Plays have been a popular form of entertainment and education pretty much forever. Well, at least since 472 BC, when the oldest known surviving Greek tragedy, The Persians, was first performed. And judging from the numbers of people who write plays and the numbers of people who go to see plays, plays are likely to continue to be with us for a long time. There is a special magic that comes with being in a theatre watching a play being performed before a live audience, and that magic is what keeps theatre alive and keeps playwrights writing plays.
With some exceptions, known as closet plays, plays are written to be performed by actors in front of live audiences. This means that the elements that make up a play, including the theme, the plot, the characters, and the dialogue, must hold the attention of the audience to entertain and enlighten them. The fact that the play is performed live night after night is what separates plays from other literary forms. It is this unique aspect of plays that make them not only interesting to see in the theatre but it also makes them interesting to read.
There is a difference between reading plays and reading novels. Irish author Caoilinn Hughes speaks to this difference in her article, “When Poets Write Novels,” when she says: “I grew up reading poetry and plays because that’s what was in the house. Once I’d become accustomed to density and concision, the novel seemed a baggy, watery, laborious, unapproachable thing.”
The difference between a play and a novel reflects what their writers are trying to accomplish. A play is intended to be performed by actors on a stage in front of an audience. It is entirely dependent upon dialogue to tell a story. A novel is intended to be read, and it can be composed of both dialogue and prose to tell the story.
These differences make reading plays as interesting to read as novels for different reasons. Oddly, these differences mean that few writers have been able to write both good novels and good plays. English novelist, critic and educator, Philip Hensher, in an article in The Guardian entitled “The plays the thing . . . unless you’re a novelist,” lists James Joyce, Henry James, Graham Greene, William Golding, Muriel Sparks, and Iris Murdock as novelists who could not write dialogue that actors could enunciate, and Tom Stoppard, Ronald Harwood and Beckett as playwrights who could not write novels. He writes: “A novelist and a playwright might seem to be doing similar things. In fact, the tasks are quite different. Dialogue and external action are only two of the novelist’s tasks; they have to flesh out the world with evocations of place, of physical appearance, the sense of time passing. A playwright’s task is more austere. There’s no alluding to people’s thoughts in the lazy way of novelists: playwrights have to do everything through the way their people talk, and the way they move and act in tangible ways. A playwright venturing into the novel won’t necessarily know how to write a description, where you can usefully allude to something unseen, or how to move from place to place. A playwright’s tools are more refined; a novelist’s toolbox is bigger.”
He does acknowledge that Chekhov and Michael Frayn could do both.
Joyce Carol Oates describes the difference between novels and plays this way: “All great novelists—Dostoevsky, Dickens, Flaubert, Eliot, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence, Melville, Faulkner—provide rich, fascinating passages of description, historical background, character analyses, exposition; we are likely in fact to be reading novels for this reason, because we are mesmerized by a writer’s unique voice. In prose fiction, style is art; there is no art without individual style. Yet, on the living stage, none of these qualities of prose fiction ‘works’: not description, however brilliant; not historical background, analysis, any kind of exposition. What shimmers with life on the page may die within minutes in the theater precisely because the prose is a language to be spoken to an individual, recreated in an individual reader’s consciousness, usually in solitude, while dramatic dialogue is a special language spoken by living actors to one another, a collective audience overhearing.” Joyce Carol Oates, “Introduction: Plays As Literature,” Conjunctions:25, New American Theatre.
That’s what makes plays interesting to read: that special language intended to be spoken by living actors to one another before a collective audience. Give one of our recommended plays to read a try and see if you don’t agree.
BEST PLAYS TO READ
Orson Welles, the actor, and director behind The War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane, wrote that “all poetry, and particularly all Shakespeare,” is meant to be read aloud. Wells, The English Journal, 1938. Many people agree that plays are not meant to be read unless they are read aloud because they are meant to be seen.
Unfortunately, the sad but simple fact is that it is not commercially possible for all the plays that are written to be seen because no one can afford to produce them. The famous Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, recognizing this, counseled playwrights to substitute stage directions that are artistically, rather than technically, described, and to, “Write nothing in a play that you would not write in a novel . . . “with the reward being that people will be able to read their plays.” Shaw, “How to Make Plays Readable,” The Author’s Yearbook and Guide for 1904.
There are vast numbers of plays that will never be produced and seen. But plays are literature and they can be wonderful to read, and they deserve to be read, and they should be read.
Here is our list of some very readable plays, offered with a disclaimer that there are many best playlists and that any list is necessarily subjective. Consider the list to be a good place to begin your journey of reading plays.
