Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 9

News   Playbill Poll: The Greatest Plays of the 20th Century -- Part 9
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. Owing the overwhelming response, we have created this ninth file of replies.

From Lincoln Konkle, professor in the English Department of The College of New Jersey (
OUR TOWN (1938) by Thornton Wilder. This is one of the most produced plays not just in the U.S. but around the world. Its genius is in how it simultaneously resonates at the specific level of the American small town at the beginning of the century and the universal level of the human condition throughout all eras, places, cultures. Seeing a play with no set, just the bare stage, and actors pantomiming the characters' daily routines, and having a narrator/commentator repeatedly interrupt the action, acknowledging that the play is artifice may be old hat now, but when Wilder's play debuted this just wasn't being done on the American stage. OUR TOWN is a timeless affirmation of life at its most fundamental level of being born, going to school, getting married and having children, and, finally, of dying.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1945) by Tennessee Williams. Like Wilder, Williams was able to make both the microcosmic and universal points of reference. More specifically, Williams attempted to write a modern tragedy not so much like Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman by following the Aristotelian formula of a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, but instead by motivating on the realistic level eloquent speeches expressing a tragic vision of life. One Williams scholar claimed, correctly I think, that Williams's plays contained the greatest poetry since Shakespeare, and when one listens to gifted actors saying the lines of GLASS MENAGERIE or reads the text closely, one must agree that the imagery and metaphors of the characters' "arias" are as lush and moving as the bard's.
WAITING FOR GODOT (1953) by Samuel Beckett. While the recent NY production of Ionesco's The Chairs (1952) showed us that GODOT did not spring fully formed out of Beckett's head with no precedent, it is undeniably the case that Beckett's play, which is regarded as the quintessential example of the Theatre of the Absurd, is the more influential work for the theatre, and perhaps the purer expression of the meaninglessness of existence that so many postwar writers and artists and intellectuals were manifesting. Is WAITING FOR GODOT the last hurrah of modernism or the avant garde of the postmodern? Regardless of the answer, Beckett's play is pivotal in the development of theatre and drama in the second half of the twentieth century.
EQUUS (1973) by Peter Shaffer. I teach college courses in modern drama and western drama from the classical to the contemporary periods, and for my money EQUUS is the modern play that comes closest to achieving the sublimity and the profundity of the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare's. Seeing EQUUS for the first time was one of the great experiences of my life. I was emotionally spent and deeply moved not as much by Alan Strang's tragedy as by Dr. Dysart's. Every time I read the play, the final speech of Dysart's in which he says, "There is now in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out," never fails to move me deeply at the terrible doom he lives. Great stuff.
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1962) by Edward Albee. The theatre hadn't seen dialogue this articulate since Oscar Wilde and a portrait of marriage as a battlefield this bloody since August Strindberg. In addition to being a razor sharp satire on American materialism and conformity, Albee's play serves as an example of just how dramatic a drama can be if the principal characters are given the proper motivation. What incredible parts for actors George and Martha are, and what an epic night of theatre is provided when the play is done well. The overseers of the Pulitzer Prize awards ought to retroactively award WOOLF the drama Pulitzer for that year, thereby correcting the error the committee (half of it, actually) made when they refused to award the prize to Albee because the play was "too dirty"! No award was given that year because the other half of the committee, which wanted to give it to WOOLF and included none other than the venerable John Gassner, resigned in protest of their colleagues' philistinism. WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? is a great play that has become part of our shared American culture, language, and points of reference. When comedians, cartoonists, scriptwriters, etc. do a takeoff of a title or author (e.g., "Who's afraid of Kenneth Starr?") they are taking off Albee's takeoff on the nursery rhyme and the famous British modernist novelist. Unlike so much of pop culture, Albee's play deserves its eternal place in the American repertoire

