It’s becoming increasingly more unpopular for actors to read plays. Thespians seem to forget the people responsible for creating the art form of drama, and that’s only to the detriment of their own careers.
When it comes to theatre, some will normally watch the performance on stage, if that. But the biggest issue is that by avoiding masterful work of great playwrights, actors avert themselves from developing their creative skills, expanding imagination, and learning roots of the acting craft in itself. Finally and most importantly, actors that do not read plays on a regular basis will not comprehend how theatre is made and how words are bestowed with life when transforming written material into performance.
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Another good reason to read plays is to continuously stay on top of the oeuvres that you might be offered by stage casting, directors and producers. Whether you’re a regular stage performer or a thespian looking to start a journey in theatre, expanding your knowledge base of what’s out there will always put you ahead of your competition.
If you get a monologue or sides that have been directly taken from the play, or have been inspired by a play which you have previously read, you’ll be ready to go into the audition room and relate to your character better than actors who are too lazy to spend time with Ibsen, Albee, Marlowe, Euripides and the rest of the gang.
There’s a great variety of magnificent work by genius playwrights dating back to the first records of when the concept of theatre has initially surfaced. Taking a little bit of every world is never a bad idea: look at some classics, a few popular plays, include modern ones, and study the canon of obscure artists. It’s work, but it’s an incredibly enjoyable one.
For now, I’ll only list what in my opinion are some of the most important plays every actor should read, and I’ll do my best to bring a few plays from every world. Granted, there are so many more of them that I could ever list in a single blog post, but let’s begin with the first twenty five. Enjoy this brilliant prose and poetry, as I’m sure you will.
25 Most Important Plays Every Actor Should Read
by Harold Pinter
Nobel Prize-winning English playwright Harold Pinter wrote the famous play Betrayal in 1978, and since then, dramatic critics have considered this to be his most important work. What actors can learn from this is how to find most efficient, clear and effective ways to deliver the idea to the audience and communicate whatever is going on in the scene. It’s difficult, and fun.
Best quote: “I hate brandy … it stinks of modern literature.”
by William Shakespeare
A historical tragedy play from the great British playwright William Shakespeare was written around the time of late 1500s, and was a conclusion to Shakespeare’s first tetralogy. Richard III is playwright’s second longest play in the canon, right there after the famous Hamlet, and is one of the most important plays every actor should read.
Best quote: “I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die.”
The Cherry Orchard
by Anton Chekhov
Named as a comedy by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard is his last and one of the most famous plays, which first opened in 1904 in Moscow. However, due to lack of farce in the material, Konstantin Stanislavski directed it as a tragedy. Almost any actor will eventually run into Chekhov’s work, and rest assured, The Cherry Orchard will be there somewhere.
Best quote: “In all my life I never met anyone so frivolous as you two, so crazy and unbusinesslike. I tell you in plain Russian your property is going to be sold and you don’t seem to understand what I say.”
A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Willliams
The Pulitzer Prize winning play by American playwright Tennessee Williams is one of the most known to actors everywhere. It was written in 1947, and put Marlon Brando’s name on the map. The play continues to have great presence in the theatre scene even today, and actors who can spend time with the original characters on paper will never regret doing so.
Best quote: “I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”
The Clean House
by Sarah Ruhl
It’s important to throw in some modern playwright work, and Sarah Ruhl’s play The Clean House fits perfectly. Whimsically romantic comedy first premiered in 2004 at Yale’s Repertory Theatre, and has since been produced in many cities in the United States, and it’s still popular in many different theatres.
Best quote: “I don’t read magazine, Virginia. I go to work exhausted and come home exhausted. That is how most of the people in this country function. At least people who have jobs.”
The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
Written by the genius of comedy Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People was first directed in 1895, London. The farcical comedy focuses on the Victorian ways in London of those days. To this day, Wilde’s sense of humor doesn’t feel outdated and the craftsmanship of the material is something every actor must learn about.
