Twenty Five Years of American Plays

Last week The New York Times published a special section of The 25 Best American Plays since Angels in America premiered 25 years ago. The purpose of this sort of list is of course to allow Your Humble Blogger to assert superiority to the listmakers and to disparage their ignorance and lack of taste. Shockingly, however, the list is remarkably good. I don’t love all the plays, myself, but a list of 25 plays that Your Humble Blogger personally likes would be of somewhat limited interest. And I’m not sure how many would be on that list that aren’t on the NYT list, honestly.

Here’s a breakdown of my feelings about the plays from their list:

Plays I personally love:

  • Topdog/Underdog
  • Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
  • Ruined
  • How I Learned to Drive
  • Seven Guitars
  • Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
  • Eurydice
  • Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
  • The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity

Plays I don’t love, but really like or admire:

  • The Designated Mourner
  • Three Tall Women
  • The Laramie Project
  • Yellow Face
  • The Vagina Monologues

Plays I don’t actually like, but that I understand should be on a list of this kind:

  • Clybourne Park
  • August: Osage County
  • The Flick
  • The Humans
  • This Is Our Youth

Plays I haven’t read or seen and don’t really know enough about to judge, but when I saw them on the list I thought ‘yeah, I’ve been meaning to read them or see them, those are supposed to be excellent’:

  • An Octoroon
  • The Wolves
  • The Realistic Joneses
  • The Apple Family Plays

Plays that are events, so reading the script isn’t the point at all and there won’t be any productions by other performers, either, so I just flat-out missed them, but they sounded really interesting:

  • House/Lights
  • Underground Railroad Game

They restricted the list to no more than one play by a playwright, which I totally understand but makes this substantially less of a correct list of the 25 best plays. I personally prefer Indecent to How I Learned to Drive, but I’d probably put both on my own list. I think perhaps I would put Intimate Apparel on over Ruined, although, you know, that’s because there’s a part for me in it. Would I pick The Last Days of Judas Iscariot over Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train? Or would I pick The Motherfucker with the Hat just to make the Times deal with the title?

They put Water by the Spoonful on the list of didn’t-quite-make-the-list, and I would have bumped it up into the list proper, probably over The Designated Mourner. I think Gatz should probably have made that not-quite list, in the sense that I think it’s worth bringing up and talking about whether it should make the list or not. I think that Wit is another one that you have to justify leaving out of the discussion, although the discussion should end without including it. Other plays that I think are worth mentioning include Anna in the Tropics, Red, A Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo and maybe Take Me Out, but I don’t think I would eventually put any of them in that top 25.

Interesting to me that Doubt didn’t make the list. I don’t like the play, myself, and I am happy to think that it has sunk out of the conversation, but I think that five years ago it would have been fairly prominent in the making of a twenty-year list. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if some of these drop off the list in another ten years. Or that we will look back at wonder how they could have missed—what? I Am My Own Wife? Lackawanna Blues? The Breach? Underneath the Lintel? Hir? Will we decide at some point that Venus is a better or more powerful play than Topdog/Underdog or that Eurydice is not on a par with The Clean House? Will we look back and wonder how there could only be two examples of the verbatim plays, the most important trend of the quarter-century, or wonder anyone could put two different examples of that dead-end verbatim thing. Who knows?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

3 thoughts on “Twenty Five Years of American Plays

  1. Michael

    When you read a script and later see the play, do you find that your enjoyment of the play correlates with your expectations based on having read the script?

    I’ve tried to figure out many times how to predict the extent to which I will enjoy a particular show. Reading the script is not one of those ways for me. I imagine it takes a lot of practice and experience that I don’t have to try to be able to translate a script into a more or less fully imagined show. I’m thoroughly envious of your ability to do that. I’m sometimes able to sort out the extent to which the script is responsible when I see a show a particularly love or loathe, perhaps because I find analysis easier than construction in general. (I’m an editor, not a writer.)

    Many people making these lists will have seen a good production of the play. Is a play great if it soars only with the right actors and director? Or is a play great only if it is amenable to different styles of production with different levels of competence?

    1. Vardibidian Post author

      When you read a script and later see the play, do you find that your enjoyment of the play correlates with your expectations based on having read the script?

