The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)


Chapter 8. The World Stage: Reading through History with Drama

To read a play is a contradiction in terms. . . . Plays are to be seen and heard and responded to as one responds to a rite or a spectacle. They cannot be simply read, as one reads a novel.


Plays are literature and exist as complete experiences on a page, and are not made a complete experience in performance. Reading a play . . . is as thrilling an experience as seeing it.

—EDWARD ALBEE, playwright

A comfortable room, tastefully but not expensively furnished. Upstage right, a door leading into the hall, upstage left, a door leading to Helmer’s study.

“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”

These opening lines, written within two years of each other, affect the reader differently. The comfortable room, tastefully but not expensively furnished, appeals to the eye but to no other sense; it is a blank background, ready to contain any event from murder to marriage. But the second landscape reveals not just a physical place, but also a mood and an expectation. The scene is one of malingering, of reluctance, of slow revelation; the fog rises only grudgingly from the ground, and the stretched-out army, like a dragon, might at any moment wake up, rise, and scorch the ground.

The first opening lines—from A Doll’s House, written in 1897—are those of a play by Henrik Ibsen; the second opening lines belong to Stephen Crane’s short novel The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895. The play and the novel have a certain family likeness: Both move characters through a scenario. Both use dialogue to advance the plot and develop the characters. Both deal with the same basic conflict: Crane’s hero discovers his manhood, Ibsen’s Nora realizes that her femininity imprisons her. And both stand at the same historical point in the development of storytelling; Ibsen and Crane are both realists, writing lifelike accounts of a point of psychological transition in a character’s life.

Yet the two stories are very different. Like novels, autobiographies, and histories, plays follow the same basic trajectory we’ve already traced three times: from an ancient fascination with heroism and fate and a medieval preoccupation with the plan of God, through a Renaissance interest in humanity’s limitless quest for knowledge and an Enlightenment conviction in the power of reason, to a modern preoccupation with realistic, “scientific” explanations, and a postmodern disgust with that same scientific obsession. But plays and novels cannot be read in the same way. Crane the novelist provides you with every impression he wants you to have; Ibsen the playwright supplies only one dimension of his story. He must leave sight, sound, mood, and expectation in the hands of the directors, lighting technicians, scene designers, costumers, and actors who will put A Doll’s House on stage.

The stage imposes other restrictions on the stories told by plays. Novels can sprawl across vast landscapes; plays must fit on stage and within an audience’s attention span. Novels wander into the pathways of the characters’ minds; plays tell you what characters say and do, not who they are. The subject of the play is not the life of the mind, but human action. Even patterns of speech change, from page to stage. As the novelist Joyce Carol Oates writes, “What shimmers with life on the page may die within minutes in the theater . . . prose is a language to be spoken to an individual, recreated in an individual reader’s consciousness, usually in solitude, while dramatic dialogue is a special language spoken by living actors to one another, a collective audience overhearing.”1

The dialogue found in a novel echoes only in the mind of the individual reader, who recreates it in private. The dialogue of a play is heard in the company of a crowd of listeners—and as any teacher will tell you, a crowd of listeners has a weird, unpredictable personality of its own. What’s more, the playwright has no control over the presentation of the story to that crowd. The novelist keeps watch over sentences, shaping and polishing them in the knowledge that every reader will read the same words. But the words of a play are mediated by (at least) two separate sets of people: the director who stages and interprets the play, perhaps even cutting it into a different final form, and the actors who lend their own faces and personalities to the characters. A play is the polar opposite of autobiography: Autobiography takes what is private and controls it by shaping it into an acceptable form before allowing a reader to peep at it; the play gives itself to unknown handlers, trusting them with the job of setting it before its audience.

If the play is such a collaboration, why bother to read it?

Because you can act as director, allowing the play to take shape in your mind. Think for a moment of Hamlet. Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is preoccupied (haunted, we might even say) by his father’s recent death. “I see my father,” he muses to his friend Horatio, referring to his memories of the dead king. But Horatio, unknown to Hamlet, has already seen the ghost of Hamlet’s father stalking around the battlements, and he wheels around to look for the specter: “Where, my lord?” “In my mind’s eye,” Hamlet snaps, thinking this to be self-evident.

Hamlet’s father may have a poignant existence in his son’s mind, but Hamlet doesn’t do anything about his father’s death until the ghost makes a visible, on-stage appearance to him as well. Only then is Hamlet spurred to take action. And this action leads, ultimately, to the death of everyone he loves (not to mention several unfortunate bystanders). If Hamlet had been able to exercise his imagination a little more competently, drawing his own conclusions from his father’s haunting presence in his memory, the ghost’s appearance (and all of the deaths that unspool from this physical manifestation) wouldn’t have been necessary. But once the ghost appears in a particular form—once Hamlet’s idea of his father is forced by necessity to “take flesh,” once the ghost issues final orders to his son—a chain of particular events is set into motion and can’t be stopped.

What’s the lesson for the reader? Once staged, a play takes on an irrevocable reality, an inevitable outcome imposed on it from without. But while it is still in a reader’s mind, subject only to her imagination, it is full of limitless potential; it is richer than any staged version.

More than any other form of literature, the play is placebound. It is designed to be performed on a stage, so it is shaped by the possibilities and limits of staging which the playwright has in his mind as he writes. And the play is written not for the world, but for a particular, local audience (one way in which the “play proper” differs from the movie or TV script). Greek comedies were written for Athenians; medieval morality plays for illiterate churchgoers; English comedies of the Restoration for upper-middle-class Londoners; modern plays for Broadway or Chicago or London. Although these plays can speak to a much wider audience, they draw their form from the conventions that local audiences understand. Shakespeare wrote his tragedies with the restless groundlings in the pit in mind, knowing that they might hurl things at the stage if they weren’t entertained with “low humor” between noble soliloquies. This changed the final form of his plays.

Since the development of drama is so intensely affected by local theaters, local histories, local customs, and local dilemmas, the only way to write a decent “history of the drama” would be to treat each country and tradition separately. Each country has its own ancient plays and rituals, its own path into postmodern times. So the brief theatrical history that follows is focused on one particular part of the world: the English-speaking part. Ancient Greek dramas and European plays in translation do appear, but primarily because of their influence on English-language playwrights; I could not do justice to German expressionism, Russian symbolism, and French absurdism without covering German, Russian, and French history (which would require, among other things, better fluency in German, Russian, and French than I possess).2


Act I: The Greeks

Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Aristotle

Women and men have probably acted out stories for thousands of years (a whole subfield of cultural anthropology has grown up around the playlike rituals of ancient cultures), but the earliest written plays come from ancient Greece. The first Greek playwright was a poet named Thespis, who lent his name to the entire theatrical enterprise. In the early days of Greek drama, poets usually recited their works alone on stage. Thespis appears to have introduced the innovation of a chorus that sang, danced, and spoke dialogue with him in a back-and-forth interchange. Since all of Thespis’s plays have disappeared, it’s impossible to be sure of this, but the “chorus”—a “group character” that converses with the plays’ heroes—appears in all later Greek drama.

The great Greek playwrights who followed Thespis composed their plays for enormous outdoor stadiums that held as many as twenty thousand spectators; the plays were performed at festivals where the actors began at dawn and shouted out their lines for hours, and where the audience was likely to spend the intervals between plays feasting (and drinking). In such a setting, acting was not a matter of conveying emotion by a turn of the head, an expression, or a graceful gesture. The spectators were too far away (and probably too intoxicated) for subtleties.

Instead, the actors wore heavy masks, each expressing a single emotion, and relied on their speeches to carry the play forward. Special effects were limited; the most elaborate visual effect was provided by a crane that creakingly lowered an actor playing Zeus or Apollo to the stage (thus the phrase deus ex machina, “god from the machine,” to describe the unexpected appearance of a deity). The most elaborate actions—sea battles, earthquakes, stabbing deaths, and boiling children—tended to happen out of sight of the audience, with the Chorus (a group of fifteen or so men, picked months ahead of time and given special training in singing, dancing, and physical fitness) describing the action as it peered offstage.

Given the setting, the Greek plays were constructed as spectator sports: They retold mythological stories in a familiar form, so that the audience already knew what events to expect and when to expect them. A Greek play typically had five parts (which later served as the model for the traditional five-act English play); the prologue, during which the audience hears about the “backstory” of the play; the parados, the entry of the Chorus during which it chants or sings an introduction to the action that will follow; the episodes, which consist of several different “scenes” between the play’s main characters; the interludes, which come between the scenes, indicating a change in action or in place, and which consist of recited commentary or explanation (these interludes might have required the Chorus to move from one side of the stage to the other, in a ritualized progression known as strophe and antistrophe); and finally the exodus, the last climactic scene. As the episodes built toward the exodus, the spectators would follow along, waiting for the moment of crisis and the denouement, or resolution, that came after. The whole process required sympathy with the play’s hero, something like the emotion found in a football stadium during a home game; ancient Greek drama, with its arena performances, its ritualized costumes and victory gestures, and its demand for audience empathy, probably resembled the Super Bowl more than it did a modern-day Broadway production.

