Before I tell you about ten of the most commonly produced plays and why you should definitely take the opportunity to see one of them the next time it arises, I want to briefly talk about why I love the classics.
Those of you who have more than a beginner’s level of knowledge about music, dance, theatre, or visual art will know that there’s a huge movement underway in the arts to create more space and time for underrepresented artists – both historical and living. That means less space on concert programs and in museum square footage to what we currently consider “the canon” – the famous masters like Beethoven and Michelangelo and Balanchine who are almost all white men. I am EXTREMELY on board with this. Absolutely incredible female artists, artists of colour, gay artists, trans artists, and other historically marginalized artists have been left off everyone’s collective radar to our absolute detriment as audience members for WAY too long. By virtue of our Eurocentric, Patriarchal society, we have been denied access to some of the finest art ever created, not to mention the injustices committed against these artists, both living and dead, as well as the massive amounts of appropriation that corrupt a good chunk of the canon as well…
But – that doesn’t mean all the “classics” should go away (some people think it does; I do not think that). To me, in an ideal world, the best of the works we have pushed to the edges or lost should surface to equal prominence with those we celebrate most right now. We can only understand works of art by what came before them – what the creators would have heard, seen, and studied themselves – which is why we simply must know the canon.
Plus – you guys! – the greats are considered so for a reason. They. Are. Great. The fact that there are also underrepresented and wayyy underperformed/promoted/staged/shown works from their contemporaries and from current artists who aren’t white men doesn’t make classic works not great.
I hope that offers a bit of context as to why you simply must know the canon, even though – yup, you betcha – the list of creators looks (mostly) like a Republican task-force on women’s health. (On the bright side, you might be interested to know that the ten most commonly produced plays – new and classic – changes wildly from year to year, and is now consistently full of exciting, diverse living playwrights, but because that’s a whooole other topic, we’re going to stick to the classics for today.)
So without further ado (and that was a lot of ado), here are ten of the most commonly produced plays from the canon that you’re awwwwfully likely to encounter in just about any city in North America/the U.K.. I’ve pieced the list together from TimeOut New York’s 50 Best Plays of All Time, NPR’s fascinating study of the most popular plays for high schools, American Theatre’s annual lists of most commonly produced plays, and some other bits and bobs from around the internet (plus, a hefty dose of what I think is great – sorry, not sorry).
So next time you see one of these plays advertised at your local professional theatre, community theatre, or even university drama program, you should definitely go see it – it won’t disappoint. They’re classics for a reason.
10 Classic Plays You’re VERY Likely to Get the Chance to See
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
Perhaps the ultimate American tragedy, Death of a Salesman packs a massive gut punch. It’s the story of a travelling salesman named Willy Loman confronting (and avoiding) his own mediocrity. And based on the title, you know it doesn’t end well. Love a drama with deep observations about life and a definite need to bring a pack of tissues? This is your play.
A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry
When Hansberry penned A Raisin in the Sun in 1959, she became the first black woman to write a Broadway play. Since then, the play about a black family trying to move into a white neighbourhood has become a much beloved staple of the modern repertoire. I adore it particularly for the title, which comes from one of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes, who wrote: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill
If you love a devastating family drama, this is it. One whole day (hence the title) with a family worthy of its own HBO show. Mom’s hooked on morphine, everyone is drunk, someone is dying… and it’s all based on O’Neill’s own dysfunctional family. There’s a reason this is an absolute staple of the theatre repertoire: it’s incredible fodder for actors, and each role has so much opportunity to shine. An amazing opportunity to see phenomenal acting.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee
Have you ever found yourself in the middle of another couple’s argument? You know how uncomfortable it is? Well prepare for three acts of that in all its cringe-worthy goodness. A middle-aged couple (with a profoundly messed up relationship) invites a younger couple over for drinks, and everything unravels from there. Love a good, smart, “too far” burn? This is the play for you.
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
Okay… I wasn’t going to duplicate any playwrights, but I couldn’t choose between Death of a Salesman and this one, which i ADORE. Were you supposed to read this in high school? Did you? Well, you should have, because it’s a wild ride. The Crucible is about the Salem witch trials… but Miller wrote it during the McCarthy era (where hundreds of Americans were accused of being Communists), so you can see the connection. It’s terrifying, it’s timeless… it’s too real right now.
A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen
Another English class favourite, A Doll’s House is all about being a married woman in the 18th century (and, frankly, today). It’s about roles and responsibilities, unrequited love, and women’s (ongoing) struggle for the basic rights enjoyed by men. FYI, there are also lots of productions of A Doll’s House, Part 2 getting stage time these days, but don’t get confused – that one’s a sequel by Lucas Hnath that picks up where Ibsen’s story leaves off.
The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams
I once did a presentation on Williams in high school where I read all of his major plays in about a week, and it put me in one hell of a funk (but like, in a good way?). You might know ol’ Tennessee from A Streetcar Named Desire, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but The Glass Menagerie is such a beautiful, haunting play about dreams unfulfilled… I just had to pick it. Plus, it’s partly autobiographical about Williams’ own youth, which makes it extra fascinating.
The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde
Okay – I love this play, primarily because the plot is so ridiculous. In a nutshell, it’s about two gentlemen in late 1800s London who live double lives: they each have a name and persona for themselves when they’re in the country, and another for the city. Obviously this creates all sorts of hilarious confusion and hijinks when their worlds collide. If you like clever turns of phrase and really snappy dialogue, take a walk on the Wilde side (ouch – sorry!).
Our Town, by Thornton Wilder
I have a soft spot for Our Town because of a treasured family story about my uncle opening the show in high school, forgetting his line, and stuttering out: “Our town…. it’s, um… it’s a mighty good town.” It’s still one of the most frequently performed high school plays because of its giant cast, minimal props and set, and timeless themes. It’s sweet, it’s feel-good (mostly)… it’s warm fuzzies in the form of a play.
Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov
Chekhov wrote four enormously popular plays – The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, and this one (plus a bunch more that were lesser successes). You’re very, very likely to see one of those pop up at a local theatre company or your university’s drama program. I chose Three Sisters because I’ve seen a few productions here and there lately, and it’s such a darling of a play. It’s a family saga that spans several years, and offers up some really fascinating female dynamics.
There you have it! Ten classic plays you are extremely likely to come across. So jump on it when you get a chance to see any of them. They’re time-tested and still celebrated for a reason: they’re all amazing. Can’t go wrong with a classic!