Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 1 | Playbill

News Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 1
The American Film Institute recently published a list of the 100 greatest American films "of all time," though the film industry is scarcely more than a century old.

The American Film Institute recently published a list of the 100 greatest American films "of all time," though the film industry is scarcely more than a century old.

Here is your chance to pick what you believe to be the greatest stage plays of the 20th century (musicals included). Submissions can be from any country, in any language. The original production must have occured during the 20th century. For ease of processing, please pick what you believe to be the FIVE best plays of the 20th century, with a brief description why. We'll be unable to post more than five choices per person, so make them good. Simple lists of titles won't be posted. You must briefly explain your choices. These will become a permanent part of the Playbill On-Line archive.

Please post responses to Managing Editor Robert Viagas.

Playbill On-Line thanks all who took the time to write. Here are the results so far:

From Rosenthal_S:
Since I'm only allowed five, I'm going to stick to American plays (in no particular order).
Death of a Salesman -- Probably the greatest American play. The two Broadway productions I've seen, with George C. Scott and Dustin Hoffman, are among my most cherished theatrical memories.
A Streetcar Named Desire --A great play that seems impossible to get completely right. I've never seen a theatrical production that got the balance between Stanley and Blanche as right as the 1951 film version. But great plays keep you wanting to come back for more. Tennessee Williams' ambiguity leaves one thinking about the play and its characters far after it is over.
Long Day's Journey Into Night -- The crowning achievement of our first great playwright. The best description I can think of is that it seems to be written in blood. It's scorching and delicately empathetic at the same time.
Who' s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- I saw a great production of this with Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst in the 70's. Edward Albee is finally getting his due as one of the greatest of all American playwrights.
American Buffalo -- This play is the most influential of any relatively recent play that I can think of. I saw a production of this with Al Pacino that had all of the humor that the movie, unfortunately, missed. American Buffalo created an audience for a lot of the gritty work that people like Quentin Tarantino did later.

From Cronus:
I guess it's hard to decide out of so many plays that have been around. But I will say for the musicals the top 5 are:
5.-Rent: It gave a new way to look at the world. Opened up people's minds with great music and a great cast.
4.-Cats: Nw and Forever. Who would have thought that a play based on some poems about cats would have made it so great? Well, it's the music, the great dancing, the set and the entire feel of the show.
3.-West Side Story: A beautiful love story with a touching score, and one of the most entertaining opening numbers ever. . .
2.-The Lion King: What you see here, has always been impossible until Julie Taymor and the rest of the creators of this ground breaking theatrical experience.
1.-Les Miserables: The best score to hit broadway, a moving, epic story and the best ensemble cast of all times. it has to be number one.

From SchmoNo2:
1.: Angels in America by Tony Kushner. A truly amazing, epic view of a certain place and time with many indelible characters, great humor, touching pathos and a good measure of magic thrown in for good measure.
2: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Simply put, attention must be paid.
3.: A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. More than mere mind games like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" it's a near perfect depiction of a specific dysfunctional family as well as a vivid examination of the fears we can't explain.
4.: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Perhaps the one great 20th-century play that will be able to be constantly reinvented like Shakespeare's works while still staying true to its essence. Stanley and Blanche will live forever.
5.: You Can't Take It With You by Kaufman and Hart. A comic masterpiece that still soars even today with a seemingly bottomless cast of eccentric characters.

From Thalia:
1. Long Days Journey into Night--O'Neill's intense, probing, disturbing fictional take on his own family is ultimately a cross between the American Dream and the American Nightmare. It has been the source of great productions and GREAT performances ever since its premiere.
2. Death of a Salesman--Arthur Miller's play of American archetypes explores the American dream gone sour. Willy Loman is the 20th Century American Everyman, and his tragedy is our tragedy. Attention must be paid.
3. A Streetcar Named Desire--Blanche Dubois, Stanley Kolwalski, Stella, Mitch act out their animal instincts in Williams' searing exploration of delusion defeated by brute reality.
4. My Fair Lady--The ultimate musical takes George Bernard Shaw's very English fable and makes it even more fabulous with PERFECT music by Lerner and Loewe. Everything about this musical--the characters, the music, the basic staging, the pacing, its lightness of being--makes it a classic.
5. Angels in America--The drama for the end of the century, com- bining reality and fantasy and message in a woozy, apocalyptic vision relieved by flashes of brilliant, usually black, humor. With it, Kushner joins the play writing gods.

