Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Greatest American Play

This August, our blog has prominently featured August: Osage County. With all of the buzz surrounding this show and critics comparing it to Eugen O'Neill and calling it the "greatest American play in a generation," we thought we would spark a discussion on the question what is the greatest American Play?

Before we start, we admit this list is not definitive. There are plenty of plays and playwrigths that are left out. This list intentionally left out musicals. It is meant more as the starting point for a greater discussion. If you disagree, use the comment section to further the discussion. If you think a play has been left out, write your own entry and post it as a comment. Also, make sure that you vote for what you think is the greatest play America has produced.

1. Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill - (PP & Tony) the masterwork of America's finest playwright. There is no way to not rank this play within the top three on this list. Considering the long life of this piece and the critical acclaim it won (Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize) it is hard to knock of this truly remarkable play.

2. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee - this play paved the way for all subsequent American drama. I don't think the current generation of theatre goers could imagine a world without this play. When it first came out, it was denied the Pulitzer Prize because of the language and sexual content of the piece and no Pulitzer was awarded that year. The play remains much beloved with a recent Broadway revival and Tony wins in 2005.

3. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller - Miller is undoubtedly one of America's top playwrights. Which one of his plays is the best could be debated up and down and no consensual answer would be reached. I have chosen this one because of its wider appeal. We're not left with the baggage of McCarthy-ism like we would had we chosen The Crucible. This play is still relevant today as Americans find themselves downsized because of competition with cheap labor abroad or even robots. This is disillusionment with the American Dream and will continue to echo in us for generations.

4. A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard - This is a wonderful play. It inhabits very much the strange world of Shepard's individualist western states. Family ties, however, are very much apparent. No matter what problems they are facing, how bitter they are, or how crazy, blood bonds reach deep. Both funny and disturbing, this play forces us to be introspective about the things in our lives that seem normal.

5. How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel - I am excited to include this Pulitzer Prize winning drama for several reasons. First, it is new being first produced within the last 15 years. It deals with a subject that is usually not talked about head on. Also, it is by a woman playwright (and a very influential one at that). How I Learned to Drive definately caused a stir when it came out and continues to do so even now.

6. Our Town by Thoron Wilder - while most of us have seen a painful high school production of this classic that we would rather forget, most of us have seen a production of this play. It helped shaped many of our first experiences with the theatre. And how much more American could you get than a play about small-town America and all of the profundity that inherently lies there in.

7. Golden Boy by Clifford Odets - Odets is the American Chekhov; his simply stated dramas are poetic since they identify with the common man. His work with the Group Theatre helped shape the American theatre itself. In this play the son of an immigrant gives up the beauty of music and art to aggressively make his fortune as fame as a boxer. Odets shows us the darker side of the American dream.

8. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams - A Tennessee Williams play certainly needs to be on this list, but why not his Pulitzer Prize winning plays Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Steetcar Named Desire. The Glass Menagerie is such a personal story that cannot be rivaled by William's other plays. Its plot focuses around the hopes and dreams of a family to transcend their disabilities and create a better life. What is more quintessentially American than the hopes of making something out of your dreams?

9. The Heidi Chornicles by Wendy Wasserstein - This play explores some very important movements in America the counter cultural revolution in the 1960's and feminism. This play is an epic journey through a time when America was undergoing a lot of change. While the heroine's path may not be the same as ours, it is important to walk along with her through this story.

10. Angels in America by Tony Kushner - Some will find it strange that this play is so far down on the list. This play was enormously influential when it first came out. It was so radically different that it easily won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Awards. However, the door was opened by Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 about a decade before. Our point-of-view on so many of the issues that Kusher deals with have changed so much, that Angels is becomming a little bit of a historical piece.

Obvious runners up:
Picnic by William Inge
Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet - (PP)
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley - (PP & Tony)
Fences by August Wilson - (PP)
Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg

Don't forget to vote for your favorite and nominate others.

Happy Birthday: Goethe (1794-1832) & Robertson Davies (1913-1995)


  1. I could not choose "the" greatest. To choose one would diminish the greatness of others. Yet, I am satisfied to be part of the drama, part of the word craft, and part of the American story within which these pieces of great literature arose. Also, the very listing of such dramas testifies to the greatness of American literature.

  2. I voted for OUR TOWN primarily because of the plays listed it seems the most lasting and profound insight into the human experience for the widest possible audience. The other plays are equally well crafted and meaningful but less pervasive in scope. The play I find equally profound and lasting for all earthlings is JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE by August Wilson. The fact that not one of his plays or Athol Fugard or Lillian Hellman made the list is disheartening.

  3. Remember that Athol Fugard is a South African playwright.

    And yes, Lillian Hellman is a great American playwright and an oversight. Thank you for adding her to this discussion as she rightly deserves.