      Mostly, but not always. I’m always pleased when a script that I didn’t find compelling becomes more so in production. The other way, when the production doesn’t match the script, is frustrating, but doesn’t usually change my mind about the quality of the script in the first place. There are times when I think a production reveals problems I hadn’t noticed on the page, but even there sometimes (as in the filmed production of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Kevin Kline, which I watched recently) I still like the bits of the script that I like, even if I have to admit that the work as a whole is problematic or even sub-par. I think perhaps I’m more likely, when I’m enjoying reading a playscript, to shape the duller parts or even skim them without thinking about it, so that I don’t notice that the pacing of the whole thing is off. Or, occasionally, the other way around, where I think that a section is dull on the page, when it’s just because the character I think I want to play is off for a couple of scenes.

      Is a play great if it soars only with the right actors and director? Or is a play great only if it is amenable to different styles of production with different levels of competence?

      An excellent question. I think if I were to adopt a restrictive notion of greatness—a small Hall mindset—it would be on specifically this issue, that a truly great play speaks to different times and places, can be done on a small budget or a large one, in the round or on a proscenium, and even with very different sets and costumes and lights and sound and all. I think that your observation that the contributors to the list have probably not seen a crappy production of these plays is astute. I think perhaps what matters more is that they haven’t seen two good productions of most of them. The revival of Angels in America makes an excellent case for its greatness, after 25 years. The current revival of Three Tall Women, as well. Maybe the Broadway production of This Is Our Youth is what put it on the list for people who had seen the Off-Broadway a few years earlier.
      And yet, that’s going to make for very few Great Plays, isn’t it? And it entirely rules out things like House/Lights, which can’t usefully be re-mounted. Does Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 lose greatness points because anybody who performs it will necessarily be a reflection of Anna Deavere Smith? In a local amateur production of The Laramie Project the actors will never have met the people they are portraying, and while it still holds emotional weight and power, I think it is a different show without the originating cast.
      Anyway, I think if we really are going to restrict it to Great Plays that I expect can and will have great productions all over the country for decades, there won’t be one a year.

  2. Chris Cobb

    Thank you for blogging about this list! As someone who is not near the New York theatre scene, I don’t think of myself as being in close touch with contemporary theatre, so it’s very illuminating to have a look at a considered set of strong contemporary plays. I don’t follow the Chicago theatre scene as closely as I could and probably should, but I wonder if this list would look different if it was composed by theatre critics based there rather than in New York? This isn’t a parochial list by any means, but how many excellent American plays that the New York critics haven’t seen, I wonder?

    Re “Is a play great if it soars only with the right actors and director? Or is a play great only if it is amenable to different styles of production with different levels of competence?”

    Thinking about this question in the context of Shakespeare’s plays, I would have to say that there are some great plays that are highly producible and some great plays that aren’t. There is a group of Shakespeare comedies that I think of as “don’t screw this up” plays: these are plays that are hard to do badly, even if the actors are not especially accomplished. These are great plays, and if they aren’t easy to do, it still isn’t hard to do a production of them that pleases an audience. These plays are performed very frequently. On the other hand, there’s a group of Shakespeare plays that is performed much less frequently. That group includes King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus and Cressida. It used to include romances like Pericles and Cymbeline, too, but in the last 25 years, those have seen much more regular productions that have been consistently popular, and they are edging, in the contemporary moment, toward becoming “don’t screw this up” plays. For Lear to succeed, you have to have an actor who can carry the lead, and those actors are not thick on the ground. For Antony and Cleopatra, you have to have a pair of actors who can carry the title roles (hardly to be found together), plus a half dozen really strong character actors, and a company that is capable of rendering a vast and remote story clearly and engagingly for a contemporary audience. These plays are very highly demanding, but when they are done well, they are plays of vast power. They seem to me, therefore, to be great plays, but they are not for just any company or occasion. The difference between Twelfth Night and King Lear is not necessarily the same kind of difference that separates a widely and easily produced contemporary play of note from a contemporary play of note that is not easily and widely produced, but I think it illustrates that plays that are not easy to produce successfully are not for that reason alone less great that plays that are easy to produce. I think one would need to look on a case by case basis at the factors that may a make a play difficult to produce successfully in order to assess what that difficulty reveals about the play’s quality.

    Again, thanks for writing about this!


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