From Christopher Okiishi:
Thank you for this opportunity to inflict my opinions on others. I have read with great interest the on-going "Top Plays of the 20th Century" and felt I should probably buckle down and put in my two cents. Betraying my age, most come from the recent past, and each from a master of the art:
1) Our Town. As an evocation of everyday life, as well as a meditation on the universality of human existence, nothing beats Thornton Wilder's masterpiece. In the same way he blends non traditional staging with simple, wide-open characters, he mixes challenging life-observing ideas with a simple, no-frills story. The result rarely fails to be heartbreaking, whether in a full Broadway production, or in the smallest of community theaters--even when referenced in other work, as done last season to great effect on TV's "My So-Called Life." In all cases, the play's the thing--the writing will speak to the mind and the heart.
2) Sweeney Todd. It's a hard call deciding which of Sondheim's work deserves most praise, but for my money (or at least my time) Sweeney narrowly edges out "Company," "West Side," "Woods," and "Sunday." His most coherent story, both in pacing and tone, combined with a full maturity of lyric and musical style--and a definitive staging by Harold Prince, all create a work of undeniable brilliance. Of course, the original cast shines, headed by the inimitable, yet oft-imitated, Angela Lansbury, but the work stands on its own. No other piece of theater shows so well how emotion can drive a person beyond the mark, and eventually into tragedy--how revenge can be as insatiable as any other passion.
3) Arcadia. Only a playwright as brilliant as Stoppard could make the world of academia so entertaining and involving. Like Terrence McNally, he is skillful at letting the unexpected tragedy come as freely as the unexpected comedy, much like it does in life. Furthermore, I left this play having learned quite a great deal about historical inquiry, about mathematical theory, about human emotion--and I had a hysterical time in the process. What more could one ask in a single evening?
4) Master Class. Choosing a McNally play is akin to sorting through Sondheim. It's no wonder he has a four-year unbroken run of Tony wins. His book for "Ragtime" is a model of adaptation. "The Lisbon Traviata" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" are miracles of detail and tone. And "Love! Valour! Compassion!" perpetually adorns my nightstand, read and re-read again like visiting old friends. But "Master Class" is the one for the ages. Taking on the divina herself, and yet speaking to all about the perils of obsession and fame, McNally outdoes himself. Like "Our Town," the construction is both simple and unusual. Like "Lisbon," the catty opera references will delight a theater sub-set. But I dare to suggest that you neither need to love opera, nor even know who Maria Callas is to enjoy the evening and emerge enlightened.
5) The Crucible. An odd choice as a sentimental favorite, but I've always had a warm spot in my heart for this dark, gut wrenching play. Like film's "Martin Guerre" or even the over-valued "Les Miz," the story of people willing to sacrifice their lives to have lived well is remarkably uplifting, while still chilling to the bone. Yes, "Salesman" is everybody's favorite, but it didn't inspire me to live a better life, to make each relationship count the way that "Crucible" does.
And lastly, an honorable un-mention: I hate to be a nasty spoil-sport, but "Phantom of the Opera" is NOT one of the great works of theater. Yes, the music is lovely--even I couldn't get "All I Ask of You" or "Music of the Night" out of my head for months. But like "Cats" and to some extent "Superstar," this is a concert, not a show. Even admirers are hard pressed to explain the exact plot details (Why does Christine so vehemently refuse to be the bait for the Phantom, then in the next scene do just that??), and, while lovely, what do the songs really mean? Who feels what for whom and why? And, without the benefit of program and liner notes, would anyone really know who's allegedly telling the story anyway? Lovely set, nice singing, but theatrical brilliance? I think not.
Thanks for this opportunity to pontificate for a while. Great idea! Keep up the good work.

