The 5 Plays Everyone Should Know
Whether you’re new to the world of theater, or a bona fide expert, here are 5 of the plays everyone should know.
We’ve chosen five of the best plays ever written by five of the most famous playwrights. Each of the plays on this list was written by a playwright whose contributions to theater have withstood the tests of time. Filled with quotable monologues and memorable stories, these plays are classics for a reason. Without further ado, we present the top five plays that everyone should know.
Death of a Salesman – Arthur Miller
Most of us are familiar with Arthur Miller’s other work The Crucible, written in 1953 (thank you High School English), but his 1949 play Death of a Salesman has also stood the test of time. The play follows the life of an aging salesman, Willy Lowman, whose 40-year occupational ‘rat race’ comes to an end as he slowly becomes disillusioned by the promise of the American dream. The play is a scathing critique of the American class system of the 1930s and 40s and yet many of the themes that Miller explores still ring true today.
In this 1966 production, Lee J. Cobb gives a career-defining performance as Willy Loman, alongside Gene Wilder, Mildred Dunnock, George Segal, and James Farentino.
The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde
Considered to be one of the funniest plays in the English language, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is guaranteed to get a laugh every time. The delightfully witty plot is packed with one-liners, romantic engagements, lost handbags and over-the-top satirical antics. The play may tackle the social customs of Victorian England, but Wilde’s timeless antics have kept this play consistently in theaters since its first performance in 1895.
This production from Classic Spring is full of fun antics and features an incredible cast including Sophie Thompson, Jeremy Swift, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, and Fehinti Balogun. Despite being set in late Victorian England, this production has references to contemporary life that make it a joy to watch for modern audiences.
The Glass Menagerie – Tennessee Williams
The Glass Menagerie tells the story of a mother whose preoccupation with her past, and her unrealistic dreams for her children’s futures, threatens to ruin her relationship with her two children.
The structure and style of The Glass Menagerie is unique to Tennessee Williams. The playwright included explicit stage direction in the play’s script which includes specific lighting directions and even choices of music to be used in the show. He intentionally uses the set as a metaphor throughout the play, which he again notes in the stage direction, his characters frequently break the fourth wall ( think Fleabag or The Office), and his characters speak with an exaggerated poetic style. It’s these stylistic choices, combined with a timeless story, that have earned The Glass Menagerie a reputation for being Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece.
This incredible 1973 production starring Katharine Hepburn as Amanda, a young Sam Waterston as Tom, Joanna Miles as Laura, and Michael Moriarty as Jim, was an instant classic. In fact, all four actors were nominated for Emmy Awards.
Uncle Vanya – Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time. One of his most famous works, Uncle Vanya helped to define Chekhov’s mid to late style and is regarded as a literary masterpiece. The play is a dramatic reworking of one of his earlier comedies The Wood Deamon. Instead of focusing on a single character and storyline, Uncle Vanya follows a series of characters and their struggles with the uneasiness of a simple life, creating a thoughtful, funny, passionate, and ultimately sad play.
Uncle Vanya tells the story of a rich couple, Professor Serebryakov and his second wife Yelena who visit their family’s Estate in rural Russia. The play explores themes of complicated family relationships, hopelessness, and the occasional dullness of human existence.
This production features a massively talented all-star cast including Toby Jones (Vanya), Rosalind Eleazar (Yelena), Aimee Lou Wood (Sonya), and Richard Armitage (Astrov). Filmed on a beautiful set, the production feels like a movie, which coupled with incredible performances from the cast makes this Uncle Vanya easy to follow and enjoyable for contemporary audiences.
Hamlet – William Shakespeare
No list of great plays would be complete without a work by Shakespeare, and we’ve chosen Hamlet for our number 1 spot. It is widely considered a masterpiece and is one of Shakespeare’s most recognizable plays. Whether you’ve seen the play in its entirety or not, you’re probably familiar with the famous line, ” To be or not to be…” This is the beginning of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy in which the Prince of Denmark grapples with mortality, morality, loyalty and guilt.
In a (very small) nutshell, Hamlet tells the story of the young Prince of Denmark who attempts to avenge his father’s death. Shakespeare’s ability to portray the simultaneous fragility and complexity of the human mind is part of why the play is so highly regarded.
This critically-lauded production from The Royal Shakespeare Company re-imagines Hamlet in the modern-day African Republic. It stars Paapa Kwaakye Essiedu as the young Hamlet who is summoned back from university to set things right at home.
There you have it, five of the most recognizable, critically acclaimed, and beloved plays written by some of the world’s greatest playwrights.