Five Plays I Love

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.)

13 Responses

  1. two out of fiveI’ve read or
    two out of five

    I’ve read or seen only two out of these five (the film of “Cat” and about seven different versions of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”). I agree with you on the Shakespeare front, though — this isn’t quite my number one favorite (that would be “Hamlet”) but it’s a strong number two.

    “Endgame” sounds intriguing … I’ll take that one for a test drive sometime soon.

  2. High FiveNot only did you
    High Five

    Not only did you mention Endgame (hehehahem), guess what? No Ethan Hawke! In the literary world (whatever that means), plays probably don’t often get the attention they deserve, I’m glad to see you’re bringing them into the limelight … because as we all know, drama never goes out of style.

  3. I like the Paul
    I like the Paul Newman/Elizabeth Taylor film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but the play is so much better. There’s some interesting subtext (and not so sub-text) in the play that I guess was a little much for a 1950s film. I’d seen the movie a couple of times before reading the play and I still found the play to be surprising and great. (I especially love the way Williams uses overlapping conversations from different rooms/locations to tell something about what’s going on with his characters. He does it effectively in Streetcar too with speeches from Blanche overlapping a woman on the street selling flowers.)

    You’ll have to let me know what you think of Endgame. It’s a good’n.

  4. I am a big fan of endgames,
    I am a big fan of endgames, literary or no. Ahem. And as I’m sure you know, drama is my way of life.

    Ethan Hawke is too greasy to ever make it onto my list for anything, unless I wrote a list of greasiness.

  5. theater – the pinnacle of
    theater – the pinnacle of expression

    Mother Courage

    If you enjoy live theater, you should check out London in the summertime. There’s a section in the NYTBR that lists London theater. And airfare/hotel/theater tickets in London is actually less than going to the same shows in New York.

  6. Beckett forever!I agree on
    Beckett forever!

    I agree on Endgame for the best Beckett. I’d put Happy Days as a close second.

    Buy the four-DVD collection of all of Beckett’s plays, each done by a different director. There are brilliant, little know pieces that are *very* weird, along with the better-known works. (The play ‘Breath’ is less than a minute long and was directed by Damien Hearst!) The collection is expensive but, trust me, it’s well worth it.

    Does anyone else like Genet’s plays? The Maids, The Balcony, The Screens?

  7. I’ve seen those! They were
    I’ve seen those! They were playing them on PBS for a couple of nights a year or so ago. It was brilliant.

    I have a book of some of Beckett’s stranger work called Ends and Odds — I’m pretty sure that Breath is in there as is Not I which is a long-standing favorite of mine.

  8. Theatre DAArling!I’m liking
    Theatre DAArling!

    I’m liking your choices too! I developed a real taste for American theatre whilst at Uni. I think my list would be:


    Volpone – Ben Jonson (saw a fab production with Michael Gambon in the leading role – sooo funny!)

    Stairs to the Roof – Tennesse Williams (because it’s obscure but so modern and brilliant in it’s scope and again I think the production I saw swung it for me)

    Moon for the Misbegotten – Eugene O-Niell (a very recent addition – as I saw Kevin Spacey in this just before Xmas)

    Streetcar – it’s the animalistic passion that gets me, everytime…

    GOD I LOVE THE THEATRE – might go book something now. One of one comics, Bill Bailey (VERY FUNNY) is doing a Pinter thing somewhere in London..

  9. I’d love to add that, quite
    I’d love to add that, quite honestly, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is just the loviest place to see Shakespeare. I’ve seen MSND (the fairies appeared out of real bushes and there is a grassy knoll for a stage) and Taming of the Shrew there in the last few years. I’m lucky to teach and we take a coach of 15 year old girls every year – THEY LOVE IT!

    It does get a bit cold and I suppose there’s the odd plane at Heathrow and the funny noises coming from London Zoo but this is all outweighed by the Pimms, Champers and picnic atmosphere!AHH.. yes, just transporting myself there now…

  10. All great playsI am currently
    All great plays

    I am currently teaching “Lysistrata” to my Writing & Literature students at the School of Visual Arts and they are really enjoying it.

    In 1972, I saw the play on Broadway with Melina Mercouri; it was one of the best moments I’ve ever had in the theater.

    I thought about doing “Midsummer Night’s Dream” with them — I saw the classic version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music back when — but opted for “Twelfth Night” instead.

  11. Don’t forget O’NeillI saw
    Don’t forget O’Neill

    I saw Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill in New York about three or four years ago. It starred Brian Dennehy, today’s foremost intepreter of O’Neill, as James Tyrone, Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Tyrone, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Jamie. It is a heavy, heavy piece, dealing with alchoholism, morphine addiction, and commercial versus artistic success, among other themes. A must see, in my opinion.

  12. I agree – a great piece of
    I agree – a great piece of theatre. I saw a production in London with Brian Denehny (sp) and I only wish I’d seen Philip Seymour Hoffman.. that must have been fabulous – I love that guy. What did people think of his Capote?

  13. Endgame is a good read, but
    Endgame is a good read, but responsible for one of the worst nights in the theatre I’ve ever had.

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