From RaBit9:
Phantom of the opera: -- No other show has ever merged the sounds of contemporary music and classic broadway as Webber's Phantom of the opera. The sound is haunting and beautiful. a great match

From The Barrons:
You requested that we only list five plays, making the choice quite difficult. Spending most of my school years in the band/chorus clique, I was subject mostly to musicals, so don't be surprised that the top three are just that: musicals.
1) The Phantom of the Opera-- Haunting, brilliant, the adjectives go on and on. The power of this musical lies in the fact that in has a wide variety of strengths: an amazing score with many memorable songs ("All I Ask of You", "Wishing you were Somehow Here Again", "Music of the Night", etc.); dazzling special effects; a haunting, mysterious plot revolving around the interaction between the very real, concrete characters and the elusive and mysterious phantom... There is no way to describe all of the brilliance surrounding The Phantom of the Opera.
2) Les Miserables-- The plot of "Les Mis" sends a good message to the audience that even the most hardened criminal can repent and change his ways. It also shows how one must have flexible principals, unlike Javert's unbending principal that lead to his pursuing of Valjean for many years, and ultimately, his demise. The characters are memorable and are lovable (even the Thenardiers, who you love to hate.)
3) Cabaret-- This musical is a microcosm of realistic characters seemingly "narrated" by an enigmatic and almost mystical Emcee. Many of the songs reveal the philosophy of the character singing it, including "Cabaret", "So What?" and "Meeskite". It also shows the loves of it's characters, but, by the end of the show, each of these seemingly perfect loves are torn apart. This modern tragedy shows how change and risk taking may sometimes be good, but by fearing change or confrontation, one misses out on a lifetime of happiness.
4) The Crucible-- This may not be Arthur Miller's masterpiece, but it is his own personal testament. By relating the wave of McCarthyism that was rapidly and hysterically spreading throughout the country to the Salem witch trials, he renounced the widespread and unfounded fear of communist spies.
5) Pygmalion-- The main idea of pygmalion can be described by a picture on the cover to a My Fair Lady soundtrack (My Fair Lady being the musical adaptation of the story). It depicts Three figures: God, a gentleman in a top hat, and a flower girl. God is sitting in the clouds above the gentleman, who is attached by strings and is being controlled like a marionette. The Gentleman/marionette is controlling the flower girl in the same manner. God controls man but man tries to control other people.
Because I am only limited to five choices, I failed to include many other shows, such as West Side Story, Arsenic and Old Lace, and other great works.

From JonBWhit:
1.) Angels in America (both parts)- truly amazing theatre on an epic scale.
2.) Rent- it defines an era and carries us into the new millennium
3.) Falsettos- its music and message touched the hearts of many and showed that people are only people no matter what choices they make.
4.) Ragtime- while reflecting on the past its message carries us into the future.
5.) Pterodactyls- Nicky Silver's biting dark comedy shows the other side of family values.

From Allen, Gayle:
1st choice: Jekyll & Hyde Reason: The show came me on the edge of my seat
2nd choice: The Phantom of the Opera Reason: The music was fantastic 3rd choice: Chicago (the original production) Reason: It was my first adult show
4th choice: Evita Reason: It was different than all the other shows that I seen during that year and Patti Lupone was fantastic as Evita. There will no one else who be Evita except for her.
5th choice: Fiddler on the Roof Reason: It is one of my all-time favorite behind 1776 but this show can't beat it.

From Oliver, Dave:
Tough call because I not that familiar with things much beyond the 70's; however, here goes (in no particular order):
1. Death of a Salesman - A pure classic in it's the truest form of the word. Excellent writing - excellent MOMENTS. I have seen even a bad cast do a good performance.
2. Fences - Death of a Salesman in another place and time. What can anyone say about this Pulitzer Prize winner? Wilson captures the strength of "classic" American theatre and marries it to the free-flowing language of African-American speech. This play is not the most lyrical of the Wilson plays, but it is by far the most beautiful. Wilson may go down in history as the Shakespeare of our time.
3. Sunday in the Park with George - This is the "perfect" artistic endeavor. It combines all the artistic disciplines - Theatre, Music, Visual Arts. The fact that anyone was able to actual center an entire musical around a single painting is amazing, but to do so without sacrificing the quality of the music or the book is EXCEPTIONAL!! It is a true Tour de Force!
4. West Side Story - I am not really a big fan of this one, but I can appreciate the tremendous quality of work in the show. The choreography is fantastic, the subject matter classical, and the music GROUNDBREAKING. I do not think that it translates well into non-big city life, or even into modern times - but the treatment of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet is perhaps the best (to date).
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof? - I much prefer to go to the theatre to get away from the reality of "real-life"; however, Albee finds a way to take the reality of the lives of all the characters AWE-FULLY engaging. I find myself constantly enthralled by the complex issues these people create for themselves. Whether reading, acting, or watching this play, one must always be "on your toes"!

