Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Notable, quotable American plays

I've been looking over the results of a poll by the Denver Post that came up with the 10 most important American plays. They are:

1.) Death of a Salesman
2.) Angels in America
3.) A Streetcar Named Desire
4.) Long Day's Journey Into Night
5.) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
6.) Our Town
7.) The Glass Menagerie
8.) A Raisin in the Sun
9.) The Crucible
10.) Fences

The only one I haven't seen is The Glass Menagerie. I've seen four on stage - Our Town, A Raisin in the Sun, Fences and The Crucible - and movie versions of the others. (My high school put on The Crucible, so it's been a long time!)

The newspaper surveyed people connected with the theatre world and the list is filled with high school and college English class fare. They're older works, which I guess is how you become a classic.

Two things surprised me about the list.

First, they're all exceedingly serious. Hasn't anyone written a great American comedy? Second, the article includes a quote from each play and I was surprised by how few I recognized.

These are important plays for the way they illuminate American life. But if I didn't already know the names of the top 10, I would only have been able to match the dialogue to the play for three - Death of A Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and A Raisin in the Sun.

I'm not sure that's important. A great play is more than a collection of snappy one-liners, right? Maybe it's just a reflection of my lousy memory. I can't quibble with the list or say that I would have done any better.

Anyway, here's a clip from a 1985 TV production of Death of A Salesman, adapted from the 1984 Broadway revival. It featured Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, John Malkovich as Biff, Stephen Lang as Happy and Kate Reid as Linda.

For Willy's sake, please pay attention!


Bob said...

Good point about the lack of comedies! We Americans are a serious lot, aren't we?

Monica Reida said...

I also noticed that all of those plays are well-known, except for maybe Fences. But there is a lack of comedies; no Neil Simon?

Pam said...

This list is very timely for me. I've been thinking a lot lately that I would like to focus my theater going efforts on the "American Classics". This list is a great place to start. I've seen Our Town and A Raisin in the Sun (both at Trinity). The GAM theater is showing The Glass Menagerie this spring. I've been meaning to get tickets, but keep putting it off. You've motivated me to "just do it".

JK said...

The lack of comedies isn't all that surprising. Look at what we are taught as far as literature in school. And look at movies - how rare a comedy is even nominated for an award, let alone win! It is strange since nearly every writer and actor of import will tell you how much harder it is to write/act comedy. Everyone agrees that Neil Simon wrote classic comedies - there is even a psychological issue identified as "The Odd Couple Syndrome." Can anyone doubt that his whole style of comedy changed the way comedy was done? No. But no one took him seriously until Brighton Beach Memoirs, and only after Lost In Yonkers was he really identified as a great playwright. I think people forget how important it is to laugh at ourselves and each other.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point, and a really interesting one. I think in general tragedy/drama tends to perceived as more "important" or "worthwhile", though I'm not sure how it is.

Can I comment on how gratified I was that both Thompson and Goldberg included Sarah Ruhl on their personal lists (In the linked article)? I love her, and I think she's a really really interesting playwright.

Esther said...

Hey Bob! From what I can recall, there's not much humor in any of the top 10. Interestingly, "August: Osage County" is No. 11 and while it also deals with serious themes, I think Tracy Letts succeeded in making it very funny at the same time. Not an easy thing to do, apparently!

Esther said...

Hey Monica, there is a sidebar to the story that lists all the plays that received votes. I think the first pure comedy would be "You Can't Take It With You" at No. 16. (I've never seen it but I think it's a comedy.) After that, The Odd Couple comes in at No. 21. I certainly would have rated it higher. Because of the TV series it's probably the play whose plot most people would be able to describe a little bit!

Esther said...

Hey Pam, I definitely agree. I've seen the movie versions of a lot of classic American plays but it's only in the past few years that I've begun to see some of them on stage. And there are so many more I want to see. I'm hoping to make it to The Glass Menagerie at the Gamm, too!

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment, JK! That's a great point about the comparison with movies. We definitely underrate the skill involved in comedy. And comedy is hard. It's relatively easy to make me cry, not as easy to make me really laugh! And believe me, I need to laugh more. I think people do tend to equate "important" with serious and weighty, though. And that's a shame.

I definitely agree about Neil Simon, too. I'm so glad I got to see the short-lived "Brighton Beach Memoirs" revival and I'm looking forward to seeing "The Odd Couple" at Trinity Rep in Providence this spring.

Esther said...

Hey Dorian, thanks for bringing up some of the playwrights on the complete list. I was going to mention them but I figured the post was getting long enough. And I do have a tendency to be long-winded!

I also like Sarah Ruhl's work. She's a witty writer and creates interesting characters and stories. I saw "The Clean House" and really enjoyed it. And I'm planning to see "Dead Man's Cell Phone" next month.

Lyrical Thoughts said...

I was surprised that I knew most of these shows, with an exception of Fences. These are all classics and important to American theater. But it would be nice to have a play that didn't make you feel bad for every character on stage. It wouldn't hurt to laugh every once in awhile. Good drama can contain some elements of humor.

Esther said...

Hey, thanks so much for the comment, Lyrical Thoughts! And I definitely agree. Even the "darkest" dramas need to have a moment or two of levity. We all need to laugh every once in awhile!