Dead Man’s Cell Phone, by Sarah Ruhl. Sarah Ruhl, who is well known for her stage directions, follows Shaw’s advice in large part, saying, “Stage directions are a vital part of the reading experience. Even though the audience doesn’t hear them or see them necessarily, they inform the aesthetic of what they’re seeing and hearing.” “Lettering the Stage,” Ruth Graham Interview, Poetry Foundation. In Proscenium’s interview with Sarah Ruhl, she attributes her style of playwriting to having started writing as a poet: “I started out as a poet, became a playwright, and kept going. I think playwriting contains all other genres, including poetry, the essay (or argument), story, song… And it’s one thing that draws me to the form again and again — the way it folds all the other genres in.”
One of the stage directions in Dead Man’s Cell Phone reads:
“Jean, alone in the afterlife,
An Edward Hopper painting.”
“A struggle for the gun.
Perhaps an extended fight scene
With some crawling and hair pulling.”
Perhaps an extended fight sequence . . . or perhaps not. The reader can decide. In the theatre, the director decides, and the audience does not know there was a choice. This makes reading the play fun.
The play was written a decade ago, the same time that the Apple iPhone 3G appeared, but the lines about our constant connections with our phones still register. Jean, the protagonist says:
“Hello, Dwight, if you get this message, I am alone on my own planet
and I might be here for all time because I didn’t tell
you I love you
in the closet in the dark stationary store
because I got scared and then the phone rang
And when something rings you have to answer it.
It’s a wild read, but a fun one.
Two of Sarah Ruhl’s plays have been Pultizer Prize finalists: In The Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which was also a Tony Award nominee, and The Clean House, and both should be added to your list of readable plays. The Clean House is fun because there is a lot of discussions about the quest for the perfect joke and a Note on Jokes and some suggestions for jokes that you would not know about if you only saw a performance of the play.
Fences and The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. August Wilson is another playwright who describes the foundation his playwriting as poetry, and particularly the writing of poet Amiri Baraka and writer/poet Jorge Luis Borges, as well as the blues, and the art of painter Romare Bearden. Two of his plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won Pulitzer Prizes. They are two of the ten plays that make up Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle.
Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Inspired by August Wilson, Skeleton Crew is the last play in Dominique Morisseau’s trilogy about Detroit, The Detroit Projects. In the Skeleton Crew, four workers in an auto parts factory in 2008 waiting for the plant to close face uncertain futures differently. Morisseau gives voice through her rough-edged dialogue to blue-collar workers whose lives were upended in the economic downturn.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Irish Poet and Playwright Oscar Wilde. The dialogue is very witty and it’s very funny. As a character in the play, Miss Prism, says of her own novel: “The good ended happily. The bad ended unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” It is often described as the most quoted play in the English language after Hamlet. Written in 1895, it has stood the test of time.
Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Another good British farce, and a quick and fun read.
John by Annie Baker. This is a good read both because of the dialogue and the because it’s a bit of ghost story. A couple who are fighting stop for the night at a B & B in Gettysburg, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The B & B is run by two older women, one of whom is blind, crazy, and tormented by her husband, John. And there are a lot of dolls. Read this one with the lights turned on.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. In As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote:
“All the worlds a stage,
And all the men and women are merely players.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor players in Hamlet. This is their story. Stoppard hearkens back to Miss Prism’s words in The Importance of Being Earnest when the Player says, “The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” Well worth the read.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis. In this witty and readable play, Judas Iscariot is on trial for the murder of Jesus Christ in a courtroom in purgatory. A series of witnesses ranging from Mother Theresa, Freud, and Satan testify and the forces of good and evil argue.
Sarah Ruhl has also done an extraordinary play about religion and politics, Passion Play, depicting actors rehearsing their annual staging of the Easter Passion in 1575 England, 1934 Bavaria, and during the Vietnam War and then the 1980’s in South Dakota. Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, and President Reagan appear.
A Doll’s House, Part 2, by Lucas Hnath. Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, has been popular ever since it was first performed in 1879. The play tells the story of Nora, a mother, and housewife, who walked out on her husband and three young children, slamming the door behind her, with what George Bernard Shaw called “the slam heard around the world.” In A Doll’s House, Part 2, Lucas Hnath has Nora returning to her family after fifteen years and confronting them about her decision to leave to pursue her need to learn to be herself.
If reading A Doll’s House, Part 2, makes you want to read the original play, and see why Nora left in the first place, you can read one of the many translations of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House that have been made, if you don’t speak Norwegian.
If you are truly into theatre, it turns out that Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town, wrote an acting version of A Doll’s House as a favor to actress, Ruth Gordon, who was a friend of his and who wanted a part to play. Well known Artistic Director David Hammond’s interesting discussion is here.
Please let us know if you have found a play to be particularly readable. We will update this list as we read or learn about other readable plays.