Theatre Survey:

Great Plays of the World Theatre


What defines a play that stands out among others is an incomparable structure, fully realized characters, and a dramatic premise that goes right to the hearts of those in the audience. Though this list is far from complete, it does attempt to highlight some of the best and most important works of the non-musical world drama. This list will differ greatly from some standard thinking. For example, only one work by a single playwright will be listed (so, even though the entire body of Shakespeare's work is influential in one way or another, one single great play will be listed) and some works that are considered the finest of a said author may be replaced with a play that reflects perhaps a more eclectic choice but with the same elements that make that author fine (The Iceman Cometh for Long Day's Journey Into Night, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for A Streetcar Named Desire), etc. In this way, this list is provided so that one may be put a bit off-balance and experience some of the other great work of our world tragedians. Some of the plays are, of course, essential reading for any lover of the theatre. These are the plays of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, France, Ancient Greece, Japan, and every far-reaching corner of the world where the elemental impulse of theatre has struck the chord of the human being.

Medea by Euripides (431 BCE)

Other Essential Euripides: Alcestis, Electra, The Trojan Women, and The Bacchae
Note on translation—Nicholas Rudall has provided the most easily actable and accessible contemporary English translation of this sometimes verbose tragedy.

 

Oedipus the King by Sophocles (428 BCE)

Other Essential Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, and Electra
Note on translation—Though Robert Fagles' seventies eras translations hold up the best on English-speaking stages, recent translations by Carl R. Mueller and Anna Krajewska-Wieczorek give the reader a clearer understanding of traditional Greek performance—what little we know about it.

 

The anonymous play Everyman (circa 1495 AD)

Other Essential Medieval Drama: The York Crucifixion and The Second Shepherd's Play

 

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (circa 1592)

Other Essential Marlowe: The Jew of Malta, Doctor Faustus, and The Massacre at Paris

 

Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare (1603)

Other Essential Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Coriolanus
Note on the singular inclusion of Othello—While Hamlet is certainly the most influential Shakespeare play world-wide (thanks to some creative pseudo-science of the late nineteenth century), some of the other tragedies stand out as more unified within their structural machinery. In addition, Othello is one of the only tragedies that does not depend on the actions of the extra-terrestrial. The characters are left to stew in their own misgivings without the aid of gods or ghosts making it an unflinchingly human drama.

 

Volpone, or the Fox by Ben Johnson (1606)

Other Essential Renaissance Dramatists: Thomas Kyd and John Webster

 

Tartuffe, or The Impostor by Moliere (1664)

Other Essential Moliere: The School for Husbands, The School for Wives, and The Misanthrope
Note on Tartuffe and The Misanthrope—The inclusion of comedy within this list, we hope, gives way to freer thinking when considering the great plays of world drama. Richard Wilbur's translations of Tartuffe and The Misanthrope (along with Donald M. Allen's translations of the early one-act plays of Eugene Ionesco) could be considered Bibles for those interested in the particular mechanics of playing or acting comedy. Moliere had a distinct sense of structural rhythms (sometimes misidentified as "formula") that led him to create quite possibly the first great comedies in dramatic literature.

 

The Way of the World by William Congreve (1700)

Other Essential Restoration Comic Authors: John Dryden, William Wycherley, Aphra Behn, and George Farquhar

 

The Love Suicides at Amijima by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1721)

Other Essential Chikamatsu: The Love Suicides at Sonezaki and The Battles of Coxinga
Note on Japanese drama—Classical Japanese theatre is divided into three distinct categories—the Kabuki, the Noh, and the Bunraku (or puppet) theatre. Kabuki and Noh plays are not included in this list as their quality on the page is dwarfed considerably by their power in performance. Kan'ami Kiyotsugu's Matsukaze is a notable and widely translated Noh play while those interested in Kabuki might read the anonymous play Love Letter from the Licensed Quarter. Chikamatsu has long been considered the Japanese Shakespeare due to his wealth of completed work and stature among Japan's authors. His chief translator is Donald M. Keene.

 

The Death of Wallenstein by Friedrich Schiller (1800)

Other Essential Classical German Dramatists: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich von Kleist, and G. E. Lessing
Note on translation—Schiller's work is, by far, the least readable of the classic German playwrights. But, it is essential in understanding the genius of the German theatre. A commonly read translation is by F. J. Lamport.

 

Woyzeck by Georg Buchner (1837)

Other Essential Modern German Dramatists: Gerhart Hauptmann and Ernst Toller
Note on translation—Carl R. Mueller has proven time and time again as an excellent translator of any number of languages for the dramatic stage. His Complete Works of Buchner is a classic.

