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JMU THEATRE READING LIST 


The list below describes the plays that theatre majors are expected to have read before they graduate. These plays are representative of the styles, periods, and major playwrights with which a student needs to be familiar in order to appreciate the range of theatre and drama as well as embark upon a career with a solid stylistic, historical, and dramatic foundation.

On average, one play should be read every two weeks (including summers) to complete the list prior to graduation. Many, if not most, of these plays will be encountered in both classes and production work. Teachers make an effort to incorporate them in the curriculum.

Although many of the plays prior to the 20th century are in the public domain and may be available on the Internet, students should work towards honing a rich variety of research and library strategies as part of their development.  Bear in mind that the introductory and footnoted information in a book may provide invaluable insight into the play and its significance.  

To benefit most fully from the experience of reading plays, both in and out of class, students are encouraged to document their explorations in some way, perhaps through a journal, word-processed notes, or an index card file. Such documentation could also cover performances seen live. To provide a valuable ongoing personal, professional resource and record of growth, your notes should include such basic dramaturgical information as the playwright's name, year the work was written and produced, character names and notes, brief synopsis, theme or major dramatic question, style, formal or structural characteristics, etc.

Ancient to Renaissance

Greek:

Aeschylus               THE ORESTEIA

The Oresteia is the only extant trilogy of ancient Greek drama and a foundational text not only of Western theatre but Western culture, as it traces the shift from a system of blood lust and revenge to the rule of law.

Sophocles              OEDIPUS THE KING

Oedipus the King is the most noted of ancient Greek tragedies, the one used by Aristotle in The Poetics as the model of the perfect tragedy from which he deduces the nature and form of tragedy. It epitomizes Sophocles elegant, economical style and insight into human nature.

                              ANTIGONE

Although not a formal trilogy, Oedipus the King,Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus form a triad of related plays referred to as the Theban Plays. Antigone tells the story of Oedipus's daughter and her fight with her uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes , to determine which is more important, the law of the gods or the law of man.  It has been used as a play of civic protest to unjust rule in the 20th century.

Euripides                THE BACCHAE

The Bacchae is significant for showing the god Dionysus (god of wine, fertility, and theatre) as a character and for revealing some of the beliefs and practices centered on his worship.

                              MEDEA

Euripides' best known and most performed tragedy, Medea reveals Euripides' fascination with atypical personalities, realistic strokes in characterization, and movement toward melodrama and away from the strict tragedy of Sophocles and Aeschylus.  Medea is thought of as one of the best and most challenging roles for women.

Aristophanes          LYSISTRATA

Aristophanes' most popular, though not most representative, play, Lysistrata reveals the bawdiness that the writer of the only extant ancient Greek comedies was capable of.  Its comedy has made it a favorite of 20th-century audiences as has its critique of war (many of Aristophanes' plays critiqued Athens ' involvement in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta ) and images of empowered women.


Roman:

Plautus                   THE MENAECHMI

Plautus is most responsible for introducing and popularizing many of the elements of dramatic comedy that would be used in Commedia dell'Arte, by Shakespeare, and up to the present day.  This tale of confusion when twins are separated at birth but end up by coincidence in the same city as adults was Shakespeare's basis forThe Comedy of Errors.


Medieval:

Wakefield Master   THE SECOND SHEPHERD'S PLAY

Although the French and Germans wrote a number of medieval farces, The Second Shepherd's Play is one of the few surviving  from England .  This short play is still often performed at Christmastime, but was originally part of theCorpus Christi cycle plays dramatizing existence from creation to doomsday and is one of the finest examples of vernacular religious drama.

Anonymous            EVERYMAN

Everyman is the most performed of Medievalmorality plays, and embodies that form's portrayal of human characters and the use of allegory to show the consequences of moral choices that individuals make.  This form is utilized in many modern plays, such as David Mamet's Edmond .  


English:

Jonson                    VOLPONE

This dark comedy from 1605 shows Jonson’s cynical view of human beings who bring on their own bad ends through their lust, greed, and deceit.

Marlowe                DR FAUSTUS

The tragedy displays a fascinating combination of medieval dramatic elements with emerging Renaissance humanistic concerns, all underscored with some of Marlowe’s most beautiful and powerful poetic verse.

Shakespeare           HAMLET

Everything about the play is “classic,” from its memorable poetic lines (“To be or not to be. . .”) to its basic “revenge tragedy” action of Hamlet attempting to gain revenge on his father’s murderer.  The revenge tragedy, inspired by Elizabethans' study of Seneca's works and having common characteristics like multiple deaths, supernatural elements, and soul-searching soliloquies, became a popular sub-genre of the time, the most famous example of which is Shakespeare's work.

                              KING LEAR

One of the most monumental tragedies in the English language, it weaves together two terrible stories of fathers who fail to see the truth in their children until it’s too late.  Blindness and madness are recurring themes.

                              HENRY IV, pt. 1

As with the Biblical story of the prodigal son, Prince Hal leads a dissolute life and seems unfit to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious father until the King dies and Hal must prove his worth through courageous action and by dismissing his profligate friends, who include the memorable John Falstaff.

                              A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Shakespeare creates four separate worlds (fairies, the court, a band of common laborers, and two pairs of lovers in the woods) and then manages to bring them all into comic collision and achieve a climax that mocks the very theatre he practices.

                              MACBETH

A tale of passionate love and overreaching ambition with a backdrop of eerie witches.  Some critics consider it Shakespeare's darkest play.  It is certainly one of his shortest.  Opinion divides over whether Macbeth or Lady Macbeth, who eggs him on, is most evil. Or are they evil.  Are they victims of predestination?

                              TEMPEST

In the last play he wrote alone, Shakespeare uses magical powers and mystical creatures who can fly or live underground to explore the love, beauty, and forgiveness of human beings. Written while exploration of the Americas was at a fever pitch, the play reflects the mysteries of the new world and has often been considered a reflection on/of colonialism.

                              OTHELLO

A dastardly character brings about the fall of a great black hero by fueling his jealousy and suspicions regarding his beautiful white wife.  It constitutes the last of what are commonly thought of as Shakespeare's four major tragedies, which also include HAMLET, KING LEAR, and MACBETH.

Webster                 THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

In one of his two tragedies with a powerful female protagonist (THE WHITE DEVIL is the other), Webster elevates a story of bloodthirsty family revenge into something almost lyrical and compassionate (c. 1613). Webster is now commonly considered second only to Shakespeare as a renaissance writer of tragedies.


Indian:

Kalidasa                 SAKUNTALA & THE RING OF RECOLLECTION

The prime example of ancient Indian Sanskrit drama, Sakuntala tells a fascinating story of a king who falls in love with a celestial nymph but suffers a curse that erases her from his memory.  The play exhibits all the qualities of this most flexible of dramatic forms.


Italian:

Machiavelli             THE MANDRAKE

Generally considered the finest comedy of the Italian Renaissance, The Mandrake is full of lies, schemes, deceptions and disguises. Based in Machiavelli's belief that human nature is flawed and given to self-centeredness, it shows the influence of Commedia dell'Arte and is regularly performed today.


Japanese:

Kan'ami                  MATSUKAZE

Reflective of the Noh theatre form of which it is a part, this short play features spirits who cannot leave the world because they have become too attached to some part of it.  Part ghost story, part Buddhist philosophy, and part dance this play reveals the sparseness of the Noh form.

Chikamatsu            THE LOVE SUICIDES AT SONEZAKI

Originally written as Bunraku (puppet) play, Love Suicides was soon adapted to the Kabuki form. Like a feudal Japanese Romeo and Juliet, it tells a story of love and honor that ends tragically.  It and similar plays became so popular that a rash of copycat double suicides forced the Japanese authorities to ban such works.


Spanish:

Calderon                LIFE IS A DREAM

A prediction that his son will rule violently and tyrannically leads a king to lock his young son in a wilderness fortress.  When his has grown, the king decides he should be drugged and brought to court to see how he behaves.  If poorly, then he will be drugged again, returned to the wilderness and told it as all a dream.  Such is the premise of one of the most profound dramas on identity and free will.

Lope de Vega        THE SHEEPWELL (FUENTE OVEJUNA)

When Commander of the town of Fuente Ovejunaterrorizes its women, the women take matters into their own hands by shaming the village's men to mete out the justice that they know the higher authorities would avoid.  One of the first plays with a group protagonist, this play has similarities to Lysistrata.


French:

Molière                  TARTUFFE

Written by the playwright whom many revere as the greatest dramatic comedy writer of all time, this play explores what happens when the head of a house believes in the lies of a charlatan religious man and how his family fights for control over their lives, property, and future. It was banned for years due to the power of outraged religious authorities before King Louis XIV was able to (somewhat) safely allow it production.

                              THE MISANTHROPE

The absolutist Alceste learns what social havoc he may cause and how his own life may be ruined when he holds to his philosophy that people should be absolutely honest with each other, no matter the consequences, forgoing the "hypocritical" social lubricant of good manners, gossip, and a bit of flattery.

Racine                     PHEDRE

With a position in the French canon like that ofHamlet in the English, this primary example of neoclassical tragedy explores the consequences of illicit love (of Phedre's stepson) and jealousy. Although based on Euripides' Hippolytus, it differs from the original. Phedre is thought of as one of the most prized and challenging roles for an actress by the French.

Cornielle                 THE CID

The play that initiated the judgments that led to theFrench Academy 's codification of neoclassicism's "rules" retains its Spanish inspiration's theme of love vs. honor but packs murders, duels, engagement, breakup, reconciliation, and a whole war into one day.

Restoration and 18th Century:

Congreve               THE WAY OF THE WORLD

This character-rich Restoration comedy explores ideals of security and constancy in relationships as Mirabel and Millament face difficulties in proving their love.

Gay                        THE BEGGAR’S OPERA

Gay created a new form, ballad-opera, by using contemporary ballads as the basis for the music of the play and by setting his love story in a criminal world through which he could satirize contemporary politics and overly sentimental drama.  Bertolt Brecht later adapted this play as THE THREEPENNY OPERA.

Lillo                        THE LONDON MERCHANT

The play is subtitled THE HISTORY OF GEORGE BARNWELL, and that title signifies the huge step that Lillo’s play represents in 1731 because the tragic hero is a common man, an apprentice who steals from his employer.  This domestic tragedy proved extremely influential, especially to European writers of ‘bourgeois’ drama—plays about the common man.  As a warning and lesson, it was performed annually at holiday time for all of London 's apprentices until the 19th century.

Sheridan                  THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL

Sheridan attacks scandal-mongers through a tightly constructed comic plot in which Lady Teazle almost commits adultery before reconciling with her husband.  With distinctive characters and clever scenes (such as the “screen scene” where hidden characters overhear a torrid affair), the 1777 play became a model for comic drama, including early American plays such as FASHION and THE CONTRAST.

Wycherly                THE COUNTRY WIFE

In a Restoration world that seemed only interested in sex and other pleasures, Horner, the hero of this 1675 comedy, pretends impotence as a cover for his affairs and his courtship of Margery Pinchwife, the beautiful, naïve, and eager wife of the jealous Mr. Pinchwife.  In this world, it is not libertine behavior that is wrong, but only hypocrisy and rural naiveté.

Goldoni                  THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS

Servant was Goldoni's most noted attempt to transfer the spirit and form of Commedia dell'Arte into a fully written script.  Often performed today, this comedy of love and mistaken identity has at its heart a servant who outwits his masters.

Beaumarchais         THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO

Beaumarchais’s second play featuring the clever barber/servant character of Figaro, who manages to keep his beautiful young lover safe from the clutches of two wealthy, conniving, and lecherous old men.  At its time (1784), the play was censored because it seemed too critical of aristocratic indulgence. Its ultimate production seemed a warning shot of the 1789 revolution.

