The Best Plays/Playwrights of All Time
(In my rarely-if-ever humble opinion)
Writing plays is a skill. This is a fairly obvious statement. Not so obvious?
Reading plays is also a skill. An even less obvious statement?
You can’t actually write or read a play. You can write and read play scripts all you want, but a Play is meant to be seen. A Play is the Script brought to life. So, the title of this article is a bit deceptive. It should really be titled, “The Best Scripts/Playwrights of All Time”. But I think we can agree that I made the right move, as that’s simply not as catchy. But I digress. Anyway, while I’ve read about 400 play scripts, I haven’t seen most of them performed live as fully-fleshed out Plays.
How can I judge something that isn’t really being presented in its truest form?
That’s where the aforementioned play-reading skills come in handy.
You see, novels do all the work for you. They’re meant to fill your head through the magic of world-building. With play scripts, you as the reader need to do most of the work. If you read a script like you’d read a novel, you are bound to miss out on the experience the playwright is trying to give you. That’s because a script is just the launch point for the rest of the production. No matter how good your actors, director, and production team are, your Play can only be as strong as your Script. So when reading a script, I have a few rules for myself:
- Before even opening the script: Picture yourself in the audience. It’s 7:56pm. The show starts at 8pm, but they’ll probably start closer to 8:02pm. You just had a quick dinner, used the rest room, said Hello to some of your friends, used the rest room a second time to make sure your hair looks good in case your theatre crush happens to come to the show tonight, then go back in to find your seat. You’re reading the playbill, you look at the actors’ credits, compare them to your own, look for typos, look at the director’s note. One of your friends sees you and asks if you’re going to the party after the show. You start to answer when you see the lights dimming and you say you’ll find them at intermission to catch up. You silence your cell phone because you don’t want to be “that guy” and make sure you’re not hogging too much arm rest from your new seat-neighbors for the next two hours.
- The house lights are off, the curtain rises and the roller coaster that we call live Theatre is about to begin. NOW open the script and start reading.
- If the script has a break between Acts 1 and 2, give yourself an actual Intermission in your home. Go to the bathroom. Turn your phone back on. Check your email. Remember, the actual audience will be returning to these characters about 15 minutes later, so you can’t just read right from Act 1 into Act 2. (This is the same reason why I like to watch movies in one sitting, and why I don’t like to binge watch TV: if you were meant to take the week in between episodes to think about the show, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by watching one directly after the other).
- Remember that actors actually have to say these lines. So, the words may look pretty on paper, but will they actually play well? Will an actor actually be able to make them work for a live audience? It wouldn’t hurt to literally read some of the lines aloud for yourself to hear how they sound and see if a halfway-decent actor could reasonably come up with a few ways to deliver the line.
- Be aware of the set, lighting, sound, and where the actors are onstage while the dialogue is happening. While the dialogue is clearly the most important part of the script, it is NOT the only part. Again, while reading a novel, you only have to be concerned with the line you are currently reading. That is not so with scripts, where you have to be aware of the entire stage picture.
So, as you can see, while I recognize that reading a script can’t compare to the real thing of watching the play performed live, I do my best to simulate the experience on my own.
And while I have seen some plays that were wonderful to watch but horrible to read, I have found that most of the time: The better the Script reads, the better the Play has the potential to be.
Now, who am I to say what the Best Plays/Playwrights of all time are? I’ve performed and seen a fair amount of plays, but I’ve only written 1 ten-minute play (shameless plug, I know) and there are certainly a lot more than 400 plays out there.
That being said…can you honestly think of anyone else who has read 400 scripts?? (That’s not me being sarcastic-if you can think of someone, send them my way so I can ask them what their favorites are!)
But enough with the makeshift “Author’s Note”. Let’s get on with the Best Scripts list!
Favorite Overall: Brighton Beach Memoirs (Neil Simon)
Every time I re-read this script, I’m reminded why I need to do Theatre. Everything a Script should be, and should be studied by every playwright attempting to crack into the “family drama” category.
Best Overall: All My Sons (Arthur Miller)
As I explain in my article about the Best Movies of All Time, I believe a distinction can and should be made between someone’s “favorite” and what they deem the “best”. While I enjoy Brighton Beach more, no script is better-crafted than this one. Miller was a playwright who knew how to get his point across while creating beautiful AND realistic-sounding dialogue (no easy feat) in ways no other playwright could match.
Best Short Script: Sure Thing (David Ives)
A pleasure to read, watch, and perform. I’m lucky enough to have experienced all 3.
Best One-Act Script: The Lover (Harold Pinter)
Absurdism is not my thing. I even wrote a separate piece on why I think it’s bad for the Theatre. That being said, this script brilliantly puts into question the entire meaning of the word “fidelity”.
Best Legal Script: Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose)
The Smartest script I’ve ever read. Puts the entire American justice system on trial.
Best Race Script: “Master Harold”…and the Boys (Athol Fugard)
Race is a hard subject to get right in theatre, but this script does it!
