It was Oscar Wilde who once said, ‘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’. I believe there is much truth in this. Film is all well and good but it is like listening to a CD. Theatre on the other hand is like seeing a live band. The emotion, the spirit, the energy is not packaged and reproduced, it is alive and real and you are witnessing it with your own eyes. For example, based on his films, I never particularly cared for Jude Law one way or the other. After seeing him play Hamlet, however, it is hard to express my admiration for his amazing acting talent. I do not pretend for a moment that these are the best ten plays of all time. In truth, I don’t really know that much about theatre. These are simply my favourites. Let me know where I went wrong in the comments section below. What did I leave out?
10: Don’s Party – David Williamson (1971)
I am the first to admit that this play would not grace the top ten of a non-Australian theatre aficionado. But therein lays the point. This play was not written for non-Australians. This play captures beautifully the quintessential Australian character and that is one of the amazing strengths David Williamson has as a playwright. Although politics is the obvious focus of the play this is only a surface level interpretation. Williamson highlights the frustrations of suburban married life, the cycle of disappointment and the Australian notion of mateship. Class struggle is also beautifully interwoven through the characters’ interaction and also the affiliation of Don and most his friends to the Australian Labor Party. On top of that, it is really funny and the lovable Australian larrikin is ever present. My favourite quote has to be when a nude Cooley declares with indignation, ‘I don’t care if she is your wife! You don’t interrupt a man and a woman at their most intimate moment.’
9: The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde (1895)
Perhaps the genius of the Importance of Being Earnest is that it allows the audience to read as much or as little into it as they please. For many, perhaps most, there is a simple surface level joy to this play. Ever the master of wit, Wilde presents a hilarious production replete with satire and word play. At a deeper level the play can be seen as a harsh critique of the hypocrisy and self-righteous attitude of the Victorian aristocracy. The absurd nature of the play and need to create fictitious secret identities can be seen as an indictment of a culture which places more value on appearance than happiness. No one, of course, would have been in a better position to make such a criticism than Wilde whose love would ultimately see him thrown in jail.
8: A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams (1947)
For all the emotion and intensity (especially in the amazing filmic performance by Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh) the most striking part of Streetcar is the level of delusion people are capable of. The illusion of grandeur and aristocracy which permeate through Blanche Dubois’ every action seems at first to be her attempt to appear important and valued in front of others, especially her sister and brother-in-law. By the end you see just how broken and fragile this woman is. The illusion is not for the benefit of others but for herself. In many ways, it is the only thing keeping her sane. Her make-believe world is a defence mechanism against an unbearable reality. To this extent Blanche is a universal character. She is a mirror to us all. The clah of illusion and reality is something we all deal with till that coming day when we face mortality. And just because I can’t help myself, STELLA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
7: Othello, The Moor of Venice – William Shakespeare (c.1603)
I’m sure Shakespeare has been for hundreds of years the misery of many a 16 year old English student but yet, even now, who’s words speak with more clarity and poignancy about love, jealousy and the human condition? Othello is almost unbearably sad. The prejudice and injustice endured by the lead character is made all the more heart-breaking as, deceived by Iago and possibly mad by the end, he takes his vengeance on the one innocent person in the play, Desdemona. And yet, as with all Shakespeare, things are not always as they seem. Is Iago really the villain? Did not Iago have cause for offence and reason to hate Othello? At the end of the day was not Othello rather than Iago who smothered to death poor Desdemona? Again, what a magnificent portrayal of life. Is there such a thing as good guys and bad guys? I think Iago’s words still ring true, ‘O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’
6: Oedipus Rex – Sophocles (c.429BCE)
As William Blake so beautifully put it, ‘some are born to sweet delight, some are born to endless night.’ Do we really have free will or are we slaves to our destiny? Poor Oedipus. The Delphic Oracle foretold that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother. So desperate to avoid this he leaves his parents and the city of Corinth. Little was he to know, however, that the couple in Corinth were not his biological parents. On the highway he encounters a man and slays him after an argument, unaware it was his father. For solving the riddle of the Sphinx he is granted the Queen of Thebe’s hand in marriage, unaware it is his mother. Do any of us decide our own fate?
Sphinx: ‘What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?’
Oedipus: ‘Man (who crawls as an infant, walks upright as an adult and walks with a cane in old age).’
5: The Iceman Cometh – Eugene O’Neill (1939)
It is difficult for me to articulate why I love this play so much. Like Bukowski’s works, I really identify with society’s rejects, the bums, the hobos and the men whose existence revolves around getting their next drink. I have such love and sympathy for them at the same time. There is such tragedy in particular at Hickey’s chronic self-loathing and inability to accept his wife’s love and forgiveness. It is an amazing play.
4: The Crucible – Arthur Miller (1953)
Miller really does deserve a lot of credit for this play. He really has latched on to a theme that was always present in human existence and always will be present. The Crucible was written in 1953 and used the Salem witch trials as a perfect metaphor for the repulsive McCarthyism which was seeing innocent men and women persecuted without trial and without mercy in a supposedly free country. Miller could never have known how relevant and perfect that metaphor would be today in the age of terrorism where once again meddling things like civil rights have gone out the window so that Big Brother can better protect us from ourselves.
3: The Clouds – Aristophanes (c.423BCE)
Let’s be clear, Socrates is great. The man was amazing. In a round-a-bout way, however, that is why I love The Clouds. Perhaps it is my Australian tall poppy syndrome but I love the way Aristophanes cuts him down to size. Whilst broadly speaking, I am a fan of philosophy, I think Aristophanes does well to remind us that we must also live in the real world. The sheer madness of the Thinkery and the ethos that philosophy can turn inferior ideas into a winning argument is worth consideration. Aristophanes implores us to search to the core of an argument. Lawyers and propagandists can be convincing but this does not make them truthful.
2: Hamlet – William Shakespeare (c.1602)
Hamlet is the greatest thing to ever be written in the English language. There is often suspicion about a work which receives constant praise and attention. In the case of Hamlet, however, it is justified. It really is that good. The only reason Hamlet is not number one is because this is a personal favourites list. Objectively, I am happy to say, Hamlet is the best ever, without question. The philosophy exposed in the genius monologues, death, suicide, love, vengeance, are second to none. The cultural saturation of Hamlet is evidence to its greatness. The most illiterate, anti-theatre bogan you’ll find will still recognise the phrase, ‘to be or not to be, that is the question.’ Hamlet is to theatre what Beethoven’s Fifth is to classical music, so magnificent that it is known even to those who would rather not know it. Polonius: ‘This above all — to thine ownself be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.’
1: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? – Edward Albee (1962)
This is hands down my favourite play of all time. I am devastated that I missed the chance to see it live. The juxtaposition of the two couples who make up the entire cast is nothing shy of brilliant. The volatile and tumultuous relationship between George and Martha seems a ranging yang to the gentle ying that is the young Nick and Honey. And yet, by the end, you are left wondering who really has the strongest relationship. Under the intense pressure cooker which Albee creates, immediate cracks in Nick and Honey’s relationship are brought to the fore. George and Martha by contrast, for all their humanness seem surprisingly strong. Is the invention of a fictitious ‘blonde eyed, blue haired’ son a sign of desperation or strength? Whatever conclusions you draw, the dialogue is powerful. The play is intense from the start and elevates from there.
George: ‘You take the trouble to construct a civilization, to build a society based on the principles of … of principle. You make government and art and realize that they are, must be, both the same. You bring things to the saddest of all points, to the point where there is something to lose. Then, all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.’