19th Century

Stowe/Aiken          UNCLE TOM’S CABIN

Based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, this is the most widely produced drama in American theatre history.  It influenced American culture for 100 years (e.g., “Uncle Tom,” “grow like Topsy,” and the Uncle Tom sequence in The King and I) and is still intriguing for its melodrama, its rich variety of characters, and the ways in which it confronts racial issues.  George Aiken's dramatization of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel was the most widely produced and was thought most effective.

Büchner                  WOYZECK

Revolutionary in his short life (he died at only 23) and in his three plays, Buchner expressed sympathy for the socially downtrodden but also disillusionment with all segments of humanity. Woyzeck is a soldier, but also the subject of a doctor’s crude experiments.  Although written in 1837, the play was not produced until 1913 because of its incomplete, disjointed construction.

Gogol                     THE INSPECTOR GENERAL

In Gogol’s darkly comic 1836 masterpiece, a nobody arrives in a small Russian town and is mistaken for an important government official. What follows is a wild display of greed, fear, pride, and utter stupidity that satirizes bureaucratic corruption and human foibles.  The play almost seems to go beyond its realistic roots into a realm of fantasy.

Hauptmann             THE WEAVERS

Although he wrote in some other styles, Nobel-prize-winner Gerhart Hauptmann is best known for his naturalism, which was influenced by the theories of Emile Zola and the drama of Henrik Ibsen.  Hauptmann tends to emphasize characters over plot, as in this 1892 play, which features a rare group protagonist and examines the plight of common workers.

Ibsen                      A DOLL'S HOUSE

This play, in which a young wife comes to realize the constrictions put on her social and personal awareness and possibilities by society's and her husband's narrow conception of marriage and the roles of women not only demonstrated for the world how a detailed psychological conception of character could be incorporated in a realistic environment (the final step in creating realism), but became an icon and weapon in the women's rights movement.

Strindberg              MISS JULIE

Strindberg claimed to be following the naturalism of Emile Zola, but his emphasis on the psychology of his characters and on their heredity and environment—very apparent in this short 1888 drama--achieved a symbolic level.  The “Preface” to the play is also worth reading and is considered a blueprint for creating a naturalist production.

Wilde                     THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST

Wilde and his brilliantly drawn upper class characters turn normal values upside down in this comic masterpiece from 1895.  The dialogue is so clever it may have you laughing out loud as you read it.

1900-1950

Feydeau                 A FLEA IN HER EAR

This play epitomizes “French farce.” A variety of characters, most of whom possess some identifying idiosyncratic feature, seek sexual couplings for a variety of reasons, and they all come together in a disreputable hotel with surprises behind all the numerous doors on the set.  In addition to tight construction, the 1907 play features a revolving bed and one actor playing two lead roles.

Artaud                    SPURT OF BLOOD

This play of a few pages by the theorizer of Theatre of Cruelty, whose ideas influenced post-WWII theatre deeply, reveals its surrealistic roots in a nightmarish vision of little dialogue and rich images that includes, among others, a spurt of God's blood.

Beckett                  WAITING FOR GODOT

The masterpiece by the most influential of "absurdist" playwrights, Waiting for Godot has been called the most important play of the twentieth century.  Its dramatic form and action, in which "nothing" happens, involving two tramps waiting for someone who may never arrive, challenged and revolutionized the way plays were written.

ENDGAME

In a single, seemingly inescapable environment, a blind character who cannot walk gives orders to a seeing man who moves with difficulty as they seek to understand their environment and situation, often by insulting the blind man's elderly parents, who each live in a trash can.

Brecht                    MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN

This now classic piece of epic theatre by the major playwright and theorist of the form traces the actions of a woman and the cart from which she sells her wares to soldiers during the Thirty-Years War (1618-1648).  The loss of each of her three children to the war raises questions of her responsibility for their deaths, the humanity of capitalistic systems, the value of family, and the justice of war.