Aristotle, who followed the great Greek dramatists in time, codified their conventions into law in his Poetics. The purpose of the play, Aristotle writes, is mimesis—an imitation of life that grants the viewer greater understandingof the truths of existence. To be effective, this mimesis should be tightly focused on a narrow section of life; thus every play should have three “unities.” Unity of time decrees that a play should take place during “a single circuit of the sun” (centered on the moment of highest significance, in other words, rather than on an entire life); unity of action means that the play should focus all of its events around a single great event or theme; unity of setting dictates that the action should take place, as far as possible, in a single physical place. Tragedy, the most powerful form of mimesis, is the story of a hero who is “worthy of respect (spoudaois) and who makes a significant intellectual (not moral) error which leads to his downfall from happiness to misery.”3 Oedipus, with the best of intentions, makes the error of trying to avoid his destiny; Agamemnon, forced to choose between two evils, picks the wrong one. Tragedy succeeds, Aristotle writes, when it evokes pity (the emotion we feel when we see undeserved evil happening to someone else) and fear (which comes when we consider that this undeserved evil might happen to us too). The implication is clear: Moral missteps are relatively easy to avoid, but even the most upright man can make an honest mistake that will lead to catastrophe: You too could be Oedipus. If the tragedy is to be mimetic, offering the watcher (or reader) greater understanding, it must contain katharsis—a clear explanation as to why the hero encountered disaster.4

Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragedies; Aristophanes wrote comedies. Comedy, depending as it does on contemporary manners and morals to set up the jarring contrasts at its center, always dates more quickly than tragedy; a joke about politics loses its kick (try watching a Jay Leno monologue from the Bill Clinton era), but the danger of wrong choices never goes away. The Romans, who came after the Greeks and stole most of their literary principles, wrote more comedies than tragedies—which is why neither the Roman playwrights nor Aristophanes are so widely read today as the Greek tragedians.

But even the tragedies of the Romans were inferior to those of the Greeks. Drama generally held a lower place in the Roman social scheme. Roman theater groups, like Greek troupes, acted at festivals. But while the Greek festivals tended to be centered around play performance, Roman dramas had to compete with the more spectacular performances of lion fights, chariot races, and stadium sea battles. (In one of his prefaces, the tragedian Terence complains that the first two performances of his play were canceled because the audience left halfway through to go see the gladiator shows.) The Romans made no innovations in dramatic themes; these would come during the Middle Ages, when the Greek dramas had entirely slipped from view.

Act II: Mystery and Morality


College theater-appreciation texts notwithstanding, Christianity didn’t bring an end to classical drama; the barbarians who invaded Rome did. Classical drama needed physical space for its spectacles, players who could devote weeks to rehearsal and training, and spectators who had time to sit and watch. Without a leisured and prosperous population, classical drama (like professional football) had no space to exist. Acting didn’t disappear, since traveling bards, wandering acrobats, and clowns wandered through England and Europe all through the Middle Ages, but the theater crumbled.

But just as Christianity gave history a new shape—turning the linked episodes of the Greeks into a straight line pointing toward apocalypse—so the Christian church gave drama a new physical space within which it could remake itself. The church as an institution was not particularly enthusiastic about acting as such. The wandering bards, acrobats, and clowns were known for their loose morals, and the church’s bishops and theologians were suspicious of classical dramas composed in worship of Zeus, Apollo, Athena, and other “demons.” But the drama itself was remarkably compatible with the Christian view of the world. After all, plays were structured around action, and Christianity was all about God’s meaningful acts in history. Plays were built with a beginning, a middle, a crisis, and a resolution; Christianity found the beginnings of its story in the Garden of Eden, the middle in Israel’s existence as a nation, the crisis in the Crucifixion, and the resolution in the Resurrection. And Christianity had its own classical hero in Christ-Adam, a composite figure who made the wrong intellectual choice in the Garden of Eden and suffered catastrophe on the cross. All of human history, post-Resurrection, was a denouement, a working out of the rippling effects of this one central event.

Furthermore, the rituals of the church were themselves theatrical, relying on a constant retelling of the Creation-Crucifixion-Resurrection tale. Church services even included dialogue. The reading of the Old Testament, the gospels, and other portions of the New Testament out loud in each service, an attempt to bring the sacred Word to a largely illiterate populace, often involved conversations between different biblical characters. Although no one knows for sure when different “actors” were assigned to the different parts of scriptural dialogue, a chanted portion of the Easter service that recounts the dialogue between the angel at the tomb and the three Marys who came to anoint Christ’s body was probably dramatized first. Initially, the parts were read by different voices; eventually (perhaps) costumes and props were added. Maybe this additional entertainment tended to increase Mass attendance. We can only speculate, but we do know that other scriptural stories were soon acted out as well. These “mystery plays” (“mystery” here takes its oldest, biblical sense of something once hidden, now revealed and explained) retold the stories of Creation, the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Flood, the raising of Lazarus, the Last Supper—the central scenes of the Bible, all the way through to the Last Judgment.5

At some point (driven, perhaps, by an increasing audience, or by the church’s wish to evangelize), the drama went outside. The mystery plays moved from the center of worship to the center of village activity—the marketplace. In the process, mystery plays acquired the first corporate sponsors. The water-drawers’ guild supplied the flood for the Noah’s Ark mystery play while the carpenters built the Ark; the bakers’ guild cooked up an elaborate Last Supper, and the goldsmiths created jewelry for the Three Kings to offer to the Christ Child. At one point, the guild use of the plays for product placement grew so shameless that the city of York put a ban on guild emblems. The “secularization” of the plays extended to attention-grabbing subplots as well; the Noah’s Ark mystery play incorporates a subplot about Noah’s wife and her unwillingness to enter the ark; the Second Shepherd’s Play is mostly about sheep stealing, although the Christ Child makes an extremely brief appearance right at the end.

These mystery plays are not direct descendants of the Greek tragedies; their origin is entirely different. Yet there are certain lines of continuity. Like the Greek dramas, the mystery plays offer illustrations of truths about existence, not psychological studies of individual characters. Noah’s wife, a medieval shrew who scolds her husband and swears by Jesus Christ, is a walking anachronism, but her place in the story illustrates God’s gracious redemption of the undeserving. Mystery plays were filled with types and generalizations, designed to illustrate qualities, not personalities.

In time, the morality play—the allegorical exploration of character qualities—became detached from its Bible-story foundation and stood on its own. Morality plays told the story of a character representing man, wrestling with abstractions made concrete: Lust, Ambition, Greed, Sloth. He is advised in his struggle by Good and Bad Angels, who encourage him to choose such companions as Friendship, Confession, and Penance instead. The Castle of Perseverance stars Mankind and his (successful) temptation by Lust-liking, Flesh, and Pleasure; after Mankind dies, Mercy, Justice, Peace, and Truth (the “four daughters of God”) argue about whether he should be allowed into heaven. Everyman, the best-known medieval morality play, brings Death on stage to inform Everyman of his impending demise. Everyman’s companions, from Wealth to Friendship, soon desert him, leaving him with only Good Works at his side.

By the fifteenth century, the acting of plays had been entirely removed from the physical space of the church. Companies loaded their scenery onto wagons and traveled from town to town with their morality and mystery plays; the drama gained its own place as outdoor theater. Actors spoke their lines, close to their audiences, where the emotions on their unmasked faces could be clearly seen.

Act III: The Age of Shakespeare

Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare

“Oh, what a world of profit and delight, of power, of honor, of omnipotence!” exclaims Dr. Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s discontented hero. “All things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command!” The possibility of controlling the world was new to the Renaissance; increasing knowledge of the physical universe seemed to promise a new dominance over it. For the first time, man was not merely a soul poised between heaven and hell, waiting out his days on earth so that he could begin his real life in heaven. He was a personality—in the words of Jacob Burckhardt, a “many-sided man,” a free individual with power to act in the world and to change it. The flat, allegorical Everyman of medieval drama had become a person, full of complexities, ambitions, and potential.

Shakespeare dominates the Renaissance, but the first “person” in English drama belongs to Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe, two months older than Shakespeare, was already writing in the 1580s, ten years before Shakespeare’s first “dramatical histories” came to the stage. His early play Tamburlaine, about the fearsome Mongol conqueror who called himself the “scourge of God,” rejects the notion that Tamburlaine might be an instrument of divine purpose; he is instead an active, thinking human. “Nature,” Tamburlaine tells one of his victims,

Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds;

Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend

The wondrous architecture of the world

And measure every wandering planet’s course,

Still climbing after knowledge infinite,

And always moving as the restless spheres,

Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest.

In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe takes Everyman and turns that flat character into an individual. Faustus, restlessly climbing after “knowledge infinite,” is faced with the same choice that Everyman is given: knowledge and wealth on earth or bliss in heaven. Unlike Everyman, Faustus chooses earth; like any good Renaissance scholar, he is unable to turn his back on the unfolding knowledge of the physical world, even if it means his damnation.

And at the play’s end, Faustus has both knowledge and hell. The Renaissance (and later, the Enlightenment) praised human ability to act: to survey a situation, analyze it, decide on a course of action, and carry it out triumphantly. Yet the two greatest Renaissance playwrights are skeptical of simple Renaissance optimism. Shakespeare writes comedies, tragedies, and histories—but he never writes victories. Even the happy endings of his comedies are bittersweet, spiked through the heart by past misunderstandings and the possibility of future dissolution. Shakespeare’s heroes are thoughtful and able to act, but they are also unhappy, conflicted, divided against themselves.

