From Greek tragedy to Shakespearean comedy and modern dramas, we've ranked the best plays ever
Written by Andy Propst
New York is practically synonymous with theater, and fromBroadwaytoOff BroadwaytoOff-Off Broadway, there are countless opportunities to see top-notch dramatic works. Of the countlessshows that have been produced since the dawn of performance, it’s nearly impossible to choose the best plays. But we’ve done just that with our list of the best plays of all time.
What does it mean tosay whichplays are the best? Quality, popularity, universality, influence and historical importance all factored into the decision-making process. From Greek tragedies andShakespearean comediestoTony Awardwinners and modern experimental theater, this opinionated list by the late theater journalist and critic and Andy Propst covers some truly excellent works (though we're leavingBroadway musicalsfor another day). Read on and let the debates begin!
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Best plays of all time
1.Hamlet by William Shakespeare
What doesn't this tragedy have? There's sublime poetry, rich psychology for characters of both sexes, a hefty dose of comedy to leaven the mood, and, depending on a director's interpretation, a crackling good mystery lying underneath the tale of "The Melancholy Dane." Shakespeare took a standard-issue—for the period—genre and used it to create a monument in Western literature, dramatic or non. This play can be debated and dissected ad infinitum.
2.Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill
This autobiographical play about O'Neill's young adulthood scorches from start to finish. You can feel the rawness as soon as it starts, as a man—along with his two adult sons—strives to ensure that his wife remains serene after a stint in rehab for morphine addiction. It goes downhill from there as she starts using again and all three guys hit the bottle. Written from a place of utter rawness, this drama stands at a pinnacle of the American family drama.
3.Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
The language of theater—not in the stagecraft sense, but in the actual dialogue sense—became something new with this lacerating 1962 drama. Two couples at a tiny New England liberal arts college drunkenly go at each other from the wee hours of the morning until almost dawn. Their weapons are their words, and what words they are. Erudition and profanity blend to lyrical heights as secrets, resentments, and even genuine affection are revealed.
4.Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
"Attention must be paid." Indeed. Not just to Willy Loman and the sad realities of his life as a mediocre traveling salesman and the delusions that barely keep him afloat, but also to Miller's exquisite modern tragedy about an average Joe. Both grittily naturalistic and ethereally dream-like, this one punches the audience in the gut time and again simply because it allows us to witness his heartbreaking final downfall while also allowing us to go inside his mind to seemingly feel his deep-seated pain.
5.Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Used as the exemplar of dramatic writing in Aristotle's Poetics, this Greek tragedy remains a pillar of playwriting. Before walking into a production or picking up a copy of the script, we all know that King Oedipus has killed his father, married his mother, etc. And yet Sophocles' slow reveal of the truths of the monarch’s life and the pride that sets him and his family spiraling toward a tragic downfall never ceases to be genuinely compelling. This one stands the test of time simply because it's good stage storytelling.
6.Angels in America by Tony Kushner
Its two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, give theatergoers a whirlwind trip through stories ranging from a man's battle with AIDS to über-Republican Roy Cohn's homophobia and his own realization that he also has the disease, and from the Rosenbergs' legacy to a Mormon couple's struggle with his gayness and her drug addiction. Digressions include fever dreams and trips to the heavens. It's all exactly what Kushner promises in the piece's subtitle: "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," and the boldness Kushner's storytelling and unbridled imagination means that this one thrills.
7.The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
As with so many others on this list, Williams is a playwright whose works could take up several entries. Choosing Menagerie over, say,A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof comes down to this: Menagerie is his breakthrough work that introduced his unique brand of theatrical lyricism to the world. And while some of his other plays go farther in terms of stretching stage conventions or tackling weightier issues, this one takes a gentle sliver of a story and turns it into something magical.
8.A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Hansberry broke a barrier with this drama about an African-American family attempting to better itself by moving to a new neighborhood; she became the first Black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. It's not just this factor that puts Raisin on this list. As we saw with not one but two fine revivals in a period of 10 years, Raisin speaks to audiences of all races and generations because its plot elements and themes cut across ethnic and chronological divides.
9.Woyzeck by Georg Büchner
Although this uncompleted script about a soldier's descent into madness was written in the early 19th century, it feels much more like an experimental drama from 100 years later. Part of the reason for this is the fact that it is indeed unfinished and hence sketchy. But Büchner also pioneers objectifying characters by using only their titles to identify them and commandingly sets a standard for dramatizing fever dreams and his central character's fragile grasp on reality.
10.Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
A new era in playwriting dawned with the debut of this play in 1948. Beckett eschewed standard plot in this piece about two tramps on a mostly barren plain waiting for someone named, obviously, Godot. When he doesn't show in the first act, they do it again with variations in the second. Are they waiting for some sort of perverse God? Is Beckett simply depicting the mundane realities of daily existence in the play? Both? Regardless, Godot brought abstraction center stage and did and still does it beautifully.
11.The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco
The life of the complacent bourgeois—and by extension the worlds of many theatergoers—got put through an absurdist prism in this French classic that simultaneously blew the roof off the houses where drawing-room comedies had traditionally taken place. Language, narrative, and character all get zanily and incisively fractured in this play about two couples and the two evenings they spend visiting one another. When the piece debuted in 1950, no one had never seen anything quite like it.
12.Look Back in Anger by John Osborne
Wouldn't it be great to write a play that inspired a label for work from an entire generation of writers? This 1956 drama did just that as it took middle age (mostly) out of playwriting and instead offered up a picture of life among a group of discontent British twentysomethings, pulling English drama out of parlors, dining rooms, and genteel patios, and into cramped inner-city apartment squalor. Long live the "angry young man play."
13.Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen
What's a woman in a terrible marriage supposed to do? Norwegian playwright Ibsen gave us a number of answers in his career. With Hedda, the only escape turns out to be suicide. Hedda doesn't strike quite the same feminist blow as another of Ibsen's plays (A Doll's House, where the Nora just leaves), but that's why Hedda is here. This play demonstrates incontrovertibly Ibsen's determination to make his audiences consider feminist issues in the 19th century by presenting them with such a grim outcome.
14.The Homecoming by Harold Pinter
A guy brings home his girlfriend to meet the family. It's a simple premise that Pinter turns into a debatable conundrum as he makes action and dialogue concurrently realistic and opaque, both ordinary and menacing. Much of this has to do with the fabled "Pinter Pause," which simply mirrors the way we often respond to each other in conversation, tossing in remainders of thoughts on one subject well after having moved on to another.
15.Machinal by Sophie Treadwell
Expressionism and feminism collide in this 1928 play that explores how many women were just disposable objects as the last century dawned. For the heroine of this sometimes-harrowing play, life moves from an office job to marriage to the electric chair with cruel intensity. It's become a mainstay of both the stage and the classroom for good reason.
16.Fences by August Wilson
Theoretically any of Wilson's 10 plays chronicling the African-American experience in Pittsburgh during the last century would easily fit onto this list, but this one stands apart from the others because of its tremendous heart and its commanding central figure who reaches almost tragic dimensions. It's little wonder that the play, set in the 1950s and centering on a former Negro league baseball pitcher struggling to provide for his family and battling against his bitterness, has attracted actors such as James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington.
17.Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov
Why Vanya and not The Seagull or Cherry Orchard or Three Sisters, you may ask? Ultimately, for me, this one comes down to scope. All of Chekhov's meticulously observed plays find both the comedy and tragedy in ordinary lives. What sets this one apart from the others is its relative quietness as it looks at small crises in an extended family's everyday existence, becoming something of a benchmark for brooding family drama.
18.Tartuffe by Moliere
Simultaneously riotous and scathing, this comedy explores and exposes the hypocrisy that can often lie underneath religious fervor and the lengths to which a zealot's followers will go to protect him or her and their beliefs. The play might have been originally written as an indictment of members of Louis XIV's court, but this satire has the ability to speak to almost any age.