From Miles Lott:
In keeping with the spirit of AFI's 100 list, which limited itself to American movies, I found my choices for the five greatest plays of the century all to be American.
Long Day's Journey Into Night - Eugene O'Neill, the first master American dramatist, daring to expose family dysfunction and denial(from his own background), when it wasn't a particularly wide-spread practice. Tremendous and haunting.
Our Town - Thornton Wilder's look at a more idyllic America, but also not shying away from darkness. For its time, this had some startling experimentation for the commercial theater. Now it could be considered dated, even corny, by some. But it still has the power to move an audience.
A Streetcar Named Desire - Tennessee Williams at his best (though I do also love Glass Menagerie, as well as some of his other plays) writing of the conflict and the attraction and the repression between the "civilized" and the wild on the collision course of Blanche and Stanley.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - It may have lost a lot of shock value over the years, but Edward Albee's scalding look at a sadomasochistic, game-playing marriage, is still entertaining and emotionally devastating.
Fences - Actually, this choice could be of any one of August Wilson's astonishing plays, examining the African American experience of this century with lyricism, power, and humor straight out of blues music. And within his very specific, detailed environments, there are universal themes that make these plays for the ages. Because of the father-son issues at its core which left me stunned, I choose this one, but the others, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars, are equally remarkable. Truly they are a body of work.
Of course, there are more (Arthur Miller? Sam Shepard?). But I'll leave it at five. And there were a couple musicals attempting to break in. I'm satisfied with these, though, and will be anxious to see the choices of others.

From John Esche (
The five best plays of the 20th Century? What a pity you felt you had to impose a limit that excludes such essential (and still lively) classics as any of the works of Shakespeare, Wilde, Moliere, Racine, Gilbert & Sullivan or the Greek classics! So limited, however, I'd have to nominate:
ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD - We have to have a representative of one of America or Britain's greatest dramatist's and I was all set to say LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, the final great play from O'Neill (narrowly edging out Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Williams' STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE), when I realized that I wasn't considering Great Britain and Tom Stoppard literally includes the great Czech playwrights too. His dazzling ARCADIA (what can one say about a masterful 3 hour play about entropy!?) is thought of more as a drama and his translation of Schnitzler's UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY is also wonderful, but the first play that brought him to world prominence dealt with issues every bit as sweeping and penetrating as any of the other mentioned plays - and had all that wonderful word play as well! It may be technically a comedy, but it takes my spot for drama.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION - And what of murder mystery/thrillers; a genre whose intricate plotting never seems to get the respect its "weightier" cousins always do? They have been too seldom in evidence recently, but when a great one like SLEUTH or DEATH TRAP comes along they tingle our minds and guts and offer satisfactions every bit as real as the great "high" dramas. WITNESS... was the best work from the MISTRESS of the genre, Agatha Christie. It *must* be on any top 100 list.
TORCH SONG TRILOGY - OK, that brings us to comedy, and my knee jerks to such perfectly crafted boulevard pieces as the warmly wonderful works of Jean Kerr (I would do anything to write as well as that lady does - and why isn't she doing it MORE!?), MARY, MARY or FINISHING TOUCHES; but at the same time my mind tells me it would be a sin to leave out one of the works of G.B.Shaw who's DON JUAN IN HELL scene from his MAN AND SUPERMAN should be included in some future compilation of absolutely sacred texts, or one of the best of Neil Simon's comedies which not only managed to tickle our funnybones, but captured the society they were written for better than any works since those of Moliere. In 200 years they will be performing Simon and studying him to see what life was like in the latter half of the 20th century. Still, as tempting as his work is, how would one choose - AND has any one of them altered the way that society looked at itself as profoundly as the breakthrough work of Harvey Fierstein? Beautifully crafted, and challengingly varied in style (an aspect lost in the movie), TORCH SONG... touches while it teaches, and still makes us laugh. A must have on a top 100 list.
SHE LOVES ME - I had to have at least ONE musical, and what better representative than the single *perfectly* crafted chamber musical in the canon. It took 14 years after it's wonderful original production to become a fixture in the national repertoire, but if PACIFIC OVERTURES or FOLLIES or KISS ME KATE or WEST SIDE STORY or THE KING AND I or CAROUSEL may be among my *favorite* musicals (along with lesser known goodies like the hit CARNIVAL - long overdue for a major revival - SOMETHING'S AFOOT or ROMANCE/ROMANCE), this Bock & Harnick gem is the BEST. It is warm, melodic and simply understands the human condition.
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM - I did say *at least* one musical, but this Sondheim masterwork is included not because it is a musical (although how could any "best" list not have at least one Sondheim) but because it is one of the two *funniest* plays ever done in English (thank you Larry Gelbart), right after NOISES OFF! This list HAD to have one unbeatable source of laughter, AND it got around your 20th Century limit to honor the classics (thank you Plautus) who started it all!

