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The 100 All-Time Greatest Plays

"I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being." Oscar Wilde

We continue our discussion of Entertainment Weekly's 100 All-Time Greatest Everything by moving on to the theater. You will quickly notice that EW lost the ability to count when they arrived at this category as they only list 50 plays.

In the interest of fair disclosure, I must let you know that I am a theater junkie. I will go see anything on a stage as I find the experience of sitting in a dark room, watching people create a story for me to be sheer magic. For me, pure acting is on a stage. The actors don't get a second take; they can't pretend to learn their lines; they have to do more than just look pretty. The stage is where true drama happens.

50: The Weir, Conor McPherson (1997)
49: Uncommon Women and Others, Wendy Wasserstein (1977)
48: The Piano Lesson, August Wilson (1987)
47: Awake and Sing!, Clifford Odets
46: What the Butler Saw, Joe Orton (1969)
45: The Women, Clare Boothe Luce (1936)
44: The Orphans' Home Cycle, Horton Foote (1962 - 2009)
-- This is a series of nine plays that take place from the turn of the century through the Depression. I am hoping that someone will stage all nine as an event. You will find me there.
43: The Odd Couple, Neil Simon (1965)
-- Incredibly prolific, Simon has written some wonderful plays. This is my favorite.
42: Journey's End, R.C. Sherriff (1928)
41: Picnic, William Inge (1953)
-- Inge can be tough going, but worth it.

40: Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo (1970)
39: The Front Page, Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur (1928)
-- Though parts of it are dated, this play is worth seeing for the wonderful dialogue.
38: Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks (2001)
37: Saved, Edward Bond (1965)
-- Some call it gritty; I call it beyond the pale. It spawned a lot of theater in which the whole point was to shock the audience.
36: The Dybbuk, S. Andky (1920)
35: M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang (1988)
-- Taking its plot directly from Madame Butterfly, this play is better than the opera. The movie wasn't bad, but it is better on the stage.
34: The Bald Soprano, Eugène Inesco (1950)
-- Unwatchable. This play is on this list because to not have an Inesco would show the world that whoever compiled the list doesn't know theater. Pure nonsense.
33: The Norman Conquests, Alan Ayckbourn (1973)
-- In three parts, a theatre in London did all three a while ago. One Saturday, I saw all three back to back. One of the most fun theater experiences I have ever had. I laughed for hours.
32: Machinal, Sophie Treadwell (1928)
31: The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Martin McDonagh (2001)

30: Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss (1964)
29: Noises Off, Michael Frayn (1982)
-- I cheered when I saw this play on the list. Pure farce, it is the single funniest thing I have ever seen on stage. I went to see it three nights in row, laughing harder each time.
28: Present Laughter, Noël Coward (1942)
-- Probably his most famous play, it is not my favorite. I would have voted for Blithe Spirit.
27: Top Girls, Caryl Churchill (1982)
26: Doubt, John Patrick Shanley (2004)
-- A good example of Hollywood destroying its source material. The play is much more subtle and ambiguous than the film.
25: Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare (1990)
24: Mother Courage and Her Children, Bertolt Brecht (1941)
23: Ruined, Lynn Nottage (2008)
22: The Homecoming, Harold Pinter (1965)
-- Years ago, my bother and I took part in an off-Broadway event in which, over the course of a year, the theater put on every one of Pinter's plays. It was a fantastic experience. This was my favorite.
21: Master Howard... and the boys, Athol Fugard (1982)

20: The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard (1982)
-- The best living playwright, it would be impossible to pick Stoppard's best work. This certainly is up there.
19: The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman (1939)
18: A View From the Bridge, Arthur Miller (1955)
17: Look Back in Anger, John Osborne (1956)
16: The Iceman Cometh, Eugene O'Neill (1946)
-- I saw Kevin Spacey play this in New York many years ago. The play ran for nearly five hours (two intermissions, thank goodness), but never once did it falter. One of my favorite theater experiences.
15: True West, Sam Shepard (1980)
-- I saw the revival in 2000 in which John C Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternated roles. I went two nights in a row and loved them both. It was as though I were watching two different plays, but with a common theme. Astonishing bit of theater.
14: August: Osage County, Tracy Letts (2007)
13: Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet (1984)
-- Certainly prolific, I prefer Mamet's earlier works. You know, the ones he wrote before he became the David Mamet.
12: The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams (1944)
11: Six Characters in Search of an Author, Luigi Pirandello (1921)
-- When it is good, it is very, very good. When it is bad, it is horrid.

10: Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1938)
-- One of the first things I ever saw on the stage, I cried through the end and realized that my life had changed. I blame this play for making me as crazy about the theater as I am.
9: A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry (1959)
8: Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw (1913)
-- The source material for My Fair Lady, it is a far, far better thing. Don't get me wrong, I love the musical, but this play is a work of genius.
7: Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett (1953)
-- I had always hated this play, but then I saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart do it in the West End. I get it now.
6: Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Tony Kushner (1993-1994)
5: Fences, August Wilson (1985)
4: Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill (1956)
-- For any dysfunctional family out there, this play gets to the heart of the matter. Tough to watch, but immensely moving.
3: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee (1962)
-- As the daughter of an academic couple, this play is almost too difficult for me to watch. I have done so, however, several times and never regretted it.
2: A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams (1947)
-- Blanche and Stanley are two of the most watchable characters ever invented. One of the few movies made from plays that I think got it just right.
1: Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller (1949)
-- I would agree that this is the Great American Play, but the best play of all time? Probably not.

There are a lot of things about this list that is right, but there are far more that are just dead wrong. To begin, how is it possible to discuss the greatest plays of all time and not have a single play by Shakespeare? Granted, not everything the man wrote is worth watching; but, 400 years later, every actor wants to play Hamlet and we want to see it.

Although you wouldn't know it from this list, there was an amazing amount of great theater written before the 20th century. Where is Sophocles or Euripides? Where are Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, Molière, Sheridan and Goldsmith? Even in the 20th century, where are Sartre and Barrie?

Where is musical theater? Both opera and modern musicals were ignored by both this list and the music list. I would argue that Wagner's Ring, La Bohème, Carmen, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story and Rent all belong somewhere.

The top ten of this list annoys me. It appears to me as though the editors were trying too hard to be PC and so included plays that, while good, certainly do not belong in the top ten of anything. I'm glaring particularly hard at Angels in America and Fences.

What do you think? What is right and what is wrong about this list? Am I overreacting to it? Let us know in the comments below.

The Top 100 All-Time Greatest Lists:


  1. If they had to put Ionesco, why not "Rhinoceros"? It's wonderful.

    I've really hated all these lists. They're very American-centric and try to apply the Mark Twain rule about classics too literally, that is, they think that just because a book has been regarded as great for centuries and teachers say it's great, it's a ruse. It's not like that.

  2. Seriously, not one play by Billy Bard? Forgive my language but what the frakking frak?

  3. I'm starting to get nervous about the television list. Based on our reactions to these other lists, I think our heads might collectively explode once we see it. (I'm picturing that old lemmings game for the computer. Where you tell them to go nuclear and they all turn to the screen, grab their heads, then wait for the five count before exploding.)

    Chris, was there any explanation in the article for why they focused on the modern era? Surely they must have explained away the lack of Shakespeare.

  4. The nice thing about the TV list will be that there aren't that many TV shows to choose from, compared to drama or "books." So it can't be too wrong, right?

    (I'm getting anxious, too.)

  5. Nope. Wrong. The Piano Lesson is better than Fences. Glass Menagerie is too high on the list imho. We've ignored the Greeks and (FOR THE LOVE OF GOD) Shakespeare!!! This list is too American for my tastes. Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg? These lists weigh on my soul! Of course, thanks for doing them Chris. It's fun to discuss (and denigrate) in any case. :)

  6. Oh dear not one play by Shakespeare..what the actual what?
    The tv list had better include the Wire and Buffy or we'll be having words. And Doctor Who.

  7. There are some plays that I was glad to see there (Long Day's Journey, Six Degrees of Separation, Noises Off) and some that I was missing (House of Blue Leaves, Scapin.) I'm going to set aside the Shakespeares because there are enough of them to populate their own list alone.

    My first thought was that it is so heavily weighted toward mid 20th century works, I'm not sure if I have a theory on why that is. Old enough to seem iconic and venerable, but not for popular notions of drama and storytelling to have shifted and therefore still accessible to modern audiences?

    Also, extremely jealous that you saw McKellan and Stewart in Godot!

  8. Jess -- no explanation was given, which is why I was so stunned. Surely, at least one Shakespeare play belonged on the list. But, when I looked at it again, I realized it was all 20th century. Not the wisest choice, perhaps, but a valid one. I would have liked to hear why they made that choice.

    Jane -- the Godot with McKellan and Stewart was game changing. I had read/seen it probably a half dozen times and genuinely hated it. My best friend dragged me to see this version (he bribed me with dinner after at my favorite restaurant in London) and I couldn't believe it. I fell in love with the characters and the play. A wonderful example of what the right actors can bring to a production.

  9. Wow, that list is utter garbage. "All-Time Greatest"? Hamlet, MacBeth, and King Lear should be 1, 2, and 3. And where are Antigone, Medea, Tartuffe, A Doll's House, and The Importance of Being Earnest? RIDICULOUS.

  10. Since they kept this limited to 50, they could have easily created a top 25 musicals and a top 25 pre-20th century plays just to throw in some amazing classics! I thought the Shakespeare should have been included in the top 100 books and then assumed they would show up in the plays. Even if you wanted to just limit it to things written in modern tongues, Chekov and Ibsen definitely deserve to be here. Maybe I'm just being too academic for this pop culture magazine :)

  11. No Shakespeare is utterly stupid. Christine, remember "Othello" at the RSC in 1998 -- it was incredible. "Hamlet" at Stratford-upon-Avon was a brilliant production of one of the greatest plays ever written ("Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (sp?)are Dead" was a follow-up hoot). "Nicholas Nicholby" was a 9-1/2 hour masterpiece. Chris, we saw "Rent" days after Jonathon Larson's death -- such an amazingly creative depiction of AIDS at the time. Like "Angels in America", it was a "tour de force." I wish my memory was better because there is much that I have missed here.

  12. Anne -- thank you so much for commenting. As one of my favorite theater companions, you and I have seen some BRILLIANT things in the 30+ years we have been going to the theatre together.

    My favorite? The original Amadeus at the National. You and I were both so enthralled, I knew we would be friends forever.


  13. Oh, yes, Chris! Paul Scofield as Soliari in "Amadeus" was amazing. I was in love with that man. We also saw him in "Richard III" in 1998 which was one of the most amazing performances I've ever seen.


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