19.What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton
With this play Orton takes the British sex farce (and to a lesser extent the British procedural) to the dark side as the insanities of a mental health clinic rise to both bizarre and hilarious heights. Orton tackles everything from sexual and gender politics to governmental ineptitude in this iconoclastic play from the late 1960s that seems particularly apt for revival right now.
20.Uncommon Women and Others by Wendy Wasserstein
Wasserstein won the Pulitzer for The Heidi Chronicles, but well before that look at life in post-feminist America she wrote this touchingly funny play about a group of Mount Holyoke alums traversing feminism's second wave. As the piece works backward through time from 1978 to 1972, what emerges is a cunning portrait of women during a period when possibilities seemed both infinite and curiously limited.
21.This Is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan
Lonergan's play about a trio of young people hanging out, squabbling over a coke deal, and looking for some sense of direction in the early years of the Reagan era follows in the footsteps of the British "angry young man" plays. The fact that it premiered about 10 years after the period in which it's set gave (and gives) this funny/sad piece a haunting resonance for Gen Xers.
22.Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
What happened when Hamlet wasn't at the forefront of events in Elsinore? It's not a question that many would have considered, but leave it to Stoppard's fertile brain to latch onto the question and answer it with a rip-roaring riff on a classic. His ability to mirror the events of his source material and echo its existentialist themes only makes R&G more impressive. It's another debut work whose promise was fulfilled repeatedly over the years, in plays ranging from Arcadia to Jumpers and the elephantine Coast of Utopia trilogy.
23.The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer
The energy and anger of a community—and the playwright himself—make this play about the earliest days of the AIDS crisis vibrate with passion and intensity even 30 years after its premiere. Kramer's achievement in this snapshot of events from the early 1980s is twofold: It works as a standalone drama for the ages and retains its edge as a damning piece of political theater from the shameful period in the country's history.
24.Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Critics and audiences alike had come to savor Parks' ability to challenge our ideas about race, history, and relationships with poetic and often opaque plays before this 2001 piece debuted. Her unique gifts coalesced and found a wider audience with this play about two brothers (named Booth and Lincoln) whose existences are irrevocably and tragically intertwined. It's a drama that works both as a family drama and as profound investigation about the legacy of slavery. Small wonder it’s a Pulitzer winner.
25.Candida by George Bernard Shaw
What to do about Shaw? So many of his plays zing as comedies and also still work as social commentary. Looking over his canon (pun sort of intended), it struck me that this one of the "Plays Pleasant" series might be most important. It's a simple play, about a young poet who thinks he needs to "rescue" a woman away from her clergyman husband, that bristles with Shavian wit and pointed political and social debate, ultimately shimmering as a shrewd consideration of love and marriage in Victorian England—or really any period.
26.Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge
The Aristotelian notion that a tragic hero needs to be noble gets thrown out the window in this play about a man who's heralded as a hero for having killed his father in self-defense only to be reviled by those who had cheered him when it turns out the old man was only wounded. The play sparked riots when it premiered in 1907, and while it no longer has the ability to inspire that level of passion, the play is a touchstone for the sort of dark Irish dramas we now expect from the likes of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh.
27.The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
This quintessential comedy of manners has retained its ability to tickle audiences for over 100 years. It's also been an inspiration for numerous writers who have adapted it to suit changing times. Wilde's unparalleled ability to spin cutting epigrams is only one of the reasons that this piece has endured. There's also his genteel mockery of classism and chauvinism. Like the watercress sandwiches that are consumed in the play, it's always a refreshing treat.
28.Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets
Tensions run high in this play about three generations of a Bronx Jewish family and each one's pursuit of the American Dream. Can one achieve it while also remaining true to one's heritage? It's a question that immigrants have had to ponder in any decade, and as evidenced by the NAATCO revival in 2015 this kitchen-sink drama poignantly transcends race and religion.
29.The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
This 18th-century confection skewers the mores and mouths of London's elite as they backstab one another with gossip. It's best served up in an era in which society is itself preying on dirt and innuendo, and for better or worse we're never quite far away from that. Thus, it's a piece that has remained timely and delightful through the centuries.