Greek literature (and architecture) was rediscovered during the Renaissance, and Shakespeare is obviously aware of Aristotle’s laws for dramatic form: He writes his plays in five acts and makes a half-hearted attempt to maintain the unities. But he asks his audiences to empathize with his heroes, not because they are morally upright, but because their motivations are psychologically credible. Lear’s demand that his daughters love him more than their husbands is twisted but pathetically real. We grit our teeth over Hamlet’s indecision, but his unwillingness to throw a match into the bonfire piled up in the middle of his family is perfectly comprehensible. Richard III is a moral monster but an efficient politician, an individualist who looks first to his own end, rather than the larger good, quite different from the Oedipus who tries nobly to do what is best for his people, even in the face of private catastrophe.

And, of course, all of these men come to sad ends. The Renaissance saw man as free to choose his own path, rather than bound into God’s preordered design; Shakespeare’s heroes are free, but they are far from happy. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, in the most quoted lines of As You Like It:

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. . . .

Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Greek drama had acted out, ritually and with stylistic gestures, the place of man in a world governed by immovable forces; man could not always avoid breaking the universe’s rules, but at least he knew why the resulting chaos descended on him. Medieval drama had acted out, ritually and with the Bible as its playbook, the place of man in a comprehensible universe where God had already determined his beginning, middle, and end. But in this third act of the human drama, a time of constant discovery, when no one knew what the astronomer might see in the heavens next, the players on stage were acting out a play without a predestined end. Renaissance scientists and philosophers might see this undetermined end as a glorious one, brought about by man’s increasing power over the universe; Shakespeare is not so sure.

The age of Shakespeare was brought to an end not by an intellectual movement, but by politics. The theater—not to mention England’s economy—flourished under Elizabeth I and her heir, James I. But the powerful Puritan wing of Parliament found James’s son Charles I to be insufficiently Protestant; they started a civil war, exiled the king (and later executed him), and campaigned against all things Catholic and all things libertine. Sculptures and all art that bore the taint of the icon were destroyed; the theaters, centers of public immorality, were closed down; England lay under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. The English playwrights fled to France or retired; actors got other jobs; the “spirit of Elizabethan drama was largely extinguished.”6

This great disruption illustrates, more clearly than any theoretical argument, how different the drama is from the novel, or the autobiography, or the work of history. If a government declared novels to be immoral, novelists would go right on scribbling in secret; memoirists have written their stories in prison camps, under repressive regimes, in hiding. But plays cannot be held in a secret room. They must have a space to inhabit, or else they die.

Act IV: Men and Manners

Molière, William Congreve, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oscar Wilde

Until his death in 1659, Cromwell went on trying to “fix” society by running it according to Puritan principles, and banning (among other things) horse races, dancing, and Christmas. But in 1660, Parliament rejected the Puritan commonwealth and brought Charles’s heir, Charles II, back out of exile. And there was great rejoicing, not so much over Charles II—who was inclined to figure prominently in brothel brawls, street riots, pub fights, and all sorts of other disruptive messes—as over the absence of Cromwell’s government. The theater made a strong return. Charles II issued royal licenses for two theater companies, which he declared to be the only legal theaters in London (thus the birth of the term “legitimate theater”). The playhouses were rebuilt—but with a difference. The theater of Shakespeare’s time had developed from the marketplace, grass-roots drama of the Middle Ages. The theater of the “Restoration” was an elite institution, run by aristocrats and licensed by the king himself. Shakespeare’s Globe had seated fifteen hundred, with plenty of cheap tickets for anyone who wanted to stand in front of the stage. The new London playhouses held five hundred at the most, with no standing room for the working-class “groundlings.”

And the plays which the prosperous audiences came to see were very different from the plays of the Renaissance. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were times of political uncertainty, during which philosophers were laying down arguments against the old hierarchies that had governed society for centuries. England’s monarchy, unlike others, had survived its crisis, but the old order was not what it had been; Charles II was a trifler, ruled by his mistresses, and his court—those aristocrats theoretically given, by God, the task of ruling their inferiors—was even worse. Nor did the monarchy fare well in the years that followed. Charles’s heir, the Catholic James, unexpectedly fathered a child, at which point the English, unable to bear the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, got rid of him and imported the Dutch William, hemming him about with restrictions. It was an age of lofty political ideals and of practical compromises, of rhetoric about man’s freedom combined with real constraints on man’s existence, of an enormously high respect for the common man combined with a down-to-earth distrust of what that common man might do if he were actually allowed to take over.

In the absence of old certainties and old gods, Restoration and eighteenth-century society turned to new stabilities, combining a new passion for classical art and architecture (structured, symmetrical, stable, and ruled by unvarying laws) with an unending respect for manners, which became a way of mastering the uncertainties of a rapidly shifting society. Manners reinforced the existence of an upper (and upper-middle, middle, lower-middle, and working) class, in a world where philosophers were rejecting hierarchy; Rousseau might write about radical equality, but the man in the street was snickering at his neighbor’s inability to tie a cravat properly.

Restoration and eighteenth-century dramas held to classical forms—but mocked society’s obsession with manners, especially those that hedged sex and marriage. And the greatest Restoration and eighteenth-century dramatists are, like Shakespeare, pessimists about human nature. In the plays of Oliver Goldsmith and Molière, characters use manners as weapons which allow them to do as they please; a power-hungry, savage face snarls beneath the mask of manners. Locke and Rousseau may debate calmly about man’s nature, but Goldsmith and Molière are the hecklers, shouting from the corners, “You think man is ruled by reason? Come and see what human beings are really like.”

In an age in which scientists, politicians, historians, and novelists were announcing that man was ascending to the stars, playwrights—those who actually had to put people on stage so that they could act—were not convinced. Their plays are full of compromise, stupidity, crassness, malice, evil, and all uncharitableness. Their upper-class heroes are tyrants and triflers; Goldsmith’s Mr. Marlow announces proudly that he can enjoy himself only in the company of common women, whom he can seduce without feeling guilty. Goldsmith goes so far as to put his “low” hero Tony Lumpkin at the center of his story. Lower-class characters, he argued, had a greater range of emotions and qualities, because fashion did not make them the same by smoothing their characters into uniformity. Did his upper-crust audience get the joke against them? Apparently not; they laughed at Tony Lumpkin and applauded when Marlow got the girl.

“Manners,” that artificial shape given to the ultimate chaos of life, were ordained by a society that believed in rules and in the smooth, scientific, clockwork functioning of the universe. The comedy of manners satirized the rules, and in doing so displayed a certain distrust for man’s ordering of the world. But these comedies still held to the classical conventions of the play itself—the five-part structure, the unity of time and place and action. This “neoclassical” structure transformed playwriting into a rational activity; in good Enlightenment fashion, reason, the most important part of man, was in firm control of the imagination.

Act V: The Triumph of Ideas

Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, Eugene O’Neill, Jean Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Robert Bolt, Tom Stoppard

The nineteenth-century Romantics revolted against this Enlightenment vision of humans as thinking machines. Romantics rated emotion and creativity much higher than rationality; the playwright was not an artisan, but a genius unlimited by conventions and rules. By the late nineteenth century, playwrights began to shake off those Aristotelian ideals in favor of wilder, freer, and more anguished forms.

The Romantics rejected, not only the ordered classical play structure, but also the Enlightenment optimism which announced that the world could be classified, ordered, and dominated. The Romantics wrote in the clear knowledge that man’s reach would always exceed his grasp, and that no knowledge would ever satisfy his deepest longings.

Romantic poets were prey to angst, depression, and self-slaughter, and their plays were “poetical dramas,” wild, fantastic poem-plays that could not physically fit onto the nineteenth-century stage. Straining against the Enlightenment framework, these poets were still imprisoned by the conventions of the stage—until the early part of the twentieth century.

Modern dramatists, led by Bertholt Brecht (born just before the century’s turn), had an epiphany: They rejected the “realistic conventions” of the stage in order to portray life with more truth. “Theatrical realism”—preserving the illusion that the action on stage is “real” through traditional sets, natural dialogue, and the observance of an invisible “fourth wall” between audience and actors—was now seen as complicit in the illusion of order, a false structure that (like the manners of the eighteenth century) found imaginary rules in a world which was actually made up of chaos and disorder.

Brecht, probably the most influential theorist of the drama since Aristotle, rejected the idea that some inexorable destiny governs human existence and leads us toward a meaningful end. In his plays, he also rejected the traditional play structure leading to a climax; in Brechtian “epic theater,” there is no more “decreed end,” no “resolution” resulting from the characters’ actions. Instead, these plays are sets of linked episodes; they concern, not heroes or men of action, but (in the words of Brecht’s friend and interpreter Walter Benjamin) the “Untragic Hero,” a thinking man making his way from episode to episode.

In his effort to shake the audience from its preoccupation with order, Brecht prescribed the insertion of intervals to “destroy illusion” and “enable the spectator to adopt a critical attitude.” The “fourth wall” also disappears: “The stage is still elevated,” Benjamin writes. “But it no longer rises from an immeasurable depth: it has become a public platform.”7 In other words, there is no “stage,” no exalted point from which any member of society has any right to make pronouncements about what is right and what is orderly; the actors and audience are grappling together with the play’s ideas. In a Brechtian play such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or Peter Schaffer’s Equus, the audience might be seated partially on stage; the actors might wander down to sit with the audience. Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager speaks directly to the audience, introducing the players by their real names. He doesn’t want the onlookers to become lost in the story of Emily and George; he wants them to keep themselves firmly in mind throughout.