 

The Father by August Strindberg (1887)

Other Essential Strindberg: Miss Julie, The Stranger, A Dream Play, and The Ghost Sonata
Note on the singular inclusion of The Father—Strindberg's work is easily divided into two categories—his naturalistic dramas and his ethereal, expressionist chamber plays of his later life. While the latter plays are overwhelmingly influential to contemporary theatre, his naturalism far exceeds the work of most of his contemporaries. The Father is a seminal drama of great importance and its best translation is by Carl R. Mueller.

 

Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind (1891)

Other Essential Wedekind: Earth Spirit, Pandora's Box, King Nicolo, or Such is Life, and Death's Dance
Note on translation—Once again, Carl R. Mueller.

 

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen (1893)

Other Essential Ibsen: Peer Gynt, A Doll's House, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, and Hedda Gabler
Note on the singular inclusion of The Master Builder—No other modern playwright was more ground-breaking in the political strata than Henrik Ibsen. And yet, no one would've cared about his criticisms of social ills had he not been an exceptional playwright. The Master Builder is an elegantly structured and highly metaphoric theatrical achievement—as good as any of his more known works. Ibsen is, however, difficult in translation. Rolf Fjelde is the watershed, but these translations often show Ibsen's glaring errors in forming convincing dialogue.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895)

Other Essential Wilde: Salome, Lady Windermere's Fan, and An Ideal Husband
Note on the theatre of the United Kingdom—No one would be caught arguing that Victorian England was a great forum for theatre. The country that had given the world its first great dramatist went through many years of slight and snore-inducing playlets before Wilde and the great Irish playwrights came along. Ireland has, perhaps, the greatest tradition of playwrights in the history of the world. Wilde & Shaw to Yeats, Lady Gregory, & Synge to O'Casey & Friel to Behan & McPherson. It is a well-lit torch among the dark corners of world theatre. Wilde started it all with a brand of wit and style that led the way for the next great British theatre tradition—that of the contemporary Comedy-of-Manners. And it's not just the witty dialogue that is dazzling. The recent discovery of a silent film version of Lady Windermere's Fan proves that it is Wilde's structural intelligence and not his dialogue that made him a master.

 

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand (1897)

Other Essential Classical French Dramatists: Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, Pierre de Marivaux, and Georges Feydeau
Note on translation—There are many a great translations (and adaptations) of this classic story. One of the most recent translations is by Carol Clark.

 

La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (1897)

Other Essential Schnitzler: Anatol, Flirtation, Paracelsus, and The Green Cockatoo
Note on versions and translations—This play is also known as Reigen, Merry-Go-Round, and Hands Around, but the highly influential Max Ophuls film version in the French language set the standard for this unique and controversial Austrian classic. Often adapted, the conceit of the sexed-up lovers taking each other in turn has never worked more than in Schnitzler's original. A common English version is by Eric Bentley, yet this play still looks to be translated in a way that nods both to its Viennese origins and its universal perks.

 

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov (1904)

Other Essential Chekov: Ivanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and Three Sisters
Note on the singular inclusion of The Cherry Orchard and translation—There is maybe no single body of work by one dramatist that is as beloved and as performed as the works of Anton Chekov. While The Seagull remains the most romantic of his plays, it is this family tragedy (or comedy, as Chekov would've seen it) that still reverberates with his greatest artistic and metaphoric powers. Eugene K. Bristow's translation is tried and true.

 

Enemies by Maxim Gorky (1906)

Other Essential Russian Dramatists: Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Isaac Babel
Note on translation—A great British English translation by Kitty Hunter Blair is often performed.

 

The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge (1907)

Other Essential Synge: In the Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea, and The Tinker's Wedding

 

Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw (1913)

Other Essential Shaw: Mrs. Warren's Profession, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, Heartbreak House, and Saint Joan
Note on the singular inclusion of PygmalionPygmalion is maybe most famous as the basis for the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe musical My Fair Lady, but it is also an exquisite comedy that is so solid structurally, if you removed one apostrophe, it wouldn't work. And yet, Shaw wrote many wonderful plays of note (as well as being an influential critic, bringing Ibsen and Strindberg to the forefront of modern drama). Recently, Saint Joan has grown in critical popularity whereas Man and Superman may be the most ambitious and exciting of his theatrical forays.

 

R. U. R. by Karel Capek (1921)

Other Essential European Dramatists: Maurice Maeterlinck, Max Frisch, and Vaclav Havel
Note on translation—This play, the acronym standing for "Rossum's Universal Robots," is a continually fascinating theatre piece which often works best in adaptations. A recent translation of the original Czech text is by Claudia Novack-Jones.