Best quote: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written in 1962 by famous American playwright Edward Albee. It examines the breakdown of the marriage of a middle-aged couple, Martha and George. George and Martha’s eviscerating one-liners are not only fun to read, but the actor won’t get any better picture of horrifying codependency.
Best quote: “I said I was impressed, Martha. I’m beside myself with jealousy. What do you want me to do, throw up?”
In the Blood – Acting Edition
by Suzan-Lori Parks
In The Blood was written by American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and it first premiered a the Joseph Papp Public Theater back in 1999. In the Blood carries traces of Parks’ earlier experimental approach presented in a more conventional manner. A particular gift of Parks is her skill at inscribing the physical moves and emotional states of her characters in dialogue itself.
Best quote: “I learned that if we embrace what’s happening, we are also embracing what is possible – and a road opens up for God to meet us halfway.”
Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
A very well-known play Death of a Salesman was finished in 1949 by American playwright Arthur Miller. It received the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. Although many will say that All My Sons or The Crucible is Miller’s greatest work, no most essential plays for actors to read list would be complete without Death of a Salesman.
Best quote: “Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be … when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am.”
by Sophie Treadwell
Machinal is a great play written by American playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell. It was first inspired by the real life case of convicted and executed murderer Ruth Snyder, and the play came to life on Broadway in 1928. It can be a challenge to read it but persistence pays off for any actor as the rhythm and repetition of words entraps the play’s protagonist and motivates her.
Best quote: “He has wings – but he isn’t free! I’ve been free, Father! For one moment – down here on earth – I have been free! When I did what I did I was free! Free and not afraid! How is that, Father? How can that be? A great sin – a mortal sin – for which I must die and go to hell – but it made me free! One moment I was free! How is that, Father? Tell me that?”
Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus – one of the three great Greek playwrights, is treated as the masterpiece of Aeschylus. In it the action takes place before the palace of Agamemnon in Argos at the time of his victorious return from the Trojan War. A must-read for any actor.
Best quote: “Wisdom comes through suffering.
Trouble, with its memories of pain,
Drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
So men against their will
Learn to practice moderation.
Favours come to us from gods.”
by Bruce Norris
Another modern play that deserves a mention, Clybourne Park was written in 2010 by American actor and playwright Bruce Norris. It’s a spin-off to Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun from 1959. Its carefully crafted dialogue won this play a Pulitzer Prize and made it one of the most often produced plays in the last few years. Can’t argue with that.
Best quote: “I told you so. I told you what it’s like. And he uses these ugly words in other people’s presence and I’m not some kind of matron, but what in the world is wrong with civility?”
The Caucasian Chalk Circle
by Bertolt Brecht
One of my personal absolute favorites, The Caucasian Chalk Circle is an amazing epic threatre play by my favorite German modernist playwright Bertolt Brecht. It’s the perfect example of Brecht’s epic theatre work, and the play itself is a parable about a simple peasant girl who rescues a baby and becomes a better mother than its wealthy natural parents. Highly recommended for actors.
Best quote: “We hope you will find that the voice of the old poet also sounds well in the shadow of Soviet tractors.”
Long Day’s Journey into Night
by Eugene O’Neill
Another Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a captivating drama in four acts written by one of the greatest American playwrights – Eugene O’Neill. The play is considered O’Neill’s masterpiece, and it was written around the early 1940s (but published in 1956). Perfectly staged scenes and monologues for thespians, as well as incredibly chilling view of a family torn by career, disease, and apathy.
Best quote: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”
A Doll’s House
by Henrik Ibsen
No list of most important plays for actors to read can be complete without the Norwegian master playwright from the 19th century, Henrik Ibsen. A Doll’s House is a three-act play which first premiered at the Royal Theatre in Denmark in 1879, having been published earlier that month, and it’s a significant piece of work for its critical attitude toward that time’s marriage norms.
Best quote: “You have never loved me. You have only thought it pleasant to be in love with me.”
