Recently, I was perusing my bookshelves and noticed that among the novels and books of poetry, I have a lot of plays. This is undoubtedly because of the large part theater has been in my life, but even though there are few things that compare to the pleasure of live performance, I find that a well-written play can make for a truly wonderful reading experience. Looking over my collection, I decided to try to pick five favorites, which I did, with quite a bit of arguing with myself. I’ve listed my picks below.
1. Lysistrata – Aristophanes
I don’t know about you, but before I’d ever read any classical literature, I had a belief that all of it was dry, stilted and dull. This comedy about women banding together and withholding sex from their husbands to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War ended that perception for me, because I laughed out loud (more than once!) when I first read it. Bawdy, irreverent, and, at times, completely hysterical, Lysistrata is a joy and easily makes it onto my list.
2. Endgame – Samuel Beckett
I know that Waiting for Godot usually gets all the credit for being Beckett’s masterwork, and though I liked Godot and all, I have to say that I prefer Endgame. Its endlessly gray cycle — the farce of repeating impossibly useless tasks for no reason other than there’s nothing else to do — is powerfully chilling and has stuck with me since I had to read it back in my college theater history class days. Right, I’m a cheerful sort of person. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” indeed.
3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – William Shakespeare
Of course Shakespeare had to be on the list, right? And maybe this is a fluffy Shakespeare choice, and even though I feel like I should be picking something important, like King Lear or Macbeth (the latter actually being one of my all-time favorites), I had to go with this one because just thinking about it makes me smile. Funny and sweet and written with a wonderfully gentle touch, I just adore this play of the hijinks of mixed-up lovers lost in the woods and practical-joking fairies (and of course, Nick Bottom being turned into an ass). Plus, I think Oberon has some of the loveliest speeches to be found in any Shakespeare play ever — “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” is amazing. Oh, and the play-within-the-play bit is worth the price of admission alone.
4. Blues for Mister Charlie – James Baldwin
This play, based loosely on the horrific lynching of Emmett Till, sings with beautifully-controlled rage. This is perfectly summed up in these lines near the end:
MERIDIAN: You know, for us, it all began with the Bible and the gun. Maybe it will end with the Bible and the gun.
JUANITA: What did you do with the gun, Meridian?
PARNELL: You have the gun — Richard’s gun?
MERIDIAN: Yes. In the pulpit. Under the Bible. Like the pilgrims of old.
If the beginning of the United States was based on the dual principles of religion and violence, then perhaps the new America being birthed during the Civil Rights era had the right to access the same methods, or, to put it differently, to fight back with the same weapons used by the enemy. It’s a fascinating play in any case, and so it gets to be on my list of five.
5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Tennessee Williams
This is my favorite play of all time forever and ever, amen. Family politics and death and alcoholism and lies and sexual tension and frustration in the bubbling cauldron of a bedroom on a large estate. Every line practically seethes with the wet heat of summertime in the South, steaming off the page in the Southern dialect that Williams wrote so beautifully. Tennessee Williams wrote some of the greatest female characters of all time, and when it comes to choosing Maggie from this play as my absolute favorite is really no contest. She owns the entire first act of the play with her speeches directed toward her alcoholic husband who doesn’t want to have anything to do with her anymore, and she is the perfect mix of nervous cattiness, desire and an absolute unwillingness to stop fighting for what she wants. And the rest of the play just gets better from there. Sure, A Streetcar Named Desire is more famous, with Marlon Brando’s iconic shirt-tearing-Stella-yelling, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is such a complete pleasure to read that I probably sit down with it at least once a year. (Also, even though I haven’t done a show in a few years, I would sacrifice a limb to play Maggie. I can’t say enough what a great character she is.)