30.Stuff Happens by David Hare
Hare borrowed a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld and adopted a Shakespearean flair for both fact and fiction for this play about the events that led up to the Iraq War. Parts of the play are taken verbatim speeches, press conferences and meeting transcripts. Other portions are imagined versions of meetings that took place between elected and other government officials. The result was one of the most impressive political dramas to emerge in recent memory.
31.Life With Father by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse
Of all the plays on this list, this might be the "sturdiest" and probably the most old-fashioned. Yet this lithesome comedy about a woman's fears that her husband was never baptized has a unique place in theater annals. Until Fiddler on the Roof came along, Life was the longest-running show in Broadway history, and as late as 1987 it was among the top five long runs. Until a theater is willing to revive it, take a look at the delightful 1947 movie version.
32.Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
The Bard of Avon is the only writer to get two slots on this list. Twelfth Night has made it because it represents, to me, all of the best elements of Shakespeare's romances: mistaken identities, low comedy among the servants, and some of his most gorgeous poetry. The cross-dressing of one character also gives the play, for modern audiences, a homoerotic vibe, and this aspect, combined with a certain darkness in the end, makes the play feel unquestionably contemporary.
33.Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill
The lives of the British elite in Victorian-era India and among a group of modern-day Londoners have striking similarities in this gender-bending play. Churchill brings both humor and compassion to her characters and their worlds, and in the process creates a play that can concurrently move theatergoers emotionally and provoke thought. Originally seen in 1979, the play established a new benchmark for theatrical conversations about race and gender politics.
34.Volpone by Ben Jonson
An already wealthy man sets out to increase his fortune by duping his friends into thinking he's at death's door. Avaricious as he is, they all shower him with presents with the expectation that they'll receive his money when he dies. Garrulously sexual and wildly satiric (the characters' Italianate names are references to animals ranging from fox to crow to vulture), this comedy has lasted simply because we have yet to live in an era in which greed has gone out of style.
35.Ruined by Lynn Nottage
Inspired by another play on the list (Brecht's Mother Courage), this play expands on the idea of a woman earning her wages off the war and places it squarely in the 20th century and in particular the middle of the civil war–torn Congolese republic. Nottage's prize-winning play depicts with warmth and reality the desperate plight that women faced during the war, and rather than condemning the central character's actions, the play boldly allows audiences to see that in desperate times unbearable and unthinkable choices must be made.
36.Our Town by Thornton Wilder
So homespun. So traditional. It's taught to teenagers around the country. Yet this 1938 work was a game-changer. Wilder did away with sets, brought a "stage manager" in front of the audience to help move them through the New England town of Grover's Corners, and in the process created a transcendent play about human existence, from cradle to, quite literally, grave. It's a work that has inspired generations of writers and moved theatergoers around the world.
37.The Vortex by Noël Coward
Yes, everyone thinks about the frothy farcesPrivate Lives and Blithe Spirit when Sir Noël Coward's name comes up, but here's the one that made his reputation. It's a potboiler of sorts that exposes the extravagance of British youth during the height of the Jazz Age and the privileged Edwardian culture that gave rise to them and their behavior. Drug abuse and a hefty dose of Oedipal love spice up the drama, and all the while Coward's dry wit sparkles.
38.She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
This 18th-century comedy makes the list because of its enduring popularity (we don't see many plays from the era over and over) and because it is a clever amalgam of a host of theatrical comedic genres, encompassing romance, satire, and farce. It's these different aspects that have allowed the piece to endure through the centuries, each speaking with a clear voice to new generations.
39.Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht
This saga about a woman who makes her living from the soldiers fighting on both sides of the Thirty Years War has proven remarkably versatile since its premiere in 1939. Brecht's depiction of how Courage's business tears her three adult children from her has been reset in periods and on continents far away from its original location of Europe, thanks to the story's universal themes about war profiteers and the human cost of warfare.
40.John by Annie Baker
A couple takes refuge in a small bed and breakfast after spending holidays with the woman's family. Tensions run high between them, and while the charming tchotchke-filled inn might seem to be the place where frayed nerves could be soothed, it proves to be anything but. Baker's simultaneously warmhearted and spooky play proves to be a heartbreaker, investigating the infinitesimal moments that combine to propel all of our lives and relationships.
