THE PLAY’S THE THING
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
–William Shakespeare, As You Like It
When we think of enjoying plays, we inevitably imagine a night—or a matinee performance—at the theatre. Plays are ideally seen acted out on a stage, but it’s also very gratifying to read a play (like Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing.”) Someone had to sit down and write it, come up with the stage instructions, and everything; a great play is a work of literature that can be performed or simply read and enjoyed for the nuances and cadence of the language, whether you pour over it for leisure or study.
From great tragedians to commedia dell’arte
Around 4 and 500 BC, the dramatists of Greece took over and changed the world; many of the plays remain in their full form. The masterful Greek tragedians, such as Aeschylus (“Prometheus Bound”; “Agamemnon”), Sophocles (“Oedipus Rex”; “Antigone”), and Euripides (“The Bacchae”; “Medea”) have given dramaturges enough to relish and study for an entire lifetime. These plays have influenced culture and psychology in boundless ways. For example, Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” (429 B.C.) has become the template for males with mother issues, i.e., Freud’s “Oedipal Complex.” It is the quintessential tragedy and most perfect example of man succumbing to fate and, ultimately, orchestrating his own undoing (based on subconscious actions).
- Side note: for an even gorier, alternate version of “Oedipus the King” (“Oedipus Rex”), try reading Seneca’s version.
Sophocles is also known for his play, “Electra” (420-414 B.C.), which dealt with the most famous case of a female child suffering fatherly issues (this would become the basis and inspiration for Freud’s famous “Electra Complex”). So much of what we know about human nature is based on these Greek tragedies.
Commedia dell’arte (which literally means “comedy of the profession”) is one of the oldest forms of entertainment and set the standard—which we still use today—for archetypal characters (including Il Capitano, the Harlequin, Pantalone and Zanni). Starting in Italy, this type of theatre flourished throughout Europe from the 16th to 18th centuries.
What to read now
Some of our favorites are varied and many. Try relaxing this summer with these genius playwrights as your literary guides:
- August Strindberg (1849-1912): Most well-known for his play “Miss Julie,” this Swedish playwright was actually a follower of the occult (note his diary, “Inferno”), a rival of Ibsen (“Hedda Gabler”) and a naturalist.
- Anton Chekhov (1860 -1904) is perhaps one of the greatest, most anthologized playwrights of all time (with the most performed plays). Nina in “The Seagull” is one of the most sought after parts for any actress. Chekhov is also known for his very distinct worlds that unflinchingly portray characters and the cyclical nature they’re trapped within. The first rule of props and items mentioned in any play or story goes back to this rule of thumb, known as “Chekhov’s gun.” If a writer mentions, for instance, a gun in their play, it has to go off before the final act. Everything must have a purpose!
- Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is known for his bleak, nonsensical, absurdist plays that are truly unrivaled (his most famous being “Waiting for Godot”). His exploration of people trapped (literally) in their lives, unable to accomplish anything, waiting and contemplating existence is beyond entertaining. His plays, although written to be seen on a stage, are actually even better when read. Because the circumstances in which his characters find themselves are so extreme, reading the plays and imagining the scenarios make the stories even more vivid. Our own images are sometimes better than a theatre director’s vision. For instance: Beckett’s “Happy Days” depicts people who are literally buried up to their necks in sand, while “Endgame” is all about characters who live in trash cans.
- Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) is one of the finest American writers and playwrights to ever wield a pen. If you’re looking for Southern literature, look no further than “A Streetcar Named Desire” (complete with an ailing, aging Southern belle who clings to the past and descends into madness) and “The Glass Menagerie.” For (at the time) very controversial gay themes, an unhappy marriage, denial, death, and more than a few eccentric characters with names like “Brick,” “Big Daddy,” and “Maggie the Cat,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is your sweaty, sultry summer must-read loaded with hilarious, colorful dialogue and pathos to spare.
- August Wilson’s “Fences” (1985) recently resurfaced as a Broadway hit and revelation starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. A wonderful and, at times, a searing study of racism, family, and love, “Fences” is a must-read.
- Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) is the consummate American playwright. His “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” a masterpiece of the theatre, is an (albeit very long) family drama with truly intense themes and subject matter. If you’re looking for a play about a tragic matriarch, O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone is one of the very best.
- Arthur Miller, most well-known for “Death of a Salesman” (1949), cannot be beat if you’re looking for essential drama.
For more contemporary plays, try Sam Shepherd’s truly bizarre and inspired “Buried Child” (1978) or something by David Mamet (“American Buffalo” just left Broadway).
To learn more about commedia dell’arte, check out the link below: