Greatest plays of all time?

May 23, 2008
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A few days ago in this blog, I mentioned Daniel S. Burt's book "The Drama 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time."

While we can all agree that such a list is highly subjective, we can probably also all agree that such lists are compulsively readable, fun to debate, and sometimes actually instructive. (Anyone out there attend the event I hosted a few years ago at the Indianapolis Art Center were we debated a list of the top musicals? Anyone?)

Anyway, a few of you e-mailed me asking what else was on Burt's list. While I don't want to take away any of his potential book sales, I will offer you his top 15 (with my notes). Here goes:

1. "King Lear." (I missed the IRT's recent production, but am still shaking from the Stacy Keach-starred version that played The Goodman Theatre in Chicago.)

2. "Oedipus the King."

3. "Hamlet." (I've seen about a half dozen productions, but that's makes me a piker compared to J. Trewin, who wrote the book "Five & Eighty Hamlets.")

4. "Oresteia."

5. "Macbeth." (IRT is offering a truncated version this season.)

6. "Long Day's Journey Into Night." (A major theatrical challenge. I don't expect to see another production as strong as the recent Broadway revival in my lifetime.)

7. "Othello." (While in high school I saw a production with Christopher Plummer amazing as Iago, James Earl Jones not quite up to high expectations in the title role, and then-unknown Dianne Weist awful as Desdemona.)

8. "Waiting for Godot." (Still waiting to see it live.)

9. "Medea."

10. "Twelfth Night."

11. "A Doll's House." (Some go with "Dolls," Burt goes with "Doll's.")

12. "The Cherry Orchard."

13. "Bacchae"

14. "The Importance of Being Earnest."

15. "Antigone."

One thing that should strike any Indy reader of the list is how unlikely it is that we'll have the chance to see productions of more than a handful of these in any given decade.

Your thoughts?
  • Despite a couple of good performances, I'd say you missed little in the King Lear department. We usually have to depend on Universities for productions of Medea, Antigone or The Orestia, though I'd LOVE a chance to do the latter two. I can't disagree with the list per se, though I might toss in a Williams or Albee piece and drop Godot or Othello. Definitely a list that is a great argument starter .
  • Once you get into the top 20 or so, ordering is probably largely a matter of preference anyway, but I've always wondered what it is about Lear that makes some think it's better than Hamlet. It's unquestionably a masterpiece, but it's so relentlessly heartbreaking that for a couple of centuries it was performed with an alternate happy ending in which Cordelia lives, just to avoid emotional overload. Hamlet, though it features its own high body count, strikes me as being far more watchable and just as good.

    Just curious: Is this list supposed to be the greatest plays of all time from anywhere, or just Western plays? If comparing Ibsen to Sophocles is apples and oranges, then how do you compare either to, say, Noh or Chinese opera?

    Oh, and by the way, Lou, we were talking offline about (the rarity of) trilogies in which the third installment is better than the second . . . . The Oedipus plays definitely fall into that category. Antigone is electrifying, whereas Oedipus at Colonnus is just dreadfully boring.

    Whatever the case, this list is more fun to debate than the many movie lists, since those invariably put Citizen Kane at the top - probably because it's a convenient default and prevents people from having to figure out which of a dozen other films would be most deserving to take its place.

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