Europeans had Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Sartre to steer them away from the drudge of "realism". They directly influenced Edward Albee and all the young, radical American playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s. Samuel Bekett, "Waiting for Godot. Eugene Ionesco, "Rhinoceros." Pirandello, "Six Characters in Search of an Author." Sartre, "No Exit."

5. Tom Stoppard. And they led to Tom Stoppard, who may be the most imaginative playwright ever when it comes to situation and language and twists and turns and delight. I wish he'd influence more writers: plays that are chewy with language and incidents and action -- fantastic. "Arcadia."

6. Oscar Wilde. The father of modern comedy, character-driven comedy. A few years ago, Steve Martin's Oscar host speech was described as being full of "arsenic cookies" -- cute, easy to digest but still with a little sting to them. Oscar Wilde provides "arsenic sandwiches" with his scripts -- you laugh at the wittiness of the lines, but then you hear and appreciate the layers: Wilde's digs on polite society lie underneath the cleverness. "The Importance of Being Earnest."

7. Stephen Sondheim. Before Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songs in a musical were there solely for entertainment. They did not advance the plot or reveal character. Then came "Show Boat." However, until Sondheim no lyricist captured the psychological pinnings of a character through lytics -- and intensely personal ones at that. He has influenced more American lyricists than any other. "West Side Story."

8. Caryl Churchill. The personal is political, the political is theatrical and ripe with drama. If not for Churchill, we don't have Tony Kushner or Suzan-Lori Parks or huge numbers of others. Like most of the playwright on this list, very theatrical. "Cloud 9."

9. Edward Albee. His plays were gritty and profane and hell-raising and angry in the 1950s. Forget being revolutionary in the 1960s, this man did it a decade earlier. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

10. Tomorrow's writers. Those who'll place relationships we've never seen before on the stage, tensions we've never considered before in front of our eyes and ears, who'll show us something new about love, bigotry, justice, fear, power, redemption, forgiveness and more.

Steven Koehler said...

I think you are cheating by putting all the absurdists and future playwrights. I call foul.
Is the Albee there just to get me?

Seriously though, great list Steve, thanks. I thought about putting Rodgers and Hammerstein, but Sondheim certainly is huge.

I like linking the play title. I will do the same:

Ibsen - I'll say Ghosts, just because it was the first Ibsen I ever did. and you picked Hedda Gabler. I would strongly consider Enemy of the People though, a great early political play. There is a reason Miller revisited it.

Aeschylus - The Orestia, all three

Arthur Miller - Salesman, one of the greatest American plays ever.

Chekhov - Seagull.

Havel - The Memorandum - played at the Public and brought Havel to America.

Moliere - so many, but gotta go with Tartuffe

Wilde - All of them were great, but Earnest is my favorite.

Brecht - Mother Courage

Beckett - Godot

Fugard - Again, so many great ones, but will go with Master Harold and the Boys