Chekhov                THE CHERRY ORCHARD

One of the four full-length plays by the playwright whose works in part inspired Stanislavsky's theories to address their character complexities,The Cherry Orchard reveals the resistance ofRussia 's landed gentry to adapt to the social and economic changes that threaten to claim their beloved orchard and home.  In the meantime, it raises questions about how alone we are in the universe, what the past means to the present, and what is possible in relationships.

Genet                     THE MAIDS

Based in a true story, Genet's play portrays the ritualistic act of two maids who take turns acting as "Madame," abusing each other as either servant or employer. The ceremony reveals not only the maids' hatred of the Madame's authority, but also their hatred of themselves for participating in the hierarchy that oppresses them.

Ionesco                  THE BALD SOPRANO

Fascinated with the banalities in a text Ionesco was using to learn English, he transcribed their superficialities and odd truths into this classic absurdist play, which rejects traditional forms of narrative, plot, and structure and explores the modern human experience through the fragmentation of language.

Kaiser                    FROM MORN TO MIDNIGHT

This play, which some call the greatest of expressionistic dramas, follows the experiences of a bank clerk who embezzles money from his bank, rejects his family, and attempts to find true experience, unalloyed by social norms, as well as a kind of salvation in a series of experiences that reveal and portray the distortion of human nature and perception that modern civilization has caused.

Lorca                     BLOOD WEDDING

When a new bride runs away with another man after her wedding, her husband finds the couple, the two men kill each other, and all are left to mourn. Through song, chant, poetry, music, rhythm and nonrealistic techniques, Lorca creates a highly symbolic and stylized action that at once critiques parts of Spanish society and also reveals the conflict between individual wishes and societal decrees.

Miller                     DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Perhaps the best-known American play of the twentieth century, by the playwright often referred to as America 's social conscience, Death of a Salesman portrays the illusions and memories of a salesman one evening when he returns from a failed sales trip.  Showing the influence of expressionism and using a flashback technique, the play reveals how Willie Loman's wholesale acceptance of ideals related to the American Dream lead to his interpersonal, social, and economic failure.

O'Neill                   A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Written in about1940 but not staged until 1956, the play displays the typical emotional power of O’Neill’s characters within a realistic world.  Since it is highly autobiographical, the play is also significant as a look into O’Neill’s troubled personal life, and a wonderful portrait of his father, a famous star of the nineteenth-century stage.

                              THE EMPEROR JONES

In addition to realism, O’Neill experimented with a variety of other styles.  In this 1920 one-act tragedy he dramatizes the “expressionistic” decline of a mercenary West Indies dictator.  Besides the unique style, the play is significant for focusing on an African-American as protagonist (an effort that has seen wide swings in critical response), for the actors who first played that lead role, Charles Gilpin and Paul Robeson, and for the startling designs of Cleon Throckmorton.

Pirandello               SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR

Pirandello challenged traditional theatrical, social, and cultural values and forms.  In this 1921 play he uses a play-within-a-play format to explore relationships between appearance and reality, life and the theatre, and private identity and social role-playing.

Sartre                     NO EXIT

A French philosopher, novelist, and playwright, Sartre espoused his “existentialism” through his plays, in which characters are defined not by their psychological states, but by their choices and their actions.  Like many European works written just after World War II, NO EXIT (1944) implicitly explores what individuals did or didn’t do during the war years.

Shaw                      MAJOR BARBARA

Shaw’s ability to dramatize debate on social and political issues is illustrated in this 1905 play in which an arms dealer takes on a social reformer. Shaw’s irreverent and incisive humor allowed him to take generally accepted ideas and turn them on their head.

Wilder                    OUR TOWN

This 1938 classic celebrates the joys of everyday life in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire , on a day in 1901.  In it, as in all his plays, Wilder deviates remarkably from the realistic stage conventions of his day by using minimal scenery, direct address to the audience, and other non-realistic devices.

Williams                 THE GLASS MENAGERIE

This 1945 drama—Williams’s first success—clearly demonstrates the lyrical quality of the author’s words and of his stagecraft as it alternates deftly between monologues and memory scenes. It is also largely autobiographical in representing Williams’s prudish, overbearing mother and his delicate, introverted sister.

