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If “all the world’s a stage, and all the people merely players…” then as writers we can learn a little bit about humanity by studying those who focus on the stage. Playwrights may write with the intention of performance, but just as with any other form of literature, the ideas, characters, and stories exhibit their truth far beyond their intended medium.
Here are a few legends of the craft to inspire you to take a second look at a format that brings stories to life.
When you go back to the beginning of playwriting, you often begin with the ancients in Rome and Greece. In this circle of ancient writers you can’t help but cross Euripides. His tales of mythological heroes and extraordinary circumstances rivals those of his poetic counterpart, Homer.
Euripides gave us legendary tales of Oedipus, Theseus, Antigone, Sisyphus, and Andromeda. He explored relationships in Medea (long before Tyler Perry used the name), gave us patriotism though The Phoenician Women, and danced around exploitation with The Bacchae. You’ve seen the themes in modern stories; you’ve heard these names and titles as they’ve been absorbed into our collective culture; now read Euripides.
When you see a play, or a movie for that matter, in which you leave the theater feeling blown out of the water and wanting to change your life, you have Brecht to thank. He used the stage to hold a mirror up to society; his plays provoking the audience to reflect on their lives and spark social change.
While not always easy to read, Brecht’s plays have contributed much to the idea of theatrics and playwriting. If you’re looking for a spark of uniqueness, I recommend checking out Turandot, Man Equals Man, and, of course, Mother Courage and Her Children.
The first African-American to have a theatre on Broadway named after him, as well as multiple Pulitzers, August Wilson drew on his life experiences growing up in Pittsburgh and his love of jazz to create plays to which the common man could relate. He uses repeated themes and characters to “raise consciousness of the Black experience in the 20th Century,” but his plays are not limited to a specific demographic. In fact he once noted that he hoped his plays would “offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans.”
Giving us such classics as Fences, Seven Guitars, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, August Wilson as created plays that reach diverse audiences and promote understanding across cultures and generations.
If James Joyce was on the stage it would be in a play by Samuel Beckett. The obscure and private Beckett eased the dramatic form from modernist to postmodernist eras, epitomizing the period with Waiting for Godot. He branched into the Theatre of the Absurd (which he is rumored to be partly responsible for its creation), exploring bizarre characters in Endgame and bizarre constructs in Footfalls and Rockaby. Beckett is a great read for those who can relate to an early Tim Burton, or for anyone who likes to think outside the dustbin.
An Enemy of the People, Peer Gynt, A Doll’s House, Ghosts, Hedda Gabbler… If you’ve done any study of theatre then you know these titles and you know Ibsen’s name. The “father of realism” and critically considered “the greatest playwright since Shakespeare,” Ibsen is an iconoclast, often using irony to point out flaws in the status quo. He makes his audience think about their lives by using only vague metaphor. His realistic style brought forth a movement that inspired…
Nobel laureate, poet and dramatist, Eugene O’Neill was one of the first to bring the “American voice” to the stage. Often writing in tragic tones about depressed characters often on their downward spiral, O’Neill’s sense of despair could be likened to a theatrical Edgar Allen Poe, though without such frequent dark imagery.
His A Long Day’s Journey into Night epitomized the dysfunctional American family. The Hairy Ape catalogues the futility of being a working-class man in a land controlled by the wealthy. The Iceman Cometh warns of the necessity and dead-end that comes from dreams unrealized.
Nobel laureate and once-husband to Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller has been dubbed “the last great practitioner of the American stage.” With classics such as Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, Broken Glass, and The Crucible to his name, it’s no wonder that Broadway famously dimmed their lights to mourn the loss of a true American theatrical icon.
He gave us Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. He gave us The Glass Menagerie. He gave us Orpheus Descending. And Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And we gave him a Tony, two Pulitzers, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Williams threw himself into his work, literally using events from his life and family, dramatizing them and putting them on stage. Using himself as an example, Williams wrote of tragic relationships, dysfunctional families, and brought us a world so real and relatable that his many titles stand up as examples of modern society to this day.
Protégé of Ibsen, Chekhov epitomized the stream-of-consciousness style that inspired James Joyce and other modernists in the literary arts. Despite medicine being his chosen career, Chekhov’s hobby of writing is what made him famous. Inspiring the likes of Tennessee Williams, Lee Strasberg (of “method” acting fame), Elia Kazan, and Ernest Hemmingway, Chekhov was a master storyteller giving us classics like Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, and The Cherry Orchard.
“If in Act I you show a pistol, by Act III it must be fired” – Chekhov’s Gun, a metaphor of literary foreshadowing.
As much a myth as a man, with 37 plays and 154 sonnets to his name, Shakespeare stands as the name amongst famous playwrights.
His plays are the stuff of legend; they have become a part of the world’s collective unconscious. His characters are timeless archetypes that influence us all to this day. Romeo, Juliet, MacBeth, Hamlet, Othello. His monologues appear at every almost every actor’s audition. His plays are performed annually and are studied in literature classes around the globe. His sonnets inspire every romantic, every poet and every greeting card to say what we all want to express.
Who better to round out this list of the top playwrights in history than William Shakespeare?
Are there any other playwrights who have inspired and helped you to become a better writer? Please let us know in the comments below.
Images courtesy of Steve Harris, John Minihan and Wikipedia.