Best Contemporary Script: Gloria (Brandan Jacobs-Jenkins)
The biggest trap I see contemporary playwrights falling into is making the dialogue too “easy”. Easy to read, easy to listen to, easy to perform. In the Theatre, “easy” does not mean “good”. Throwing a bunch of “likes” and “ums” in your dialogue may make it more attractive to the less sophisticated audience, but we need to be better than that if we want to continue to compete with movies/tv/streaming. Jacobs-Jenkins does just that, creating beautiful, realistic, and grounded dialogue while covering a topic that is paralleled by few in terms of importance.
Best Non-Traditional Script: My First Time (Ken Davenport)
Brilliant look at a simple subject. Laugh-out-loud funny, smart, and heartbreaking.
Best Script by an Absurdist Playwright: The Goat or Who is Sylvia (Edward Albee)
As I stated, I usually despise Absurdism. I’ve actually found Albee’s other scripts extraordinarily hard to get through. That being said, when I finished this script, I literally put it down and exclaimed “Holy s*#@”! Few scripts have impressed me like this one did.
Most Heartbreaking Script to read: Jake’s Women (Neil Simon)
Yes, you’re going to notice a lot of Neil Simon on this list. For very good reason. I don’t usually cry from entertainment, but this is one of the few scripts that has one scene in particular that I choke up just thinking about. If you think Simon is “only” capable of pulling off comedy…read this script and then get back to me.
Best Farce Script: Leading Ladies (Ken Ludwig)
Great script, and also one of the best plays I’ve ever seen live!
Best Greek Comedy Script: Lysistrata (Aristophanes)
Hysterical, poignant, timeless.
Best Greek Tragedy Script: The Medea (Euripides) (translated by Rex Warner)
Things don’t usually end well in Greek tragedies. This is no exception. But it is exceptional in it’s execution (pun intended) and stands out from its Greek counterparts with its epic stakes and powerful imagery.
Best Holocaust Script: The Diary of Anne Frank (Frances Goodrich/Albert Hackett)
Like Race, the Holocaust is a subject that is extremely important and extremely difficult to successfully produce on stage. We can never capture the nightmare that was the Holocaust, but because of scripts like this one, we will never forget it.
Best Hidden Gem Script: The Creation of the World and Other Business (Arthur Miller)
Yes, one could easily argue that nothing of Arthur Miller’s is “hidden”. However…have you ever heard of this script? When the average theatergoer with a halfway-decent amount of scholarly theatrical knowledge thinks about Arthur Miller, usually Miller’s big 3 are what come to mind (The Crucible, All my Sons, and Death of a Salesman). While this piece may not be nearly as commercially successful or popular as some of his others, it is nonetheless one of his best!
*Bonus* Best Neil Simon Script: Lost in Yonkers
Brighton Beach Memoirs may be my favorite, and Jake’s Women may be the most heartbreaking. With 30+ critically-acclaimed and widely-produced plays, Simon is more successful than most of the rest of the playwrights on this list combined. So yeah, he gets his own category all to himself. If you asked me which Neil Simon play should be in the American canon…well, I would say all of them. But if I had to choose one, as much as I love Brighton Beach, this one really is his best if we look strictly at the craft of playwriting.
The Rest of the Pack
Now, let’s dive into the best Playwrights of all time divided by their best Scripts!
- The Odd Couple
- The Odd Couple (Female Version)
- Biloxi Blues (sequel to Brighton Beach Memoirs)
- Broadway Bound (3rd in Brighton trilogy)
- The Good Doctor
- I Ought to Be in Pictures
- Laughter On the 23rd Floor
- Last of the Red Hot Lovers
- London Suite
- Come Blow Your Horn (really funny with a good amount of heart too, great example of Neil Simon’s style.)
- California Suite
- The Gingerbread lady
- Plaza Suite
- Barefoot in the Park
- The Star-Spangled Girl
- The Sunshine Boys
- The Prisoner of Second Avenue
- They’re Playing Our Song
- God’s Favorite
- Chapter Two
- Rose’s Dilemma
- The Creation of the World and Other Business (relatively unknown but a real hidden gem cause very clever look at beginning of the world.)
- An Enemy of the People (Great adaptation of Ibsen’s classic.)
- Death of A Salesman (didn’t love the first time I read it but read it again and liked it a lot more; one of those that you gain more appreciation for the more you read it.)
- The Crucible (very long and a bit hard to get through, but well-written and a classic.)
- View From a Bridge
- The Last Yankee
- Incident at Vichy
- Broken Glass
- The Price
- Rabbit Hole
- Wonder of the World
- Good People
- New Jerusalem; The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
- The Red Address
- Captive Audience (eerie, got some goosebumps.)
- English Made Simple (similar to Sure Thing, have also seen this performed and it was great.)
- The Green Hill
- Ancient History (a little tedious but overall very good.)
- A Singular Kinda Guy (cute, short.)
- Time Flies (cute, short.)
- The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage (so weird but so charming.)