 

Private Lives by Noel Coward (1929)

Other Essential Coward: Hay Fever, Cavalcade, Design for Living, Present Laughter, and Blithe Spirit

 

Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca (1933)

Other Essential Spanish Playwrights: Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Lope de Vega, and Fernando Arrabal
Note on translation—Lorca's three major tragedies are available in excellent translations by Michael Dewell and Carmen Zapata.

 

Intermezzo by Jean Giraudoux (1933)

Other Essential Contemporary French Dramatists: Jean Cocteau, Alfred Jarry, Jean Genet, and Jean-Paul Sartre
Note on the singular inclusion of Intermezzo and versions/translations: Giradoux's most frequently produced and read plays are most likely The Madwoman of Chaillot, Ondine, and Amphitryon 38. But, Intermezzo has a particular pastoral charm that ranks it very highly on the list of this great author's theatrical inventions. Maurice Valency, one of Giraudoux's chief translators in America, prepared a version under the title The Enchanted for director George S. Kaufman that is still frequently performed in the United States and retains much of the charm and gorgeous language of the prose.

 

The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman (1934)

Other Essential Female American Playwrights: Susan Glaspell, Rachel Crothers, and Marsha Norman

 

The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan (1939)

Other Essential Early Broadway Playwrights: Clifford Odets, Elmer Rice, Robert E. Sherwood, and Sidney Howard

 

The Land is Bright by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman (1941)

Other Essential Kaufman Collaborations: Dinner at Eight, Stage Door, You Can't Take It With You, and Once in a Lifetime
Note on the singular inclusion of The Land is Bright—With the advent of serious Broadway theatre—both comic and dramatic, George S. Kaufman established himself as one of the most talented directors of his generation. Kaufman was a noted collaborator with Moss Hart, Edna Ferber, Leueen MacGrath and others. Through this work, he solidified a classic canon of Broadway comedies. Though You Can't Take It With You was his most unqualified success, many of his other projects portrayed America and its class structures through a highly adept vision. The Land is Bright is one of many of his collaborations with novelist Edna Ferber. Their plays may not have been the funniest, but they were the most quietly tragic and ambitious of any of Kaufman's work.

 

The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder (1941)

Other Essential Wilder: The Long Christmas Dinner, Our Town, and The Matchmaker
Note on the singular inclusion of The Skin of Our TeethOur Town was one of the greatest triumphs of the American theatre in between O'Neill's first great plays and the emergence of Arthur Miller & Tennessee Williams. An ingenious conceit, it was no less inventive than The Skin of Our Teeth—an epic journey that categorizes the best of Wilder's theatrical experimentation.

 

Caligula by Albert Camus (1945)

Other Essential Absurdist Plays: Waiting for Godot, The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, and King Ubu
Note on translation—The common translation is by Stuart Gilbert.

 

Crime on Goat Island by Ugo Betti (1946)

Other Essential Italian Playwrights: Luigi Pirandello, Carlo Goldoni, and Dario Fo
Note on translation—Gino Rizzo is the most common translator of the works of Ugo Betti, a judge and a born playwright who wrote some of the greatest plays of Italy. Sometimes this play is known only as Goat Island. The only Broadway production of this work was hampered by the inept title translation of Island of Goats, but that translation, by Henry Reed, was revised expertly.

 

The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill (1946)

Other Essential O'Neill: Beyond the Horizon, "Anna Christie," Strange Interlude, and Long Day's Journey Into Night
Note on the singular inclusion of The Iceman Cometh—Most historians of the American theatre point to Long Day's Journey Into Night as the play that transformed the American theatre and gave us a place in the canon of world drama. Still, that play suffers from an unwieldy, novel-like length. His second greatest play, however, contributes to one of the finest scripts of the American canon—frequently performed by world-class actors and showing off O'Neill's dramatic power at its greatest height.

 

The Crucible by Arthur Miller (1953)

Other Essential Miller: All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge, and After the Fall
Note on the singular inclusion of The CrucibleDeath of a Salesman is the penultimate American play, but The Crucible is a taller, darker brother to that classic play. Inspired by the McCarthy hearings and infused with all of Miller's dramatic power, The Crucible may be the greatest American play ever written and is certainly the greatest historical play written by an American. It perfectly combines social drama with inner human turmoil in a great and elemental human tragedy. Best of all—the play never ages and is more prescient than ever.