Waiting for Godot
by Samuel Beckett
A favorite of many actors, Waiting for Godot is an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, and is his best work. In Waiting for Godot, two characters – Vladimir and Estragon – wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. It’s a seminal work of the 20th century, produced in reaction to the horrors of World War II, which examines the tragedy and purpose of our lives.
Best quote: “The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.”
Arms and the Man
by George Bernard Shaw
Arms and the Man is a funnny comedic play by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. It was first produced in 1894 at the Avenue Theatre, and was one of Shaw’s first commercial successes. The humorous play shows the futility of war and deals with the hypocrisies of human nature in a comedic fashion, something that most actors will enjoy immensely to portray on stage.
Best quote: “Soldiering, my dear madam, is the coward’s art of attacking mercilessly when you are strong, and keeping out of harm’s way when you are weak.”
The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
First playwright to appear twice on this list of most important plays every actor must read, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is truly important for many actors to learn about. It’s a four-character memory play which premiered in 1944 and catapulted Williams from obscurity to fame. A haunting play filled with wonderful material for actors and some of the finest scenes in the Williams canon.
Best quote: “Time is the longest distance between two places.”
Medea is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides, based upon the myth of Jason and Medea and first produced in 431 BCE. Considered shocking to his contemporaries, Medea and the suite of plays that it accompanied in the City Dionysia festival , came last place in the festival that year. A great classic from the masterful playwright.
Best quote: “Stronger than lover’s love is lover’s hate. Incurable, in each, the wounds they make.”
by August Strindberg
Miss Julie is a naturalistic play written in 1888 by Swedish playwright August Strindberg. It is set on Midsummer’s Eve on the estate of a Count in Sweden. Over the course of the play, Miss Julie and Jean battle until Jean convinces her that the only way to escape her predicament is to commit suicide. Many thespians love performing Strindberg’s work, and this is by far his best one.
Best quote: “Life is not so idiotically mathematical that only the big eat the small; it is just as common for a bee to kill a lion or at least to drive it mad.”
Oedipus the King
Oedipus the King, which also might be known by its Latin title Oedipus Rex, is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles that was first performed about 429 BC. It’s one of the most popular plays among educated dramatists. Each is a milestone in the history and evolution of Western theater. They are reflective of or influenced by major social, political, philosophical, or cultural changes in Western civilization.
Best quote: “To throw away an honest friend is, as it were, to throw your life away.”
by David Mamet
American Buffalo is a 1975 play by well-known American playwright David Mamet which had its premiere in a showcase production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, USA. As is emblematic of Mamet’s writing style, the play’s dialogue is sometimes terse and often vulgar, which some actors might find empowering to perform on stage and free themselves from the standards.
Best quote: “Action talks, and bullshit walks.”
by Noel Coward
Another genius comedy playwright Noel Coward wrote his best work Private Lives is 1930. It’s a comedy of manners in three acts which focuses on a divorced couple. Its second act love scene was nearly censored in Britain as too risqué, which, again, is something that might intrigue a lot of thespians looking for that type of performance on stage.
Best quote: “Strange how potent cheap music is.”
by Thornton Wilder
Our Town is a three-act play by another American playwright Thornton Wilder, written in 1938. It tells the story of the fictional American small town of Grover’s Corners between 1901 and 1913 through the everyday lives of its citizens. The play went on to have a lot of success on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Even today it remains popular and its revivals are frequent.
Best quote: “We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”
by Christopher Marlowe
English playwright from the Elizabethan era Christopher Marlowe wrote a play in 1604 called The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, but today it’s most commonly referred to simply as Doctor Faustus. The play is based on the German story Faust, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power, experience, pleasure and knowledge.
Best quote: “Hell is just a frame of mind.”
Updated: quotes from The Clean House and American Buffalo plays have been inaccurate in the originally published post. This has now been fixed thanks to the sharp eye of our readers.