In English-language drama, two “Brechtian” movements have been particularly widespread: symbolic drama, and the “theater of the absurd.” Symbolism is based in part on the work of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who wrote that drama should be “evocative rather than descriptive, and relying upon suggestion as opposed to statement.”8 Mallarmé went a step further than Brecht (who had no particular objections to scenery or costumes); he wanted the stage to be stripped and “detheatricalized,” reduced to bareness, so that the playwright could offer the audience obvious symbols. For the symbolist, the orderly appearance of the world is a veil that hides real truth; the only way past the veil is through the use of symbols, which can momentarily lift it and give us a glimpse of what lies behind. Symbolist drama (such as Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which features a woman buried up to her waist in sand but only aware of her predicament in fleeting glimpses) features oblique, nonrealistic dialogue, long disruptive pauses, and little action.

“Theater of the absurd” rejects theatrical realism, not so much because the conventions of the theater are inadequate, but because traditional explanations of the meaning of life are themselves inadequate. To quote the playwright Eugène Ionesco, man is “lost in the world, [and] all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” So absurdist drama eliminates cause and effect, turns characters into types rather than portraits, and reduces language to a game which has no power to convey meaning. Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, published in 1952, is “theater of the absurd.” It lacks plot, character development, and (for that matter) setting, and guides the audience toward the conclusion that life, too, lacks plot, character, setting, and any possibility of meaningful communication. Dramatists who use the principles of the “theater of the absurd” belong to no particular school, since they insist that any shared agreement between minds is an illusion; each writer is, by definition, “an individual who regards himself as a lone outsider, cut off and isolated in his private world.”9 But they do share an attitude: All certainties have disappeared, be they religious, political, or scientific. “Absurd,” writes Ionesco, “is that which is devoid of purpose. . . . Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost.”10

Theater of the absurd was one expression of modern despair, but not every modern playwright is sunk in despair—and not all have chosen to express their doubts about life through symbols or absurdity. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Robert Bolt, and others may borrow from Brecht (Bolt’s Common Man in A Man for All Seasons is not so very different from Wilder’s Stage Manager), but they allow their stories to unfold within a particular place and time: Tudor England, the New York of the 1940s, a hot apartment in a Polish neighborhood. Playwrights who maintain a level of dramatic realism in their dramas find truth in the actions of characters; they believe that an audience can recognize a human likeness in the actions and motivations of another person. Tom Stoppard makes a statement about language by allowing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to disappear into a whirl of confusion and absurdity at his play’s end; but Arthur Miller tells us about American capitalism in his detailed psychological portrayal of Willy Loman, sixtyish salesman, and Tennessee Williams writes about despair through his portrait of an alcoholic southern belle. Realistic drama, in the words of Anne Fleche, “provides a motivation for dialogue, a reason for being. It promises a fullness of meaning, a logic that connects character. . . . Thoughts are connected through dialogue; they become lucid and perceptible.”11 Symbolism and absurdism reject the possibility that words can reveal any truth about human existence; dramatic realism retains its faith in language. Both kinds of drama continue to exist side by side.


In 1959, the dramatist Harold Habson—faced with plays full of symbols and absurdities—wrote indignantly, “It is time someone reminded our advanced dramatists that the principal function of the theater is to give pleasure. . . . It is the duty of the theater, not to make men better, but to render them harmlessly happy.”12

The debate about what theater ought to do has continued ever since. “Serious” theater—whether realistic or not—has continued to attract a sizable audience, but since Restoration times and the elimination of cheap tickets for groundlings, “popular” and “serious” theater (read “entertainment” and “exploration of ideas”) have continued to diverge. Brecht and his followers stripped the stage and sent actors out into the audience. But the “popular” theater developed a quite different form: melodrama, which sold hundreds of thousands more tickets than the serious theater. In melodrama, good and evil were clearly defined, and the villain got what he deserved while the audience cheered. The melodrama, with its affirmations of married love, patriotism, motherly affection, and the dangers of debt, gambling, and drinking, was what most people saw while the intellectuals were attending performances of No Exit. In America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became one of the most successful melodramas ever, with over five hundred touring companies presenting it (“Many actors spent their entire professional lives playing in Uncle Tom,” remarks Daniel Gerould).13 Under the Gaslight introduced audiences to London poverty and ended with the poor working girl rescuing a bound victim (a one-armed veteran) from the path of an oncoming train (an image which became emblematic of the melodrama).

Melodrama was entertainment, but it also represented a third path toward truth; as Peter Brooks writes in his well-known study The Melodramatic Imagination, melodrama was born in a time of “radical freedom,” when audiences needed “the promise of a morally legible universe to those willing to read and interpret properly its signs.” Realistic drama claimed that human beings could find truth in careful psychological portraits, making the mind the place where connections between people are possible; nonrealistic drama claimed that no connections between people are possible at all; melodrama asserted that ultimate good and evil exist, and that “even when facing an abyss, man may choose to believe in good and evil.”14 Melodrama is no longer performed today, but that’s not because no one believes in good and evil anymore; the function of melodrama has shifted to the summer blockbuster movie with its good guys, bad guys, and victorious endings.

Serious theater, battling both the movies and Cats for spectators, remains perpetually in crisis. At its best, a serious play provides what Peter Brook calls the “Holy Theatre”—a place where the audience can see “the face of the invisible through an experience on the stage that transcended their experience in life. They will maintain that Oedipus or . . . Hamlet or The Three Sisters performed with beauty and with love fires the spirit and gives them a reminder that daily drabness is not necessarily all.”15 This doesn’t always happen in serious theater, which has been justly accused of unintelligibility and bleakness.

In Equus, the last play on this particular annotated list, Peter Shaffer expresses his own yearning for some connection with the ineffable that can’t be conveyed only with words but requires speech and action. How this will be conveyed in the future (the techniques of symbolism and theater of the absurd have become somewhat dated) is still an open question. Netflix and Hulu, not to mention the movies, will not kill the theater any more than the ebook has killed the paperback; it is worth noting how many playwrights (most notably David Mamet, whose plays may well end up in a future list of dramatic classics) cross over into screenwriting while still fully engaged in the theater.

But there’s no particular agreement among contemporary playwrights as to what degree of realism is necessary for an audience familiar with the conventions of film. Like the novel, the drama has seen something of a move away from abstraction: “If I read one more article about how we all have to steer ourselves away from narrative and realism because TV and film do that, and our job is to ‘push the envelope,’ ” writes the playwright Theresa Rebeck, “I’m just going to throw up. This elitism is driving audiences away.”16 “The audience needs to be clear about what’s up on stage,” the playwright Marsha Norman insisted:

Television does such a great job with social issues, with personal family drama, the kinds of things that were the mainstay of a certain segment of theater writers; Arthur Miller, for example. . . . Those things are actually better done on television. . . . What we look for in the theater are things that only theater can do, not what TV and film can do better.17

What theater can do better than TV is to imagine. Norman’s dialogue is realistic, but her sets are bare (her play Trudy Blue operates “at mental speed,” the character imagining herself from set to set while the actors use only five chairs and a table) and Norman identifies this “getting to pretend” as theater’s strength. But it is notable that her pretending involves character development; although it has retained some elements of dramatic nonrealism, contemporary theater seems to be shifting away from the symbolic, philosophical “idea play,” back to the exploration of the human personality.


Compared with novels and autobiographies, plays are generally quite short. This may allow you to add one extra step to your reading process: Before the “first level of inquiry” reading, consider scheduling a block of time in which you can sit down and read the play straight through in one sitting, without stopping or looking back. After all, a play is constructed to be acted during a single evening; and since acting takes place in time, the production always moves forward, never backward. Novels, autobiographies, and histories are designed to be read slowly, with time for meditation, and with the freedom to turn back and compare a writer’s conclusions with the premises. But a playwright knows that the audience won’t have the luxury of looking back. Your first reading should reflect this reality.

If you cannot take the time to do this (with some longer plays, such as Shakespeare, you may simply find it too cumbersome), you can progress directly to the first level of inquiry.

The First Level of Inquiry: Grammar-Stage Reading

Just as you did when reading the novels, ask these basic questions as you read: Who are these people? What happens to them? And how are they different afterward? As you read, if you sense that one particular scene is essential—even if you’re not quite sure why—make a note of it or turn down the corner of the page, so that you can glance back at it after you’ve finished your first-level reading.

Look at the title, cover, and general organization of the play.   Read the title page and back copy; write the play’s name, the author’s name, and the date of composition on your blank page. Beneath, make a note about the general historical era that the author belongs to. Is he an ancient Greek, an Englishman of the Restoration; is she a post–World War II American? If you gather any useful information about the author or about the play’s structure, make a note of that as well; it may help you to read intelligently: “Reality and illusion intermix. . . . [F]ate leads our two heroes to a tragic but inevitable end” reads the back of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; if you know this, you won’t expect realistic scenes, and you’ll be able to look out for “inevitabilities” as you read.

Then, glance at the play’s divisions. Note the number of acts: three, four, five, one? Does the play keep to classical structure, or is it episodic, like a Brechtian play? Does it divide symmetrically into two halves? If so, look for a “cliffhanger” toward the end of the first part. Is there a separate prologue or epilogue? These are probably locations for an introductory or final statement of purpose. Arthur Miller’s two-act Death of a Salesman closes with a separate scene, the Requiem: “He only needed a little salary!” the salesman’s wife cries, but her son answers, “No man only needs a little salary”—which is one of the play’s organizing themes.