 

Picnic by William Inge (1953)

Other Essential Inge: Come Back Little Sheba, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs

 

A Man's a Man by Bertolt Brecht (1954)

Other Essential Brecht: Baal, Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle
Note on the singular inclusion of A Man's a Man and translation: Along with Beckett, Brecht is the most influential dramatist of the twentieth century. His theories on the theatre (never quite as sound as his scripts) and his productions of "epic" theatre have inspired conversation and imitation ever since the Berliner Ensemble formed. Though Mother Courage and Her Children is the most frequently performed and internationally beloved, A Man's a Man was the first play Brecht wrote in his epic theatre style and remains a clearer and fully formed play than most of his later works. Eric Bentley's "version" is the most common for English-language productions.

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams (1955)

Other Essential Williams: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Summer and Smoke
Note on the singular inclusion of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—If O'Neill established an American theatre and Miller gave us its first great tragedy, then Williams set it on fire and watched it burn. A Streetcar Named Desire was an instant classic and is an oft-revived play, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains Williams' most unified dramatic story. With the most repressed (and fully-drawn) characters in the American canon, the play is a searing and rich experience with Williams' best dramatic writing.

 

The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (1955)

Other Essential Adaptations: The Teahouse of the August Moon, The Desperate Hours, and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

 

Ornifle by Jean Anouilh (1955)

Other Essential Anouilh: Romeo and Jeanette, Ring Round the Moon, The Rehearsal, and The Lark
Note on translation—The most common translation is by Lucienne Hill.

 

Endgame by Samuel Beckett (1957)

Other Essential Beckett: Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days, Play, and Rockaby
Note on the singular inclusion of Endgame and translation—Whereas Waiting for Godot was an influential and singular theatrical event, Beckett was never more at the height of his power than with Endgame—an apocalyptic and devastating play with a view of the world as stark and disparate as the years shortly following the War would allow. Beckett wrote the play in French and then translated it himself.

 

J. B. by Archibald MacLeish (1958)

Other Essential Verse Dramatists: Maxwell Anderson and T. S. Eliot

 

A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney (1958)

Other Essential British Post-War Dramatists: John Osborne, Joe Orton, and Edward Bond

 

Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco (1962)

Other Essential Ionesco: Rhinoceros, The Chairs, and Macbett
Note on translation—The most common translation is by Donald Watson.

 

Lovers by Brian Friel (1967)

Other Essential Modern Irish Dramatists: Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, and Frank McGuinness
Note on the singular inclusion of Lovers—Brian Friel's Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa were great successes, but this double bill of one acts—Winners and Losers—is one of the most lovely and staggering of the plays of the Irish theatre. They also have a youthful quality sorely missing from much of Friel's later work.

 

Equus by Peter Shaffer (1973)

Other Essential Shaffer: Five Finger Exercise, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Amadeus

 

Seascape by Edward Albee (1974)

Other Essential Albee: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, A Delicate Balance, and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Note on the singular inclusion of SeascapeThe Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? shot this American absurdist to the forefront of the American stage. While Seascape is never as loud as Woolf? or as controversial as Three Tall Women, it is an elegantly crafted philosophical drama with a sharp humor and the best of Albee's invention.

 

Ecstacy by Mike Leigh (1979)

Other Essential Contemporary British Playwrights: Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, and Tom Stoppard

 

Mud by Maria Irene Fornes (1983)

Other Essential Fornes: Fefu and Her Friends, The Danube, and The Conduct of Life

 

Fences by August Wilson (1985)

Other Essential Wilson: The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Jitney, and King Hedley II

 

Away by Michael Gow (1986)

Other Essential Australian Playwrights: Hal Porter, Jack Davis, and Alan Seymour

 

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (1988)

Other Essential Asian-American Playwrights: Frank Chin, Philip Kan Gotanda, and Chay Yew

 

Speed-the-Plow by David Mamet (1988)

Other Essential Mamet: Edmond, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, and Boston Marriage
Note on the singular inclusion of Speed-the-Plow—Sam Shepard and David Mamet took the American stage by storm in the 1970's. Mamet began his career with a shocking verbal dexterity that was showcased in works such as Edmond and Glengarry Glen Ross. After some years beginning a career as a director and screenwriter, Mamet chose Hollywood as the American dream-gone-wrong in Speed-the-Plow—his first play to have great success on Broadway. While works such as Oleanna are often under more scrutiny, Speed-the-Plow is more than a theatrical sucker-punch. It is a remarkable, streamlined action play exposing the true grit behind his semi-lovable characters.