From Spunky4evr:
This is more difficult than anyone will ever know!
The Best MUSICALS of the past 20th century:
CAROUSEL- Completely ahead of its time. It seems that CAROUSEL lives in the shadow of OKLAHOMA, but CAROUSEL is far superior. Best Song: "What's The Use of Wondrin'"
EVITA- This is the epitome of a "theatrical event." The music, the staging, the performances, and the design all came together to create a unique theatrical experience. Incidently, EVITA is not Lloyd Weber's best show- that honor goes to SUNSET BLVD. However, EVITA changed the way we view musical theater. It paved the way for daring shows like Dreamgirls, Rent, and Side Show. EVITA is truly a landmark in musical theater. (Having seen numerous EVITAs, my personal favorite is, believe it or not, good ol' Madonna!) Best Song: "Goodnight and Thank You"
INTO THE WOODS- This is, by far, Sondheim's best show. For the INTO THE WOODS score, Sondheim finally forgot about being "clever" and wrote from the heart. The result is one of the funniest, sharpest, and most brilliant musicals ever to grace the stage. Best Song: "Last Midnight"
MISS SAIGON- MISS SAIGON has slowly become my favorite show. It wasn't when I first saw it, but as time has passed, this is the one show I cherish more than any other. Best Song: "I Still Believe"
THE LION KING- The Lion King is... perfect. What more can I say? Best Song: "Circle of Life"
Honorable mentions: Beauty and the Beast, The Little Whorehouse in Texas, Blood Brothers, Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Life, Little Shop of Horrors, Side Show.
The Top Five Musical Moments of the past century.
LINZI HATELY & BETTY BUCKLEY singing "And Eve Was Weak" from Carrie. I don't care what anyone says: CARRIE is fantastic.
JUDY KUHN & MARCIA MITZMAN singing "I Know Him So Well" from Chess. I don't care what anyone says: CHESS is fantastic.
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE from "The Lion King"
NANCY HESS almost falling off the ladder during "Funny Honey" (in CHICAGO)

From Swh6677:
Here are my top 5 plays in no particular order:
1. Les Miserables-even after five viewings it still mesmerizes and moves me.
2. Chicago- the music, dancing, and comedy can hardly be beat
3. Cabaret- revival after revival proves how incredible this show is-funny, moving, chilling and erotic
4. Ragtime- the performances and music are unforgettable
5. Jekyll and Hyde- though I know many will laugh, this is an exciting and beautiful show

From Al Badger:
The most important thing lists like this can do is remind us of the incredible dramatic richness of the century -- can any century since the 1600's even compete! Five is an impossibly small number, but what the hell:
THE THREE SISTERS: Best play of the century, right out of the starting block. Maybe the 20th century should officially start in 1910, as Virginia Woolf suggested -- then this would be the best play of the 19th century.
THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH: The hugest world put on stage since "Peer Gynt" -- and done with such _tiny_ raw material -- and such humane laughter. Wilder should be in the first rank of American playwrights.
ANGELS IN AMERICA: Proof that vastness is still possible in the age of David Letterman.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: I'll be going to the new opera based on this in the fall, but I have to wonder -- why make it an opera? It already is one...
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: "Waiting for Godot" is the most influential post-WWII play -- it certainly made Albee possible -- but WOOLF is just so goddam funny. My personal favorite four-people- yelling-at-each-other play ever.

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