                              A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

The battle between Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois in this 1947 play set in New Orleans is one that resonates through most of Williams’s work: the lady of illusion and refinement versus the man of strength and candor.  Or, repression versus release, the puritan versus the sensualist.

 Post-1950

Albee                     THE ZOO STORY

This 1958 one-act drama established Albee’s reputation.  It is the quintessential story of two people meeting at a bench in the park, but what ensues demonstrates Albee’s acrobatic verbal skills and powerful dramatic sense.  (Albee has now expanded it into a two-act play called Peter and Jerry, with Act I being Homelife and Act II being the one-act play written 45 years earlier.)

                              WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

Albee takes on the theme of illusion and reality in this 1962 drama.  The dialogue is especially vivid and fierce as the play explores the love-hate relationship between George and Martha.  The Mike Nichols-directed black and white movie (with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) is also excellent.

Baraka/Jones          DUTCHMAN

A leader in the black arts revolutionary movement that viewed theatre as a weapon in the struggle for black liberation, Baraka dramatizes social and racial issues from unusual perspectives and with arresting candor, as in this powerful 1964 one-act play. The play reflects Baraka's suspicions if black involvement in white or dominant culture is healthy for blacks, which is in turn reflected in his name change from Leroi Jones to Amiri Baraka when he accepted Islam.

Churchill                 CLOUD NINE

Social injustice and feminism are two themes that run through many of Churchill’s plays, and none more so than this 1979 play, which was developed through a series of improvisational sessions. Churchill is also fascinated by the historical background of current social and political issues, and in this play British imperialism leads to sexual and racial problems.  The play also shows the author’s characteristic switching of genders and time frames to create unnerving effects.

Fo                          THE ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST

Noble Prize winner Dario Fo began as a comic writer, and his work became more and more political and satiric.  This 1970 comedy combines his political sensibilities with his comic skills to expose corruption and incompetence in government bureaucracy.

Fornes                    FEFU AND HER FRIENDS

Fornes is known for whimsical humor and innovative, cinematic dramatic techniques.  In this 1977 piece, her most well-known work, she delivers a feminist perspective on female friendship and women’s roles in a patriarchal society.

Friel                       TRANSLATIONS

Irish playwright Brian Friel often uses clever theatrical devices such as narrators in his plays. This 1980 drama deals inherently with colonialism and loss of native culture as the English rename Irish locations in 1833.  It also features a touching love story and the problems of cross-cultural communication.

Fugard                   SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD

Fugard’s work comes out of the South African political oppression known as “apartheid,” which tried to keep races legally separated.  But his plays reach beyond political polemic and expose individual pain and loneliness through difficult choices, as in this 1972 drama, in which a man must decide whether to give up his identity and assume that of another person in order to get a job.

Guare                     THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES

Guare, in this 1970 play, which was his first major work, combines realism and highly theatrical devices with romantic lyricism and satire.

Hansberry              A RAISIN IN THE SUN

This 1959 drama is a classic portrait of black family life, black cultural movements, and the situation of blacks within American society prior to the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s.  The play, the first by an African-American woman on Broadway, introduced the themes that black drama would deal with for the following decades: tension between white and black society, division over ways for blacks to react to white oppression, assimilation, the locus of black identity, African heritage, the relationship between black men and women, dreams and the impediments to their realization, stereotypes, etc.  Moreover, the play was prescient in its feminist perspectives that marriage is not necessary and that career ambition is acceptable if not laudatory for a woman.

Hwang                   M. BUTTERFLY

Hwang typically mixes history, fantasy, and realism to explore the “fluidity of identity” common to the multicultural modern world.  This 1988 play about a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese Opera star, has been called “a dazzling deconstruction of cross-cultural and sexual delusions.” 

Kushner                 ANGELS IN AMERICA :  THE MILLENNIUM APPROACHES and PERESTROIKA

Kushner’s monumental 1993 set of two plays addresses issues of family, love, death, acceptance, the AIDS epidemic, and the political world of the 1980s in a style that veers from realism to fantasy, utilizing miraculous appearances and overlapped scenes.