From MrHyde825:
CABARET is the best musical of the 20th century because it deals with a strong issue that not many shows deal with. It's a show that, as long as you've seen it, you will have an opinion and can get anyone talking about the show just by mentioning it. It's revival makes people realize how disturbing life was back then and how unless your against it, your part of it. Very few shows do that. It is one of the most emotional shows as well. It runs your emotions on a roller coaster the whole time(It couldn't Please Me More-a very happy song; to Tomorrow Belongs to Me-the Nazi anthem) These are just a few of the reasons I think CABARET is the best musical of the 20th century!

From joeb:
This of course is a virtually impossible assignment, but here it goes (in no particular order):
THE REAL THING by Tom Stoppard I have never witnessed a play that spoke so honestly, movingly and deeply about love. An incredible achievement from a rather austere playwright, and one who usually distances an audience, but with this play, reaches it and touches it in profound ways.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams - In the right hands this play is the most moving drama I have ever witnessed. Even in self indulgent hands, there are scenes that always break the heart, i.e. The Gentleman Caller and Laura and Tom's "Blow out the candles" speech at the conclusion. Writing that is true poetry and a play that is theatrical magic.
COMPANY by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth - No musical was as revelatory as this early 70's masterpiece. It completely revolutionized the musical theater scene at the time , and although there have been endless imitators, none has ever approached it in terms of music and lyrics. Incredible material. It was the first to succeed brilliantly at exploring the "concept musical." Yes, it still works today (as the recent Boston production starring Davis Gainesso vividly reminded us).
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT by Eugene O'Neill -- This one really put the dysfunctional family on the theatrical map but with such power and poetry that nothing has been able to equal it since. Again its production is paramount to appreciating truly its overwhelming heartbreak and beauty, but even on the page the play has an unbearable resonance.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF by Edward Albee Has any playwright's Broadway debut produced a drama as ferocious or compelling? His characters are some of the nastiest ever seen on stage, and even though a person would have to be crazy to want to spend ten minutes with them at a dinner party, we grow to care about them a great deal (if not like them). Dialogue that is blistering and hilarious at the same time and dramatic tension that transfixes and puzzles. This is one that will be analyzed into the Twenty Second Century.
If I may, a special salute to Neil Simon for being America's most prolific playwright and being responsible for plays that are always hilarious and yet break the heart because they speak to the human soul (i.e. LOST IN YONKERS, BROADWAY BOUND, BILOXI BLUES and CHAPTER TWO). And also to England's David Hare who rarely writes a play that is anything less than spellbinding, engrossing, intelligent and eloquent.

From SabFair379:
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK This was one of the first plays that addressed the horrors of the holocaust. It's touched audiences with it's honest account of the war for European Jews and audiences today are still touched by the bravery of the Frank family.
WEST SIDE STORY This modern version of Romeo and Juliet proved the timelessness of Shakespeare's tale. It explained the affects of racism to audiences, particularly to Hispanics. West Side Story also changed musicals forever. Up until WSS most musicals were not dramas or tragedies. It proved that musical theater can be dramatic, and successful.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA This musical was a spectacle not only for the hears, mind, and heart, but for the eyes as well. Phantom left the audience in awe with its falling chandelier, and horrified them with makeup, among other technical achievements. Few musicals,or plays have appealed to all senses the way Phantom did.
LES MISERABLES Even though Phantom was a technical masterpiece, Les Mis was a masterpiece of emotion. It brought a classic novel to life, making it enjoyable for everyone. It has become one of the most loved musicals because the music, story, and actors all managed to reach the audience's deepest emotions.
RENT Rent finally brought the musical into the nineties. Jonathan Larson said it depressed him that modern musicals still sounded the same as they did 50 years ago. He brought the emotions of the traditional musical to life through modern music, and a modernized story. Its uniqueness alone makes it a classic.