When you encounter stage directions, read them carefully.   As you begin to read, pay attention to stage directions, both descriptions and notes about the movements of actors across the stage. Older plays often contain very little (or nothing) in the way of stage directions: “Enter Oedipus” is about all the direction you’ll find in Oedipus the King, and even this was inserted by the play’s translator. However, if you read with attention to what the characters are doing, you will find clues in the characters’ speeches that will help you to picture their actions on the stage. “Hamlet in madness hath Polonius slain,” the king announces, “And from his mother’s closet hath he dragged him.” Hamlet has just slain Polonius, but without the king’s speech, we wouldn’t know what action he took afterward.

More recent scripts are more likely to lay out the scene with great detail: “At a plain strong oak table,” writes George Bernard Shaw in Saint Joan, “seated in chair to match, the captain presents his left profile. The steward stands facing him at the other side of the table, if so deprecatory a stance as his can be called standing. The mullioned thirteenth-century window is open behind him. Near it in the corner is a turret with a narrow arched doorway leading to a winding stair which descends to the courtyard.” Shaw could hardly be more specific.

What conclusion can you come to? The setting of Oedipus is not central to the play’s meaning; it has been played in modern dress, in the South before the Civil War, in Japanese masks, as an African American gospel production (as has Hamlet, with varying degrees of success). Saint Joan, on the other hand, can only be played in fifteenth-century France. When a playwright provides you with this level of detail, he intends you to take note. Don’t simply skim past the description and move on to the dialogue. Instead, take the time to picture the scene in your mind; when you find a clue such as the king’s speech above, pause for a moment to visualize the action it describes.

You may find it helpful to sketch the stage and the furnishings, and then to trace in pencil, as you read, any movements indicated by the playwright. Whenever the writer takes the time to write such directions as [Rising] in front of a character’s dialogue, or [Crosses stage left], he is emphasizing that action in order to draw attention to something on stage: the speech, the actor, another character. If the character “crosses stage left,” does she cross to another character, to an empty space, to the shadow of a tree, to the threshold of a door?

Keep a list of characters as you read.   Unlike the novel, which introduces you to each character in turn, the play generally lays out the dramatis personae right up front. Glance down the list; if you wish, you can make a note of each character in your own journal, so that you can jot identifying sentences after each one. (You may feel more inclined to do this if the list seems confusing or too large.) In contemporary plays, the dramatis personae will sometimes include the names of the actors who premiered the part. So, in A Streetcar Named Desire, you’ll find that Marlon Brando was the first actor to play Stanley Kowalski, with Jessica Tandy as Blanche Dubois. Sometimes this can help you to visualize a part, since the director undoubtedly cast an actor who seemed to be physically “right” for the role in its first performance.

Watch for physical descriptions of the characters, or “tags” explaining emotion. Shaw provides both: Joan, he writes, has an “uncommon face; eyes very wide apart and bulging as they often do in very imaginative people, a long well-shaped nose with wide nostrils, a short upper lip, resolute but full-lipped mouth, and handsome fighting chin.” Later, Captain Robert de Baudricourt makes a speech which is prefaced with the following tag [his irresoluteness now openly swamping his affected decisiveness].

As with stage directions, if the writer inserts these tags, she means you to pay attention to them; make notes of the physical description of the characters, and of any hints of the character’s emotional makeup that the tags might provide.

Briefly note the main event of each scene.   As you finish each scene, write down a simple sentence describing the primary action and the characters who take part in it. As you write, don’t forget that other characters may be on stage as well. It is simple, when reading, to imagine the characters, not on stage, but in the actual place where the writer puts them: a courtroom, a living room, a basement. But in actuality they are sitting on a raised platform in front of people who are staring at them. The playwright, as the critic Ronald Hayman remarks, has the problem of giving them something to do: “Whenever there is more than one character on stage,” Hayman counsels, “the reader needs to keep them all in mind. The temptation is to concentrate exclusively on whoever is speaking. A character who is listening—or not listening—may be contributing no less to the theatrical effect. . . . If they are not speaking, what are they doing?”18

Can you identify a beginning, middle, climax, and resolution?   A play, no matter what it treats, has to ask an initial question, or set before you a scene which has in it some kind of tension. What is the initial question or tension?The curtain rises; you see Oedipus the king, standing at the top of the temple steps while his people stream up them to ask the gods why Thebes has been struck with plague, blight, miscarriage, crop failure. Oedipus doesn’t know, and neither do we; we need the answer to this question. Tom Stoppard begins Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with an entirely different kind of tension: Two well-dressed Elizabethans are sitting on a bare stage, flipping coins—but the coin toss has turned up heads eighty-six times in a row. Why?

A playwright, no matter how avant garde, has an audience sitting in front of his stage. He has to keep their interest; he cannot simply tell them what he thinks about life, as though he were writing a philosophical essay. He has characters on that stage, and he needs to make the audience care about their actions, if he is to attract their attention and keep it through the rest of the play. In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Wilder creates tension by hinting at his characters’ ends: “There’s Doc Gibbs comin’ down Main Street now,” the Stage Manager remarks, “comin’ back from that baby case. And here’s his wife comin’ downstairs to get breakfast. Doc Gibbs died in 1930. . . . Mrs. Gibbs died first—long time ago in fact. . . . She’s up in the cemetery there now.” As he speaks, Mrs. Gibbs comes on stage and starts to fix breakfast, and the audience watches her. Normally, watching someone fix breakfast isn’t all that interesting, but knowing that someone is going to die: That puts you in the position of the immortals. You know something Mrs. Gibbs doesn’t. And you’re wondering: Is her death going to be part of the plot? When will it happen?

Where is the point of greatest tension? Somewhere in the play, events will reach a point where the problems seem most intractable, or when emotion is at its highest peak. This is the play’s “middle”; it may not be the exact middle of the performance, but it is the structural middle that sets us up for the play’s climax and resolution. In A Streetcar Named Desire, the tensions between the four central characters—Stanley and his wife Stella, Stella’s sister Blanche and Stanley’s friend Mitch, who is courting her—reach their highest point in the first scene of Act III, when Stella discovers that Stanley has warned Mitch away from her sister. It is at this point that the characters are the most estranged from each other; here, they seem unlikely to ever come to an agreement.

Where does the play’s action reach its climax? At what point does the tension result in an action that changes the characters or their situation? Generally, the “middle” is not the same as the climax: A Streetcar Named Desirereaches its climax—its highest point—when Stanley assaults Blanche in the fourth scene of Act III. The assault is the playing out of the tension in that “middle” scene, in which Stanley (acting out of mixed hatred and lust) ruins Blanche’s romance and alienates his wife; when he attacks Blanche near the play’s end, he is making physical his hatred and lust, and potentially ruining his relationship with his wife forever.

Identifying the “middle” and the climax is a tool to help you understand the playwright’s use of tension and resolution; it isn’t an exact science, and you shouldn’t fret about finding the “right” scene. Simply look for the point at which the play’s tensions become very clear, and then ask yourself: What action do these tensions produce? Sometimes, you may find that the “middle” and the climax happen back to back. In Our Town, you can make a good argument for the “middle” occurring at the end of Act II, when Emily and George both panic just before their wedding, insisting that they don’t want to “grow old”—“Why can’t I stay for a while just as I am?” Emily wails, feeling with keenness the passing of time. The “climax” then comes at the end of Act III, when Emily—dead and buried—goes back to relive her twelfth birthday and breaks down into weeping: “I can’t go on,” she sobs. “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”

But you could also make a good argument that in this case the “middle” occurs when Emily decides to revisit her childhood, against the warnings of the other dead, and that the climax follows in the same scene. Don’t get too obsessed with this: choose a “middle” and climax that make sense to you.

Where is the resolution? What happens after the climax? What results does it bring; what happens to each character afterward? The last scene of A Streetcar Named Desire shows Blanche’s madness, Stella’s grief, and Stanley’s complete lack of regret. Our Town ends without resolution for the characters: “They don’t understand,” Emily says, hopelessly, of both the living and the dead, and the Stage Manager reappears to close the action with the flat remark, “Eleven o’clock in Grover’s Corners.—You get a good rest, too. Good night.” You, the reader, are supposed to find the resolution of this play yourself.

Which “act” of the drama does the play belong to?   Is the structure Aristotelian, separated into acts that build toward an end? Or is it Brechtian, divided into episodes that lead you gradually toward the acceptance of an idea?

What holds the play’s action together?   Is the play given coherence through its plot—a set of events leading toward a resolution? Or is it held together through the study of a character’s mind? Do you keep reading because you want to find out what happens, or because you care about what happens to a particular character? Is the play united by an idea that the author is exploring? Does it try to elicit an emotion from you, or is it attempting to lead you toward a conclusion? Do the last speeches express an intellectual conclusion, or an overwhelming emotion? If you’re unsure, pretend that someone has walked through the room where you’re reading and asked, “What’s the book about?” If you’re reading The Importance of Being Earnest, you might answer, “It’s about a lot of mix-ups in identity.” Mistaken identity: Oscar Wilde is writing to make you laugh, but also to make you think about how people assign identity to each other.