Mamet                   GLENGARY GLEN ROSS

This 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning play shows off Mamet’s distinctive, truncated language style, his lively, outspoken characters, and his recurring interest in the way America does business.

Müller                    HAMLETMACHINE

The poster-child of postmodern theatre texts,Hamletmachine's few-page length belies its often multiple-hour playing time.  Themes, events, characters, and actors from Hamlet overlap with historical, cultural, ideological, and metatheatrical connotations, references, double and triple entendres.  Its pastiche, "quotes," layering, and reflexivity make it densely postmodern.

Norman                  'NIGHT MOTHER

When a thirty-something woman announces to the mother with whom she lives and cares that she plans to commit suicide before the night is over, it sets up a struggle between the mother's attempt to save her life and the daughter's justification for her death.  The truth-telling that results, as well as the quality of dialogue, pacing, character construction and insight reveal Norman 's strengths.

Osborne                 LOOK BACK IN ANGER

This 1956 play, by criticizing British society and even the Queen herself, signaled the emergence of a post-World War II group of British dramatists who came to be known as “the angry young men.”  The phrase derives from the protagonist of this play,  Porter, who, although university educated, comes from a working-class background.  He refuses to hold a job while he allows himself to be catered to by two women.

Parks                     THE AMERICA PLAY

Less than 40 years old, Suzan-Lori Parks was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for Topdog/Underdog (2001), but it was The America Play that largely  createdher reputation as a playwright who experiments outside conventional form and is willing to raise difficult questions of racism and African-American legacies.  The play's (black) protagonist, The Foundling Father, in a twist on blackface, works in a carnival in whiteface dressed as Abraham Lincoln while patrons take on the role of Lincoln 's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, and reenact the killing.  Other characters dig for the evidence of the Foundling Father and other remains in the Great Whole of History. Parks' idiomatic use of language marks her as one of the US 's most distinctive playwrights.

Pinter                     THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

Pinter’s plays were criticized for the lack of a traditional plot.  In this 1958 play, Goldberg and McCann bully Stanley , although we aren’t quite sure why.  The term “Pinteresque” was coined to describe such menacing and enigmatic situations. Pinter was also known for the pauses and silences that punctuate his work (a “Pinter pause”), and claimed that the important actions take place in the pauses.

Shaffer                   EQUUS

When a psychologist decides to take on the case of an adolescent boy who has blinded a number of horses with a spike he finds a boy who has found a god through the horses, on which he goes on sensual night rides naked.  The play reveals the often conflicting impulses in people between rationality and irrationality, and the need for both. Although the doctor realizes he can make the boy socially acceptable, the cost will be the boy's creativity and sense of spirituality. Dramaturgically the play is interesting in that it uses psychological realism as well as a sense of expressionism, employing such devices as masks, mime, and dance.

Shange                   FOR COLORED GIRLS . . .

Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enough is actually a "choreopoem," a series of 20 poems choreographed to music.  Through seven performers, the work searches for and expresses a black female identity, marking out and clarifying a unique black female body, language, and movement.  Movement is, in fact a central theme of the piece, and its attempt to combat stasis is expressed in the improvisational foundation of the piece, and the improvisational, ensemble nature of its performance.

Shepard                 BURIED CHILD

Winner of the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a play premiering off-Broadway, this work has undergone numerous revivals and an extensive revision by Shepard.  As one of his three "family" dramas that brought Shepard international recognition (including The Curse of the Starving Class and True West), Buried Child is already, according to Ben Brantley of the NY Times "a bona fide classic: a work that conveys the mystical, cannibalistic pull of family ties even as they unravel."  When Vince arrives at his grandparents' farmhouse and they don't remember him, the strange events begin as a fallow field yields armloads of carrots and corn and the secrets and forgotten past of the family begin to surface as well.