From DavidG:
5. Les Parents Terrible- Too racy for its time, a wonderfully constructed tale of lies, and double crosses that explodes in a chilling and ultimately pitiful conclusion.
4. A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee- Nowadays when nothing is secret or sacred, Albee's play about repression and fear forces us to think about a world we can no longer control or hide from.
3. Angels in American Parts I & II by Tony Kushner- Ambitious in its subject, and epic in scope, Kushner weaved together reality and fantasy in a play so theatrical that one must see it, to fully appreciate it.
2. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller- Part memory play, part American tragedy, this play explored a time when America began to lose its innocence.
1. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams- Nobody wrote characters like Williams. Glass Menagerie is a perfect example of the beauty of the spoken word.

From Joanna Spencer:
It's hard to think of five, but three are definite, for my money:
Death of A Salesman. Simply the quintessential American tragedy. The common man with the American Dream is elevated to tragic stature, backed by a strong supporting storyline and beautiful production elements. Classic, enduring, and gutwrenching as all hell.
Angels in America. Both parts. A modern American epic. A groundbreaking work in its scope, subject matter, and place in modern drama. The Broadway and national touring productions were both different but both great, giving testament to the fact that the script is strong enough for multiple interpretations, as many regional theaters are now benefitting from.
West Side Story. You simply can't beat the story or the music. And the dance, when done right, hopefully faithful to the original style, is breathtaking and exciting like no other show. While Shakespeare has been updated and adapted countless times, this take on "Romeo and Juliet," with one of the best scores hands down, is a perfect marriage of substance and style.

From ReiNothing:
WAITING FOR GODOT - This show is an absolute classic. Enough said.
NOISES OFF - This is one of the funniest plays I've ever seen.
PYGMALION - Shaw's look at social classes being based on speech habits is great. This is just a great story.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE - The script to this play is great. The complexity of characters and their development simply add to this play's greatness.

From Michael T. Folie:
1. Waiting for Godot Reason: There are only three perfect plays and the other two (Oedipus Rex and The Importance of Being Ernest) are not 20th Century plays.
2. Our Town. Reason: I just think it's the best American play ever written. It's often presented as if it were this warm hearted Norman Rockwell-ish hymn to small-town American life, but it's really a very cold play that casts an austere and God-like eye on the universe. Still, it acknowledges the glow of human warmth and love in the void.
3. Mother Courage and Her Children. Reason: Like my two previous picks, I guess I like this play so much because it mixes a cold and cynical view of the world with a genuine love of life and a belief in something bigger than our own wants, particularly the power of human love and our capacity for sacrifice.
4. You Can't Take it With You. Reason: A real hymn to American life and character. It shows how we Americans can be both so silly and so formidable at the same time.
5. Man and Superman. Reason: A big, mad mess of a brilliant play. It honked the horn for the 20th Century and got it off to a rousing start. It also says something smart and true about men and women.
Thanks for this opportunity.

From Michael Shannon Burke, Clifton Park, NY:
I feel the five greatest (non-musical) plays of the century (thus far; we can hold out hope for a few gems remaining) are, in no particular order:
1) "Angels in America" (both parts, taken together) by Tony Kushner. Incredible drama, throwing ideas and emotions out at the audience (and reader) at the speed of light. Also, it radically changed, for me at least, the vision of what theatre can be.
2) "A Delicate Balance" by Edward Albee. The best of Albee's work, it vividly and entertainingly shows a dysfunctionally functioning family to be the sham that it is.
3) "Lost in Yonkers" by Neil Simon. Simon's most poignantly serious work, it details how a loveless vacuum in place of a family destroys its members.
4) "Master Class" by Terrence McNally. Perhaps the ultimate star vehicle, it allows gifted actors and designers a forum in which to display their finest work.
5) "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" by Moises Kaufman. This was the toughest call, but its emotional and historical journey, alternatingly funny and sad and explosive and surprising, is so original in form and construction, and so well put together in the Off-Broadway production, that I feel that it merits inclusion.
I selected only from plays which I have seen, knowing from experience that plays often read much differently than they are performed. This might explain why the list seems more modern than others might. I haven't seen very much of Thornton Wilder's or Tennessee Williams' or Eugene O'Neill's work. Read them, but haven't seen them...
Lastly, do a survey for musicals!!!!! If anyone suggests "The Music Man" I'll give you a JILLION dollars! Thanks, PBOL.

From Drew (
THE LIFE: Because of it's braveness and boldness and gut and the outcome being glory.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES: Letting everyone know that we all "Are What we Are"
RAGTIME: Its brilliance.
ART: Because it's so humanly possible.
INTO THE WOODS: For taking us in, and out of the problems, the happiness, and the love which we all experience in the woods...and of course, giving us the message that we're "Not Alone".

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