It’s fine to answer the question, “What is this book about?” with “I have no clue.” Sometimes that’s the point of an “idea” play that explores meaninglessness.

Write a two- or three-sentence explanation of the play’s title.   Books are inevitably retitled by publishers (T. S. Eliot’s original title for the book-length poem The Waste Land was He Do the Policemen in Different Voices), but playwrights tend to get to keep their own titles; plays are generally performed before they are published, and the title of the play is part of the script. So you can assume that the play’s title sums up, describes, or in some way adds to the play. What is the title’s relationship to the play? Does it refer to characters, plot, ideas, emotion? Does it refer to a climactic event (Death of a Salesman), a place (The Cherry Orchard), a person (A Man for All Seasons)? What was the playwright implying through the choice of title?

The Second Level of Inquiry: Logic-Stage Reading

As you move into a more detailed criticism, reread the play. Try to come to a final decision about the play’s coherence: Does it come from a connected plot, from the psychology of a particular character, or from the exploration of an idea? The playwright may use more than one kind of coherence (plot often involves character), but which do you think to be central? Did you answer the question, “What is it about?” with a person, an event, or an idea?

Once you’ve answered this question, move on to one of the three options below.

If the play is given unity by plot . . .   List the events that lead up to the play’s climax. Each event should lead into the next; can you find the connections between them? Ask, “Why does this event produce the next event?” Jot down a brief sentence describing each connection; this will give you a glimpse of the play’s “bones.”

Now ask yourself: What genre does this resemble? Is it a romance, in which two characters are held apart by circumstance or misunderstanding until they manage to connect? Is it an adventure, progressing from one excitement to another? Is it purely comedic, centered around incongruous and bizarre happenings? Is it “tragic,” telling the tale of the fall of a hero? Is it a mystery? The slow revelation of facts unknown to the main characters is an effective way to advance the plot. Peter Shaffer’s Equus borrows absurdist techniques, but in form it is much like a mystery: Why does Alan Strang blind the horses at the stable where he works?

Many plays are a mixture of genres, but if you’re able to identify one that dominates, go on to ask: Why did the playwright choose this particular set of techniques to move the play along? Is there some match between the genre and the subject of the play? What techniques does he borrow from other genres? “Genre” is an infinitely flexible term, so don’t worry too much about whether you’re “getting it right”; your goal is to try to discover how the playwright moves the action along: through suspense, by revealing facts, by building an ominous sense of looming catastrophe?

If the play is given unity by character . . .   Ask, for each major character, the same basic questions you asked for the novel in Chapter Five: What does each character want or hope to accomplish? What blocks each character from getting what he or she wants: Her own failings or flaws? Another character? Circumstances? What strategy does a character follow in order to get what he or she wants? Is she successful? Does he suffer defeat?

If the play is given unity by an idea . . .   Can you state the idea? Read again any prologue or epilogue, read the last two pages in each act. See if you can formulate the idea into a sentence. What does each character stand for? In an “idea play,” you need not analyze the characters as though they had real wants, needs, and plans; they “stand for” something else. What does each major event do to the characters? Compare their state at the beginning and end of the play; what change has there been? Does that change help to illustrate the playwright’s idea? At the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the two central characters are flipping coins and arguing about their tendency to come up heads every time. At the end, all the characters in both plays (Stoppard’s, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which has been running along in the background) die—except for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who disappear in a cloud of sentence fragments. What movement has there been? At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are assuming that there must be an explanation for the phenomenal run of heads; they are still operating under the “old” idea of order in the world. At the play’s end, they have given up the idea of explanations.

No matter what unifying factor the play uses, go on to answer the following questions.

Do any of the characters stand in opposition to each other?   Contrasts are a powerful rhetorical strategy, and particularly powerful when they are visual. Are there oppositions of character in the play? Oppositions of class? Physical oppositions? In Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer Tony Lumpkin and his cousin’s lover Hastings are at opposite ends of the social spectrum, as are Lumpkin’s beloved Bet Bouncer and Hastings’s love, the refined Miss Neville; they are physical opposites as well in every possible way. Of Shakespeare’s aristocratic pair of ladies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one is very tall and the other very short. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the two central characters present very little contrast; in fact, they call each other by the wrong names, which is part of Stoppard’s point.

If you can find contrasts in character, class, setting, physical type, speech, or some other element of the play, list the contrasting elements on two sides of your journal and write a very brief description of each. How does this strategy on the part of the playwright add to the play’s coherence?

How do the characters speak?   Read the speeches of each character out loud, several times. Read several speeches from the same character in a row. Then read another set of speeches from another character. Do their speech patterns differ?

If the characters are individuals, developed as unique people with their own backgrounds, wants, and needs, you should see a difference in speech. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the sixtyish Willy Loman has one pattern of words (“The street is lined with cars. There’s not a breath of fresh air in the neighborhood. . . . Remember those two beautiful elm trees out there? When I and Biff hung the swing between them?”) and his desperate, thirtyish son Biff has another (“This farm I work on, it’s spring there now, see? And they’ve got about fifteen new colts. . . . And it’s cool there now, see?”)

In an “idea play,” all speeches may sound the same. In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a fable about the corrupting effects of power, Thomas Becket says: “You think me reckless, desperate and mad. / You argue by results, as this world does, / To settle if an act be good or bad.” The Chorus, responding to him, chants, “We did not wish anything to happen. / We understood the private catastrophe, / The personal loss, the general misery, / Living and partly living.” The two voices are identical.

This exercise may help you to clarify further the question of coherence: If the characters all sound the same, either the playwright has slipped up, or this is not a character-driven play.

Is there any confusion of identity?   In a novel, which often gives you the privilege of hearing the characters’ thoughts, the characters know who they are. In drama, which presents a character to the gaze of an audience, there is much more room for deception: The gap between what (or who) a character appears to be, and what (or who) he ultimately proves to be, may be immensely wide. From Oedipus on, confusion over identity stands as a constant element in drama—which, by its very form, has to do with how an outside observer views characters.

Mark any aspects of identity confusion in the play and ask: What purpose does this identity confusion serve? Identity is the most essential element of human existence; what statement about the human condition does this confusion make? In the case of Oedipus, identity is essential: Oedipus has tried to become someone else, but his attempts to change his identity are doomed to failure. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead demonstrates the opposite; identity is a matter of chance, a meeting of elements by coincidence to form a whole. A different meeting of elements, a different set of coincidences, would result in an entirely different identity. What purpose do the confusions of identity serve in A Midsummer Night’s DreamShe Stoops to ConquerThe Importance of Being Earnest?

Is there a climax, or is the play open ended?   Does the playwright lead you into a satisfying resolution, with the plot wound up, the fate of the characters settled, an idea neatly stated? Or does the play illustrate a dilemma, some problem which intrinsically resists a solution? A playwright will generally allow the form of a play to reflect the possibility—or impossibility—of resolving the problem that he has presented.

What is the play’s theme?   Be very careful when you reduce a play to a “thematic statement.” After all, a playwright is writing a play, rather than a philosophical essay. If he could state his “theme” easily in prose, he’d write the essay instead. Thomas Merton, who was a poet and critic as well as a monk, once warned, “The material of literature and especially of drama is chiefly human acts—that is, free, moral acts. And, as a matter of fact, literature, drama, poetry, make certain statements about these acts that can be made in no other way. That is precisely why you will miss all the deepest meaning of Shakespeare, Dante, and the rest if you reduce their vital and creative statements about life and men to the dry, matter-of-fact terms of history, or ethics, or some other science. They belong to a different order.”19

However, even Merton adds, “Nevertheless, the great power of something like HamletCoriolanus, or the Purgatorio or Donne’s Holy Sonnets lies precisely in the fact that they are a kind of commentary on ethics and psychology and even metaphysics, even theology.” When the playwright sat down to write, something vexed him, nagged at him, and demanded expression. What was it? Can you try to sum it up? This answer should not be the same as your answer to “What is this play about?” Hamlet is about a man of thirty who can’t bring himself to accuse openly his uncle/stepfather of murder, but that is not its theme.

There may be a number of good answers to this question; I have seen at least fifteen thoroughly respectable statements of the theme in Hamlet. Try to come up with one. State, in three or four sentences, what problem the playwright is tackling—and what answers he may have found.

The Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading

In the “rhetoric stage” level of inquiry, you can ask many of the same questions of the play that you asked of the novels: How does the writer create sympathy between you and the characters? How does he reflect on the human condition? What is humanity’s central problem in this play? (You can refer back to the chapter on “Reading the Novel” for a full list of these questions.)

These are useful questions, but remember: A play is not a novel. A play is centered on visible action. So in your rhetoric-stage reading of the play, take a more active role. Begin to see the play not just vertically (creating a relationship between you and the characters) but horizontally, as something that has been presented and re-presented over time, each time creating a new set of relationships between the characters and an audience which occupies a different place—and perhaps, a different time.

How would you direct and stage this play?   Depending on your enthusiasm for the play, you can carry out this project for one scene, for one act, or for the whole play. Consider writing out answers to these questions:

1. Who will play the main characters? Assign the main characters to actors: imaginary actors (describe them), real actors (draw on your knowledge of TV, movies, or local theater), or even people you know (members of your family, friends; if Blanche Dubois reminds you of a disturbed second cousin, write in that cousin’s name). Putting a face and body, mannerisms and a tone of voice to each character will immediately begin to shape the play in your mind.