 

Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas (1990)

Other Essential Lucas: Reckless, Blue Window, God's Heart, The Dying Gaul, and Stranger

 

Four Baboons Adoring the Sun by John Guare (1992)

Other Essential Guare: The House of Blue Leaves, Landscape of the Body, and Six Degrees of Separation
Note on the singular inclusion of Four Baboons Adoring the Sun—Distinctly different from most contemporary American playwrights, John Guare is our Oscar Wilde dreaming up witty and jolting theatrical inventions. While Six Degrees of Separation garnered more success than most recent Broadway efforts, this musical philosophy is a bittersweet meditation on family that characterizes some of Guare's more probing work.

 

The Kentucky Cycle by Robert Schenkkhan (1992)

Other Essential Theatre Cycles: The Oresteia and Tantalus

 

Marisol by Jose Rivera (1992)

Other Essential Rivera: Sueno, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, and Cloud Tectonics

 

Redwood Curtain by Lanford Wilson (1993)

Other Essential Wilson: The Hot l Baltimore, Fifth of July, Talley's Folly, and Burn This
Note on the singular inclusion of Redwood Curtain—Lanford Wilson was a major player in the emergence of Off-Broadway theatre, creating a series of short and then long plays emphasizing ensemble acting. He is perhaps our American Chekov, quietly studying behavior on the American stage. Whereas his Talley trilogy is his greatest achievement, this moving post-Vietnam story of identity combines the behavioral eye of his early work and the great storytelling of his later plays, such as Book of Days.

 

The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks (1994)

Other Essential African-American Playwrights: Amiri Baraka, Charles Fuller, and Tracey Scott Wilson

 

An American Daughter by Wendy Wasserstein (1997)

Other Essential Wasserstein: Uncommon Women and Others and The Heidi Chronicles

 

How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel (1997)

Other Essential Vogel: The Baltimore Waltz and The Long Christmas Ride Home

 

Cleansed by Sarah Kane (1998)

Other Essential Kane: Blasted, Phaedra's Love, Crave, and 4.48 Psychosis
Note on the singular inclusion of Cleansed—Sarah Kane would have been the next great British playwright had it not been for her untimely death. Blasted rocked the West End and set in motion a body of work that was among the most promising writing of her generation. Crave, the least violent of her work, is the most performed but Cleansed remains an outstanding theatrical invention which shows Kane's sympathy for this frightening world.

 

Eyes for Consuela by Sam Shepard (1998)

Other Essential Shepard: True West, Buried Child, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, and Simpatico
Note on the singular inclusion of Eyes for Consuela—This is probably the most startling of all the plays on this list. Adapted from the Octavio Paz short story The Blue Bouquet, Eyes for Consuela is one of Sam Shepard's best plays. The elusive and mysterious Western playwright has been inventing since his early days Off-Off Broadway, but this later entry into his oeuvre represents some of his best dramatic writing with fully realized characters and a beginning, middle, and end—something the playwright has admitted has always been his weakness in more influential works, such as True West and Fool for Love, both of which sort of float off at their conclusions. The well-crafted Simpatico set off a series of (less important, perhaps) but more solid work from this important American figure.

 

Celebration by Harold Pinter (1999)

Other Essential Pinter: The Dumb Waiter, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Betrayal, and Ashes to Ashes
Few contemporary playwrights were as admired and copied ("Pinteresque" is the term) than Harold Pinter. One of the leading figures of Great Britain, his studies in human silences have intrigued audiences since the early 1960's. One of the playwright's last works before his retirement, Celebration shows a very different side of Pinter, utilizing an almost Absurd style and interweaving dialogue, it is one of the few later works to not be so defiantly political.

 

Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies (1999)

Other Essential Margulies: Sight Unseen, Collected Stories, and Brooklyn Boy

 

Dublin Carol by Conor McPherson (2000)

Other Essential Contemporary United Kingdom Writers: Martin McDonaugh, and Ben Elton

 

Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner (2001)

Other Essential Kushner: A Bright Room Called Day, Angels in America, and Slavs!
Note on the singular inclusion of Homebody/Kabul—Though Angels in America has become one of the most beloved plays in recent memory, Kushner is a more grown-up writer in this staggering millennial piece comprised of two separate stories—a monologue from a British housewife (Homebody) and a play (Kabul) concerning her family trying to find her in the wrecked land of Afghanistan, prior to the events of September 11, 2001.

 

The Distance from Here by Neil LaBute (2002)

Other Essential LaBute: Bash: Latter-day Plays, The Shape of Things, The Mercy Seat, and Some Girl(s)

 

Anna in the Tropics by Nilo Cruz (2003)

Other Essential Cruz: A Bicycle Country, Two Sisters and a Piano, and Lorca in a Green Dress

 

Doubt by John Patrick Shanley (2005)

Other Essential Contemporary American Playwrights: Douglas Carter Beane, Doug Wright, and David Lindsay-Abaire

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