Simon                     THE ODD COUPLE

One of the most popular plays by America 's most successful playwright, The Odd Couple traces the comedy that arises when two friends, diametrically opposed in temperament, find themselves as roommates after their marriages fall apart.  Often reprised, inspiration for a long-running televisionseries, and existing in a more recent female version by Simon, this play reveals the playwright's gift for comedy, character behavior, and his insight into the foibles and complexities of human relationships.

Soyinka                  THE STRONG BREED

Informed by Soyinka's knowledge of Greek tragedy, The Strong Breed nonetheless examines the dynamics of community and ritual in African culture.  With the new year near, a community searches for a "carrier," one of the strong breed, who can bear the burden of the community's guilt by being a ritual sacrifice.  A helpless outsider, a mentally impaired boy seems the perfect choice, but he is unwilling and thus the community's guilt may not be carried away.  What will the stranger and exile, Eman, one of the strong breed, do? Like the Yoruba ritual (of Nigeria ) upon which the play is based, Soyinka's work reveals both the physical and metaphysical worlds in performance.

Stoppard                ARCADIA

Arcadia opens in the early 19th century as the grounds of an estate are being transformed from rational, orderly arrangements of the Enlightenment to the radical Romantic look of wild nature that swept Europe .  When the precocious fourteen year old Thomasina asks her handsome tutor what "carnal embrace" is and replies to hug a cow carcass, the comedy and themes of the work quickly take off, as the space between and intersections of rationality and emotion, science and art, time and space come into play.  When the second scene opens in the same room but now in the present time, with characters investigating the estate's early 19th-century activities, the questions of how far history differs from the past and how time is not the obstacle we thought it was arise provocatively.

Vogel                     HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, How I Learned the Drive accounts the story of Li'l Bit and her relationship with her uncle, who sexually molested her from the time she was eleven.  Told from Li'l Bit's perspective as a full-grown woman after her Uncle Peck's death and within the context of Peck's lessons to her of how to drive, the play admits not easy condemnation of the man, for it was he who most cared for her in the world and who taught her, literally and figuratively, how to control her vehicle.  The form of the play is interesting in moving forward and back in time simultaneously, utilizing the driving metaphor, and in calling for minimalist staging.

Wasserstein            THE HEIDI CHRONICLES

Although ostensibly about the title character, Wasserstein's play depicts the experience of women in the baby boom generation in their journey from adolescence to full womanhood. Set between 1965 and 1989, Heidi serves as the play's guide as we witness, often through comedy, key moments in her life, the obstacles she encounters, often in the form of males' narrow view of women, and choices she makes to create a life that she feels is self-defined.  The play won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer and Tony.

Wilson                     FENCES

Fences was the second drama August Wilson wrote in his vast project of a series of plays, each of which would represent African-American experience during one decade of the twentieth century.  With Radio Golf in 2005 he completed the project, which had begun with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 1984. All the plays are set inPittsburgh , the town of Wilson 's youth, andFences concerns the decade after WWII and conditions and feeling on the eve of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.  In the play, Wilson takes up many of the circumstances and themes with which Miller dealt in Death of a Salesman, but always with an important difference that illuminates the divergence between white and black experience. Troy Maxson, a once talented baseball player, found himself relegated to the Negro leagues, representative of the opportunities denied or lost to him in his life.  His rebellion and frustration infect not only his dealings with society but with his family, particularly his sons, and lead to his personal failings.  The play is a complex and compelling query into the roots and effects of social vs personal responsibility, legacies, and the importance of historical experience in shaping generational perspectives.

                              THE PIANO LESSON

Set in the 1930s, The Piano Lesson brings to the foreground an idea that exists as an undercurrent in all the plays of his decalogy, differing black Americans' attitudes to their own heritage and past and its use in creating a better future.  In the play, Boy Willie has come north to take and sell the piano, a "white" instrument, that his ancestor had claimed and transformed by carving into it images of black Africa .  With the money he will buy land, land his ancestors had worked as slaves, and all the opportunities that go with it. His sister, Bernice, however, argues that the piano, representative of their past, their struggles, their ancestors, is too precious to sell and that something irretrievable would be lost if it were. How can the conflict be resolved?

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