2. What sort of stage will you use? Will it be a raised platform, or on the same level with the audience? Will it be a “picture stage” (flat, behind curtains) or a stage that juts out into the auditorium? Will the audience be on two, three, or four sides (“theater in the round”)? How large is your auditorium? Do you see this play as most effective in a small studio theater that seats fifty, a college auditorium that seats four hundred, a huge theater with balconies? Will you use a curtain or not?

Will the actors ever breach the “fourth wall”—the barrier between audience and the stage? Will they be drawn into the audience—entering for one scene, perhaps, from the back of the theater and walking down the aisles? If so, what will you be intending to accomplish through this? And what relationship will the play create between itself and the audience? Will the onlookers be passive, active, part of the action, removed from it?

3. What scenery and costumes will you use? Will you be recreating a historical period or setting your actors in the present day? Will the scenery be realistic or impressionistic—suggested, rather than elaborately developed? Will a certain color or shape dominate? If so, why?

4. Mark the sound effects and visual effects. How will you carry them out? Are there crowd noises, ringing bells, traffic sounds, battle noises? How do you hear these? Reading is a silent activity, but a play demands sound. Will the sound be subdued in the background, overwhelming and surrounding the audience? How does each player on the stage react to the sound?

If the play calls for visual effects that are out of the ordinary (such as transparent walls, the appearance of a ghost, a dream sequence), how will you light or stage this? How do the actors react to the appearance? Do they all see it, or does only one react while the others remain blind to it? If so, how do they react to the player who reacts?

Remember that often sound and visual effects are found, not in stage directions, but in the dialogue of other characters. “It faded on the crowing of the cock,” gasps one of Denmark’s frightened soldiers, watching the ghost of Hamlet’s late father fade away—something we would otherwise not have known.

Will the play have music? What sort of music, and when? With your imagination and a CD collection, you have a vast resource for selecting background music.

In most cases, if you’re going to do this for an entire play, it’s simplest to be able to write directly into the script.

5. Can you write out stage directions? You can do this for one or two scenes—or for more. Mark each character’s movements. What are they doing the entire time they’re onstage? If the playwright has given you very specific directions, what has she left for you to add? If you stage a scene in two different ways, does the meaning of the scene change?

All of these are beginning questions for direction; if you find yourself interested in the process, investigate one of the books on the reference list at the end of this section (see page 312).

6. Does your staging emphasize the play’s theme? How will you use costume and setting, music and visual effects, movements, speech and silence, to bring out the theme which you’ve identified in the play?

7. How have other directors interpreted this play? Watch several staged productions of the play, live or on film. This, obviously, will be limited to productions from the last fifty or sixty years, but even this should give you some idea of how these plays have been presented. Do they emphasize the same theme, or shift it from production to production? If you can, watch two different stagings fairly far apart in time. How are the productions different in costumes, in staging, in style of dialogue, in emphasis? (A list of plays available to watch follows on pages 313–16.)


The following list of editions certainly does not encompass all the good editions and readable translations of these works, but I have tried to indicate the translations I found the most readable and accurate, as well as those editions that combine affordability and helpful footnotes with decent-sized type. Many of these plays (including the Greek ones) are available in Dover Thrift editions for under $3.00. These cheap paperbacks are often a good way to read the English plays, but in the case of the Greek plays and those modern plays originally written in a foreign language, the Dover editions are usually public domain translations—often outdated or anonymous, which more often than not means archaic and inaccurate.

A thorough list of dramatists worth reading would also include John Dryden, John Webster, Ben Jonson, Edward Albee, Eugène Ionesco, David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, John Guare, Margaret Edson, Marsha Norman, and many more. This particular list was chosen because the plays on it are readable, and because they serve as good representatives of the development of drama from ancient Greece to modern times.

What plays from the last forty years will endure? Perhaps Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning ’Night, Mother (although a Pulitzer isn’t necessarily a guarantee of immortality). Perhaps the plays of Harold Pinter or Sam Shepard, although it’s impossible to say which ones. And David Mamet’s stylish dialogue will most certainly be marked—but whether his plays or screenplays will best demonstrate it is still an open question.



(c. 458 B.C.)

Best translations: The Penguin Classics paperback, The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides ( 1984), uses Robert Fagles’s excellent but somewhat formal translation. Another fine translation, more colloquial and free-flowing than Fagles, is found in the Penn Greek Drama Series volume, Aeschylus, 1: The Oresteia: Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, the Eumenides (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), trans. David R. Slavitt. Slavitt, a poet himself, reinterprets as often as he translates, but the result is highly enjoyable.

Agamemnon is the first of a trilogy of plays known as The Oresteia; the other two plays, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, complete the story of Agamemnon’s unfortunate family. A little background is necessary: The Trojan War has already started. The Trojan warrior Paris stole Helen, wife of the Greek king Menelaus, and carried her off to Troy;20 Menelaus recruited his brother Agamemnon (who happened to be married to Helen’s sister Clytemnestra) to be commander in chief of an enormous Greek army. But the goddess Artemis, who loved Troy, blew great winds on the fleet to keep the Greeks from sailing. Agamemnon, knowing that the expedition was the will of Zeus, consulted the prophet Calchas, who told him that Artemis could only be appeased by the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon performed the sacrifice against the wild objections of his wife. The wind died, the Greeks sailed for Troy, and the battle dragged on for ten years. Troy finally fell, and messengers set out to carry the good news back to Greece.

As Agamemnon begins, the Watchman, Agamemnon’s loyal servant, is standing on top of Agamemnon’s palace, watching for news of Troy’s defeat. The Chorus, made up of men too old to fight, enters and fills in the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice (which the Chorus condemns as an act of “utter ruthlessness . . . impure, unholy”). Clytemnestra then arrives and hears that Troy is indeed fallen; Agamemnon is on his way home. (Menelaus, it appears, has been lost at sea.) She spreads sacred tapestries on the ground to welcome her husband, but when Agamemnon arrives (bringing with him the captive Trojan princess and prophetess Cassandra, Paris’s sister), he refuses to walk over them. Only a god should walk over the tapestries, he tells her; he is simply a man. But Clytemnestra finally persuades him to come in.

Cassandra, remaining behind, is overcome by the god Apollo and pours out a confused and bloody tale about slaughter and a bathtub—in the middle of which she reveals that Agamemnon carries a curse on him. His father, Atreus, punished Agamemnon’s brother Thyestes for sleeping with Atreus’s wife by roasting Thyestes’ children and serving them to his brother. Cassandra sees the children’s ghosts (“What do they carry in their hands? O piteous sight! / It is their own flesh—limb and rib and heart they hold, / Distinct and horrible, the food their father ate! / I tell you, for this crime revenge grows hot”). Sure enough, Clytemnestra stabs both Agamemnon (in his bath) and then Cassandra, claiming that Agamemnon deserved to die because he sacrificed her daughter.

Agamemnon did sacrifice Iphigenia—but only to please Zeus, who wanted the Greeks to conquer Troy. So why did he deserve death? Because Zeus gave him two wrong choices (displease the king of the gods, or sacrifice his daughter) as punishment for Atreus’s wrongdoing. Agamemnon was thus forced into an act that was simultaneously evil and good because of his father’s sin; in its portrayal of the effect of a parent’s evil on a child, Agamemnonkeeps its immediacy even today.


Oedipus the King

(c. 450 B.C.)

Best translations: Several good translations of Sophocles are available. Sophocles I: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus Rex, ed. Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most (University of Chicago Press, 3rd ed., 2013), was originally done by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore in the 1950s, but has been updated and revised to remove dated vocabulary and expressions. The Oxford World’s Classics translation, Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra, translated by H. D. F. Kitto and edited by Edith Hall (reissue ed., 2009), was done with performance in mind and is particularly good for reading aloud. Robert Fagles’s readable translation for Penguin Classics, Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays ( 1984), is the most literal of the three.

When King Laius of Thebes was mysteriously murdered by a highwayman, Oedipus took over both his throne and his wife. But now the king must discover why Thebes is plagued with sickness, disaster, and blight. He sends his brother-in-law Creon to ask the oracle of Apollo at Delphi for answers; Creon comes back with the news that Thebes is harboring the criminal who killed King Laius.

Oedipus promises to find this criminal, calling the prophet Teiresias to help him. But when Teiresias accuses Oedipus himself of the crime, the king grows angry. Creon, he shouts, has put the prophet up to this to take the throne away from him. Creon denies any design on Oedipus’s crown (“If I were king,” he objects, “I would have to do things which I did not want. / So why should I seek the crown rather than the pleasant untroubled life I now lead?”). But Oedipus exiles him anyway.