41.Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
In this 2010 dramedy Norris takes audiences into the Chicago house that is the focus of the Younger family's dreams and aspirations in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, both in the days preceding that family's potential move there and then, five decades later. In the process he provides shrewd insights into the delicate threads that tie a community together and the stronger forces of bigotry and self-interest that can brutally snap them. This Pulitzer Prize winner remarkably expands upon a landmark drama with crackling humor and insight.
42.Master Harold…and the boys by Athol Fugard
The Signature Theatre Company's recent revival of this 1982 play set in 1950s South Africa demonstrated that it still has the power to move audiences. Originally banned in Fugard's homeland, the play—about a white teenager and the two African men who work for his parents as servants—systematically depicts and denounces the psychological and governmental prejudices and divides that Apartheid visited upon generations.
43.The Women by Claire Booth Luce
The lives and loves of Upper East Side society doyennes get put under the microscope in this 1936 play. Luce's willingness to depict the women's bitchiness and the characters' dependence on the men in their lives has made some think of it as being antithetical to the feminist movement. Ultimately, though, the piece, which has an all-female cast, does reveal the women's individual and collective strengths, striking, if not a feminist blow, a pro-female stance.
44.The Humans by Stephen Karam
In this acclaimed drama a family's seemingly innocuous Thanksgiving gathering on the Lower East Side beats in tune with the tense pulse of the country as fears about financial security, aging, relationships, and more bubble to the service. A quiet rumination in the style of Chekhov or Thornton Wilder, the play quickly moved from its berth Off Broadway to one on Broadway, where it served as an eerie reflection of a nation.
45.M Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction, as was demonstrated by the real-life story of a French diplomat who maintained a sexual relationship with a male Peking opera singer for years, all the while remaining oblivious to the performer's gender. Hwang astutely saw the story's theatrical possibilities and created a piece that thrillingly explores racial and sexual stereotypes. It was a groundbreaker in 1988 and, among other honors, was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
46.Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés
Fornés impact on playwriting cannot be underestimated, not one but two generations of Latino and Latina playwrights studied with the dramatist. Although her 14th play, Fefu and Her Friends was Fornés breakthrough work, simultaneously naturalistic and presentational as it depicts a gathering of women in various locations over the course of a day. Because of its demands on theatermakers, we don't see it often, but when Fefu is produced it’s a reminder that interactive and environmental theater started well before Sleep No More.
47.Short Eyes by Miguel Pinero
From one of the co-founders of the Nuyorican Poets Café, Short Eyes plunges its audiences into gritty realities of life behind bars. Pinero's own incarceration at Sing Sing inspired many pieces of the drama that eventually hit Broadway in 1974 (courtesy of Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival), where it picked up a bevy of award nominations, becoming the first play by a Latino writer to be nominated for a Tony Award as best play.
48.Everyman by Unknown
Although this medieval morality play rarely takes to the stage anymore, its position of importance in theatrical history cannot be underestimated. At a time when plays were pageants that reenacted stories from the bible, this one incorporated a fictional narrative to serve up roughly the same lessons (or morals). Is it Marlowe or Shakespeare? No. But it did pave the way for these poet-dramatists and many others.
49.Dutchman by LeRoi Jones
In 1964 this play about a white woman and an African-American man's encounter on the New York City subway unflinchingly explored race relations not just in Manhattan but also across the country. Both naturalistic and allegorical, the play continues to pulse with urgency, as was evidenced in a 2007 revival at the Cherry Lane Theatre that starred Dulé Hill.
50.The Persians by Aeschylus
This tragedy about a Persian king's disastrous war against the Greeks is the oldest play that we know in Western drama. Theatrical day one, so to speak. Beyond the play being the starting point for drama as we know it, the piece can also have exceptional timeliness in today's world. Aeschylus' depiction of a son attempting to wage a war against an enemy who defeated his father certainly had resonance during the second Bush presidency.
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