The 10 Greatest (Dead, White) Playwrights

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Alas, when it comes to making lists of the most well-known artists, composers, and, for our purposes today, playwrights, well… you end up with a big ol’ list of dead white men. Does it royally suck that women, people of colour, and other marginalized groups were left out of recognition, deprived of opportunities, and basically sidelined for hundreds of years? Oh you bet it does. It sucks big-time. Does that mean we can bypass learning about all those dead white guys? ‘Fraid not. These are the people who shaped our current landscape of each art form, and they’re the most prolific contributors to the world of the arts today. And, they made a lot of INCREDIBLE shit. 

But, just like with any form of reparation, what we can do is move forward together, now that we know a hell of a lot better. So, first, let’s learn about 10 of the greatest playwrights of all time (other than Shakespeare, who will get his own post later). These are the geniuses you’re most likely to see programmed, hear jokes about, or read references to.

THEN, next Saturday, we’ll learn about 10 of the most important living playwrights. You will be unsurprised to see quiiite a different list of humans, which is fantastic. Progress! 

So: first up, our list of:

10 Truly Amazing Dead White Guys Who Wrote Some Kickass Plays

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Anton Chekhov

(1860-1904)

Photo by David Magarshack

The Russian master of realism was a doctor by day, playwright by night. He wrote many plays, but his four most famous are The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. If you keep an eye out, you are very likely to see one of those four programmed near you, since they are absolute pillars of the canon. Chekov’s work is known for the realism of family dynamics: how people actually talk to one another and treat each other. He had an immeasurable influence on the playwrights who followed, especially in two areas: first, that playwrights must have nothing superfluous in their work (a convention known as Chekhov’s Gun… look it up, it’s fascinating); and second, that acting should be natural, not stylized. Thanks, Anton!

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Henrik Ibsen

(1828-1906)

This Norwegian studmuffin and “father of realism” is one of the most-performed playwrights (sometimes listed as THE most performed, after our buddy Will Shakespeare). He’s known for writing about those all-too-familiar themes of financial troubles and women’s suffering in various realistic settings. Many critics of his era found his plays scandalous (#tooreal) – plays like Peer Gynt, Hedda Gabler, and the play you’re far and away most likely to see (and which you might have read in an English class at some point): A Doll’s House.

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Samuel Beckett

(1906-1989)

Photo by Gisèle Freund

Beckett’s a great playwright to know if only to understand cultural references to his plays (which will otherwise go riiiight over your head, which may or may not be the only part of you emerging from a pile of dirt. See… you would get that!) This Irish avant garde author and playwright was a key figure in the style known as “Theatre of the Absurd”: his plays are minimalist mindbenders, often tragicomedies, which often feature absurd situations and imagery. Grim, deep, darkly funny, unsettling… Beckett’s plays offer basically everything for a pretty profound theatre-going experience for the open-minded audience member. The Nobel laureate is best known for plays like Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Happy Days.

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Oscar Wilde

(1854-1900)

Where to start with the great Irish poet, playwright, and endlessly quotable firecracker… Well, you’ll either already know Wilde as the bonburying genius behind The Importance of Being Earnest (though, Wilde wasn’t much of a bonbury himself… he was more or less wildly himself wherever he went, city or country). Known for being witty and stylish, persecuted for being gay, Wilde is revered for embracing the decadent, even outlandish joys of life. His brilliant wit allowed him to write masterpieces of both drama and comedy which positively skewered British high society in a way that also made them love him. If you haven’t seen or read Earnest, you simply must! And if you’re already a fan, your next step should be Lady Windermere's Fan, or Wilde’s dramatic masterpiece: Salome.

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George Bernard Shaw

(1856-1950)

Photo by Yousuf Karsh

Another marvellous playwright you might have read in high school or first year undergrad! This Irish playwright, critic, and activist was so influential upon theatre history that we even have a term for works inspired by or akin to his: Shavian. So, you know his stuff must be good. Shaw was another realist who railed against melodrama (which had predominated English theatre prior to the second half of the 19th century), and in his work as a critic, lauded fellow top 10-ers Ibsen and Wilde (unsurprisingly). Shaw wrote a lot of plays, including Heartbreak House, Saint Joan, and Pygmalion.

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Tennessee Williams

(1911-1983)

AKA, the man responsible for every cultural reference where a guy in a tank top yells “Stellaaaaaa!”, Williams is another playwright who wrote an ever-loving crapton of plays, but for whom only a few really took hold as staples of the stage. His characters are almost all based on members of his own family and other acquaintances (which you’ll realize, once you’ve seen the plays, is pretty messed up, but hey… that’s life, amirite?). Our buddy Tennessee had a rough life, mostly due to chronic alcoholism, but his early works are true masterpieces, and you really should get to know them. In particular, to be well-versed in classic theatre, three of Williams’ plays are musts: The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire (the plot of which you probably already know from an episode of The Simpsons).

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Arthur Miller

(1915-2005)

Photo from AP Images

Miller is famous for a lot of things, but perhaps none more-so than being married to Marilyn Monroe in the years leading up to her death. Miller’s plays, like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge, are primarily about the idea of an inner compass, and what society can do to a person’s values. Death of a Salesman and The Crucible in particular are absolute staples of Western theatre. Widely referenced, parodied, and, most importantly, performed, get to know these two and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Miller’s plays are all about: people thinking they’re doing the “right thing,” when that might just be what society around them is telling them to do.

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Eugene O’Neill

(1888-1953)

Image: Bettmann/Corbis

After a turbulent and challenging childhood and adolescence, this key figure in American theatre contributed some pretttty dark plays to the canon (no surprise there). The Nobel laureate was another of the key figures in the development of realism in the latter half of the 19th century, and his plays dig into tortured family dynamics in ways that are all too real (probably because they’re all, to different extents, inspired by his own dysfunctional family). Several of O’Neill’s plays are in common rotation, including Mourning Becomes Electra, The Iceman Cometh, and O’Neill’s best-known and most autobiographical play, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

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Harold Pinter

(1930-2008)

Another Nobel laureate, this British playwright is known for writing some pretty wild plays that start out normal, but then everything sort of unravels. The style is referred to as “Comedy of Menace,” for the tangible uneasiness that hangs in the air as the characters zig and zag abstractly in their words and actions, then pause… menacingly. There’s even a word for things that evoke the essence of his style, like Shaw: Pinteresque. Pinter’s plays are filled with pregnant pauses, threats of violence, and power struggles about hidden pasts. Like Beckett, you’re in for a bit of a mind-bender, so if you get a chance to see one of his plays, like The Homecoming or The Birthday Party, be adventurous and go for it. It’s a trip.

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Neil Simon

(1927-2018)

Finally, after all that drama, we have American comedy writer and dramatist Neil Simon. Another Pulitzer winner, you probably already know Simon for The Odd Couple, but he wrote many more plays and musicals which are part of the contemporary canon, including Barefoot in the Park and Lost in Yonkers. Simon is known for writing lovable, relatable characters, usually living in New York, with a realistic flavour. If you love sitcoms like Friends or How I Met Your Mother, you’ll love Neil Simon.