- Soap Opera (like if David Ives wrote Little Shop of Horrors.)
- The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners (tv play, could easily work on stage w/lighting effects to signify the flashbacks.)
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
- Inherit the Wind (one of the best plays I’ve ever read. A lot of brilliant lines, good monologues, great scenes. I actively was anxious/excited/nervous about how it would end. Great stage directions too.)
John Patrick Shanley
1. Goodbye Charles (ton of great monologues.)
- The Piano Lesson
- An Ideal Husband
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- Lady Windermere’s Fan
- A Woman of No Importance
- Raisin in the Sun
- Our Town
- An Enemy of the People
- A Doll’s House
- Machinal (not a ton of young people like this one, but I loved it and the message it had about women in society.)
- Crimes of the Heart
- The Little Foxes
- The Children’s Hour
- The Miracle Worker
- Lend Me a Tenor (very formulaic for a Ludwig play but laugh out loud funny. A bit Neil Simon-esque.)
2. The Game’s Afoot
- Private Lives (really more of a comedic drama than a comedy. A lot of pain in this one, not perfect but really well-written.)
- Blithe Spirit
- The Metal Children (very well-crafted play about censorship.)
- Red Light Winter
- The School for Wives (Morris Bishop translation) (very funny, great scenes throughout, simple)
- Critique of The School for Wives (Morris Bishop translation) (beautifully meta-he’s making fun of people who don’t like the show…right after the audience has just seen the show).
- The Misanthrope (not a great ending but good scenes/monologues throughout).
- The Physician in Spite of Himself (like other Moliere plays in that it doesn’t end great, but is still fun overall).
- Whose Life Is It Anyway? (one of the more intriguing plays I’ve ever read. Really my kind of play.)
- The Boys Next Door (Some of the most fleshed-out characters I’ve ever read.)
- Spinning Into Butter (very good piece on race/subtle racism/white guilt.)
- Luna Gale
Bert V. Royal
- Dog Sees God
- The Lion in Winter (While it wasn’t a perfect script, the dialogue was very witty, clever, and fast-paced. It was like reading a modern adaptation of a Shakespearean story. High stakes, strong scenes.)
- The Bear (nice, short play)
- The Spoils
- Thyestes (some long, dragging monologues but some epic, heart-palpitating scenes, some nice word play.)
- Everyman (interesting metaphors for how you can’t take it with you when it comes to materialistic things.)
- Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (haunting and really good overall, even if his other works aren’t my cup of tea.)
- Prayer Meeting; Or, The First Militant Preacher (very good, short satirical. Metaphorical but clear.)
- Vietgone (very funny, flows very well, ton of great monologues/scenes.)
- Snow in Midsummer (very presentational but nice, short piece of theatre history.)
- I Am My Own Wife (interesting premise, needs phenomenal actor.)
- Big White Fog (like Brighton Beach Memoirs meets Raisin in the Sun.)
William Wells Brown
- The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (surprisingly satirical/funny.)
Douglas Turner Ward
- Day of Absence (not terrifically written but fascinating concept and funny satire, important historically.)
- For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (Not the easiest read, but definitely get the sense it’s much better seen than read.)
- Ruined (not perfect but some very heavy stuff, made me physically nauseous/queasy which few plays have done.)
- Six Characters in Search of An Author (beautifully meta) (Drama Classics edition.)
- Rhinoceros (translated by Derek Prouse. Delightfully ridiculous. Laugh out loud funny, ambiguity was clear.)
Frank Galati/John Steinbeck
- The Grapes of Wrath (American classic. Excellent first act, okay second act. If second act was as strong as first, would’ve been masterpiece.)
- St. Nicholas (certainly not his most well-known, but very unique, engaging, and interesting premise.)
- This Lime Tree Bower (no idea what the title or even the whole play is supposed to mean, but like reading an entertaining, poetic, stream-of-consciousness journal entry.)
Datz all folks!
You may notice a few things missing from this list. The first is everyone’s favorite bard, William Shakespeare. While I have enjoyed some of his scripts, I feel I need to read all of his works and see some more professional productions before making an accurate judgement on his writing style, as I would not call myself a fan at this moment in time (words I’m sure I’ll regret later on).
Second, I specifically didn’t include any of my friends’ scripts that I have read, even if they are better than some of the scripts on this list. That is because, as young playwrights, while their plays may be fully written, I am still accounting for the fact that they are likely to begin submitting these plays to festivals and will undoubtably continue to tweak the scripts throughout the next few years. As they are potentially not “complete” just yet, it felt wrong to include them on this list.
Finally, I didn’t include any scripts to Musicals, as it really is not fair to judge something that is so wholly dependent on visual/auditory features that simply can’t be replicated outside of a theater.
What are you thoughts? What did I miss? What did I get just right? Let me know! And if you liked this, check out all my other Best of All Time lists!
And for more things Datz, check out eddiedatz.com!
Note: This is an ongoing list that will continue to be edited as I read more plays and discover new favorites!