It’s caused an awful lot of angst and wide consultation to try and do it justice but this 200th blog post is devoted to meeting Stephen Errity’s specially requested topic.
Having tied myself up in absolute knots over the question of whether this was about plays that really have to be seen rather than read, or plays that had to be seen because they were the best that have ever been written, I plumped for the latter interpretation. A separate blog about the first option is Blog #201 for anyone interested in that. But, having nailed down what I was doing I immediately had a spanner thrown in the works by Keith Thompson who tied me up in even more knots about how I was going to do what I was going to do – was I going to choose the plays that best interrogated the society of the day, or the plays that most change you as a person on a deep level? I never made myself particularly clear on the issue to him, but I hope that I have gone for the latter of his two options. So, after that lengthy preamble about the tortured selection process, here’re the Top 10 Plays to see on stage before you die…
(10) The Rivals by Sheridan
“She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile!” A perfect comedy that anticipates Wilde’s Bunburying in Captain Jack Absolute’s invention of a second persona for romancing, Ensign Beverly, this, along with Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, is damn near the only thing worth salvaging from British theatre between 1710 and 1890, and jumped the footlights via Mrs Malaprop’s inimitable verbal gaffes to coin a new word – Malapropism. Sheridan quickly rewrote the role of Sir Lucius O’Trigger after an initial savaging for being stage-Irish, and made it as deliriously silly as everything else in this satire on duelling, female education, pride and excessive sentimentality.
(9) Hedda Gabler by Ibsen
“I will not have anyone holding power over me” A role quite often referred to as a female Hamlet, Ibsen’s tragic heroine has been essayed on Broadway by both Cate Blanchett and Mary Louise Parker in recent years; and neither nailed it, it’s that hard. Ibsen may have been meanly caricaturing Strindberg as the rival academic to Hedda’s husband, but who cares? A heroine who is either Freudian neurotic basket-case, feminist warrior, or sociopathic villain trumps such considerations. Ibsen’s late run of masterpieces are all worth seeing but few combine his devotion to realism, and tragic plots, with such a complicated and powerful lead.
(8) The Homecoming by Pinter
“Don’t call me that, please” “Why not?” “That’s the name my mother gave me.” Pinter’s trademark comedy of menace reaches a sort of mythic height in this unnerving story of an ill-advised visit home by expatriate university professor Teddy to the East End. Ill-advised because Teddy brings with him his attractive wife Ruth, who quickly enters a twisted psychodrama with Teddy’s wide-boy brother Lenny, naive brother Joey, and aged father Max. The dialogue at first glance appears banal, until you feel the subtext crackling under every innocuous remark as everyone circles each other in a battle for control. The controversial ending is somewhere between absurdist and a Greek legend.
(7) The Crucible by Miller
“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” Miller’s allegorical attack on McCarthyism thru the prism of the 1692 Salem witch-hunts is extremely scary at the moments when Abigail and her accomplices fake attacks by evil spirits, and is incredibly emotionally draining as the plot inexorably tightens with a vice-like grip around decent everyman John Proctor. Proctor reluctantly signs his death warrant by daring to speak up for the truth against the self-delusions of petty vindictive people. Remarkably Miller prepared for this script by adapting Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and yet produced a Greek catharsis that Aristotle would sign off on.
(6) Endgame by Beckett
“Sir, look – [Disdainful gesture, disgustedly.] – at the world – [pause] and look – [Loving gesture, proudly.] – at my TROUSERS!” Almost for that anecdote alone, possibly the funniest punch-line in Beckett’s dramatic works, this play is my pick of his output that reshaped 20th Century drama. 1958’s Endgame might be the satirical last word in Irish Big House decay, a response to the Irish Famine (look at Hamm’s adoption of Clov near a place called Kov [Cobh] while people obsess about corn) or the Cold War, or simply a characteristically inexplicable drama in which after the word ends life, such as it is, continues on as it was, bickering and ridiculous, although with people in dustbins.
(5) As You Like It by Shakespeare
“Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Rosalind is Shakespeare’s most likeable heroine, and her practical use of her male alter-ego Ganymede to teach the overly sentimental Orlando how to conduct a romance the most sensible use of the endless cross-dressing to be found in the comedies. A play about defeat, and the over-indulgence in cultural compensation that it can engender in Duke Senior in the forest of Arden, and about idealised romance, and the stupid behaviour it can provoke, this touches on serious matters – yet always with a feather’s weight; the melancholy Jacques’ “All the world’s a stage” monologue.
(4) Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
“It’s all chance, Oedipus, chance rules our lives!” Archetypal stories don’t come much greater than Freud’s go-to Greek tragedy. The heroic Oedipus defeats the Sphinx’s riddling, unwittingly kills the King of Thebes, and then marries his stunning widowed Queen, Jocasta; only for his investigations into provenance of the King’s murderer to unexpectedly and traumatically rebound on him. I’ve managed to see this in Robert Fagle’s peerless translation, but without masks, and the effect of the Greek chorus is eerie and memorable. Can we escape destiny, or does that very attempt bring out the destiny thus eluded? Fate/Free Will – drama’s original and greatest preoccupation…
(3) Arcadia by Stoppard
“Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit…” Stoppard has an unparalleled gift for constructing hysterically funny romantic comedies that also elucidate a knotty subject. This 1993 masterpiece casually tackles chaos theory and bad literary/intellectual history theorising. Set in 1809 and 1993 a clever Regency Coverly seems to have anticipated the new breakthroughs of mathematics of the present, while dodgy academic Bernard Nightingale’s outrageously shoddy scholarship makes a travesty of the connection between Byron and his friend Septimus Hodge, the tutor of said clever Regency chaotician Thomasina Coverly. Stoppard constructs a play about rationality and imagination with enormous warmth, wit, and unexpectedly overwhelming poignancy.
(2) Three Sisters by Chekhov
“In a little while all this living and all this suffering will make sense, if only we could know!” Chekhov’s small opus of plays contains immensities. The tale of Olga, Masha and Irina’s economic and social decline and fall at the hands of their impecunious brother Andrei and his grasping wife Natasha began the 20th Century with a startlingly prescient meditation on the crippling nature of dreams, the impossibility of escape (to Moscow, or any other equivalent idyllic past), the inexorable change of social orders, and the redemptive possibilities that could be gleaned from simply enduring the chaos of a world incapable of being ordered effectively or decently by human action. Yet that’s only half of it. Chekhov’s play disrupts the realism of Ibsen with characters not listening to each other and thinking out loud, creates dizzying movement as characters wander in and out of each of the four act’s distinct locations, and mines absurdist comedy from dark material.
(1) Hamlet by Shakespeare
“Thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied oe’r with the pale cast of thought.” The definition of a play full of quotable quotes, a leading role that every young actor wants to test himself against, a meditation on the nature of revenge and its futility, a satire on bad acting, a tragic love story, a pitch-black comedy of errors, a geo-political thriller, an oblique statement on the survival of Catholic belief in Tudor England, a wisdom text that teaches us how to live even as its hero learns how to die, the play that made black clothes cool – all these are valid ways of interpreting Shakespeare’s titanic 1601 magnum opus. Hamlet is the most important play to see on stage before you die because it has inspired so many subsequent artists, and it always will. It is full of memorable characters, who have become types, dialogue that despite its familiarity retains its profundity, and a challenge, “This above all, to thine own self be true,” that could serve as the final statement on the Greek dilemma of being a self-willed individual against powerful external forces.