At this rash act, Oedipus’s wife Jocasta tries to reassure her husband. Prophecies don’t always come true, she tells him; back when she was married to Laius, the oracle at Delphi predicted that their three-day-old baby would someday kill Laius, so Laius sent a man out to expose the baby on a hillside. “We knew then,” she says, “that the son would never kill his father. / The terror of the prophecy would die there on the hills. / That is what the prophet said, my king. / Pay it no mind. God alone shows us the truth.” Laius, she adds, was not killed by his son, but at a place where three roads meet. Oedipus is horrified. He remembers, years ago, blundering into a hostile party of travelers at a three-road junction, killing the oldest member of the party, and fleeing. He never knew the identity of his victim. But he orders his men to find the old servant who was supposed to expose Jocasta’s baby son. When the servant is finally found and brought back to the palace, he admits that he gave the baby to a shepherd in Oedipus’s home country; Oedipus realizes that he is both Jocasta’s son and the murderer of King Laius, his natural father. The Chorus enters to describe the final scene, in which Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself. Creon returns from exile, assumes the throne, and grants Oedipus’s wish: that he must now in turn be exiled. Oedipus’s fate comes about, despite valiant attempts to avoid it—and he has been brought low by the intellectual and moral integrity that impelled him to seek out the truth about his parentage. “The power that made you great,” Creon concludes, “was your destruction.”



(c. 431 B.C.)

Best translations: The Oxford World’s Classics paperback, Euripides: Medea and Other Plays (reissue edition, 2009), is translated by James Morwood into readable, contemporary prose. The Cambridge Translations from Greek Drama translation by John Harrison, Euripedes: Medea (Cambridge University Press, 1999), has extensive explanatory notes on facing pages. The well-regarded 1950s translation by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, Euripides I: Alcestis, Medea, The Children of Heracles, Hippolytus, has been updated by Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most (University of Chicago Press, 3rd ed., 2013).

Medea opens with the Nurse on stage, ready to tell us Medea’s backstory: When the hero Jason came to Medea’s country to steal the Golden Fleece from her father, she helped him, and then ran away with him. Now they live in exile in Corinth—but Jason has deserted Medea and her two sons in order to marry the daughter of Creon, Corinth’s king. “I’m afraid she’s dreaming up some dreadful plan,” the Nurse warns. “She is dangerous. . . . But here come the boys, back from their game. / They have no idea of their mother’s troubles / Young minds are still untouched by grief.”

This ominous foreshadowing precedes bad news: King Creon arrives to banish Medea and her sons from his country. He tells Medea that she will die if she stays in Corinth even one more day; when she begs him, he grants her twenty-four more hours. Jason arrives to confirm Creon’s banishment; even though Medea pleads with him to remember his oaths, he rejects her. So Medea pretends to repent of her earlier bitterness and sends Jason’s new wife a beautiful robe—imbued with poison, so that the princess dies horribly as soon as she puts it on. Creon, who tries to help her remove it, dies as well.

Medea waits to hear of the deaths and then, reciting a chilling and contradictory list of reasons (her boys will be killed in revenge, and it is better that she should kill them than another; her boys will remain in Corinth while she is in exile, and they will miss her; she will make the children suffer “to hurt their father,” although she will “suffer twice as much myself”), takes her two boys into her house and murders them. They scream for help, but the Chorus hesitates (“Shall we go in? / This is murder. / I’m sure we should help the boys.”) and in the end remains outside. Jason arrives, furious and frightened, but Medea refuses to let him see the boys’ bodies; she will bury them in secret so that her enemies cannot desecrate the graves. Medea’s confused self-justification, her decision to kill the children whom she both loves and hates, Jason’s desertion, and the Chorus that hesitates when it should act: All strike a weirdly contemporary note, in this story of a woman who is mistreated by men and kills her own children in response.


The Birds

(c. 400 B.C.)

Best translations: Paul Muldoon’s translation for the Penn Greek Drama Series, Aristophanes, 3: The Suits, Clouds, Birds, ed. David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), is modern and colloquial; it includes stage directions, which are not in the original, but which help clarify the action. The Oxford World’s Classics translation by Stephen Halliwell, Birds and Other Plays ( 2009), is more literal but still readable. The Peter Meineck translation, Aristophanes I: Clouds, Wasps, Birds (Hackett, 1998), is both readable and contains explanatory footnotes.

The surviving Greek comedies have a fairly standard structure: the prologue introduces a “happy idea,” the Chorus discusses the idea, and a series of scenes shows how the “happy idea” would work out in real life. In The Birds, the “happy idea” is a civilization without unnecessary bureaucracy or false prophets. Two Athenian men—Peisthetaerus and Euelpides—leave Athens. “It isn’t that we’ve anything against the city as such,” Euelpides remarks, “it’s as grand and happy a place as ever a man paid a fine in. But the Athenians yammer away in the lawcourts for the whole of their lives.” Led by their pet crow and pet jackdaw, they find their way to the Kingdom of the Birds. The birds (played by a singing, dancing chorus of twenty-four men in feathered costumes) plan to peck them to death for human crimes against birds, but the Hoopoe suggests that the humans might be able to advise them on self-protection: “It wasn’t from their friends that cities learned to perfect their fortifications,” the Hoopoe points out, “it was from their enemies.”

So the Athenians teach the birds how to gather their fragmented peoples together into one state. The result is Cloud-cuckoo-land, the great and happy city of the birds, which immediately begins to attract humans who want to “feather their nests” by creating bureaucracies: the Oracle Man arrives, offering to sacrifice for them, the Inspector insists that he must be paid a fee to look over the new city, and the Statute-Seller offers to make laws for a fee. All are turned away. Finally, the birds manage to wall off Olympia and intercept the savor of all sacrifices; the gods, helpless in the face of so much bird resourcefulness, send Prometheus, Poseidon, and Heracles to offer Peisthetaerus the goddess Sovereignty (“the very beautiful girl who looks after Zeus’s thunderbolts for him”) in marriage, if only he will ask the birds to unwall their frontier. The birds agree, and the play closes with a wedding song and dance. Written in a time when Athens suffered from far too many lawmakers, clerks, and prophets, The Birds is a utopian vision of a land which has none.



(c. 330 B.C.)

Best translations: The Penguin Classics translation by Malcolm Heath (1997) and the newer translation by Anthony Kenny for Oxford World’s Classics (2013) are both literal and clear, if rather dry. The St. Augustine Press edition, Aristotle on Poetics, translated by Seth Benardete and Michael Davis (2002), is slightly more colloquial and provides explanatory footnotes.

Aristotle’s essay on the art of dramatic poetry is partially concerned with the technique of drama, but the center of his argument has to do with the purpose of poetry. Like all art, poetry must be mimetic—it must imitate life in a way that brings greater understanding to the listener. Imitation, Aristotle points out, is man’s natural way of learning; he is imitative by nature from childhood, and good imitations bring pleasure. Tragedy is the imitation, or mimesis, of noble characters; comedy of inferior persons. Aristotle never returns to a further discussion of comedy, although part of the Poetics has been lost (and perhaps his prescriptions for comedy along with it).

Tragedy is the mimesis of a particular kind of life: the hero of noble character suffers through a peripeteia, a sudden downturn in his fortunes. This reversal should lead him to anagnorisis (“recognition”), an understanding of why this change in fortunes has come about. Tragedy succeeds, Aristotle writes, when it evokes two emotions. Pity is the emotion that we feel when we see a catastrophe coming upon someone else. (The German idea of Schadenfreude, a pleasurable shudder when you hear that something bad has happened to someone else, is not unlike Aristotelian “pity,” although Aristotle does not see pleasure as part of the experience.) Pity is a somewhat removed emotion; fear, on the other hand, comes when we recognize that catastrophe might equally well happen to us. A good tragedy is not only mimetic, offering the watcher (or reader) greater understanding, it must contain katharsis—a clear explanation to the audience as to why the hero encountered disaster.

For Aristotle, tragedy is always a moral enterprise: Capable men, he writes “should not be shown changing from prosperity to disaster because that is not terrible or pitiful, but simply repulsive; and dissolute men should not be shown changing from bad fortune to good, because it doesn’t engage even sympathy, let alone pity or terror.” Pity and terror are best aroused when a good man is shown going from good fortune to bad; and the most pitiable things of all are acts done by blood relations to each other.



Best editions: Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, edited by A. C. Cawley (Random House, 1993), contains a selection of other biblical plays from medieval times as well. Standard texts of Everyman are also available in the Dover Thrift edition, Everyman and Other Miracle and Morality Plays (1995), which includes versions of four mystery plays (including The Second Shepherd’s Play, Abraham and Isaac, and Noah’s Flood), and the New Mermaids drama series volume, Three Late Medieval Morality Plays, ed. G. A. Lester (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2002).

In Everyman, the first character onstage is God, who announces that he will require a “reckoning” of every man’s person because his creatures are so spiritually blind. He summons Death and sends him to Everyman (which is to say, the whole human race). Everyman himself is going happily about his everyday life when Death arrives; in a panic, he begs Death for a reprieve, but only wins the right to look for a companion on his voyage. He tries Fellowship and Family, but neither will go with him; Fellowship points out, reasonably enough, that if he were to go with Everyman, he would never again come back; Kindred and Cousin plead that they have toe-cramp. He then tries Wealth and Riches, but this is no good either, since (as they explain) their “condition is man’s soul to kill.” Eventually Everyman is forced to turn to more ethereal companions—Discretion, Strength, Beauty, Knowledge, and Good Deeds (who is lying on the ground, so weakened by Everyman’s sinful neglect that he cannot stand). They agree to accompany him, but as Everyman approaches the grave, all of his companions desert him—except for Good Deeds, who remains by him as he descends into the world below. “They all at the last do Everyman forsake,” says the Doctor, the “learned theologian” who delivers the epilogue, “Save his Good Deeds there doth he take.” It’s a somewhat unexpected ending: Why is Good Deeds the only character able to pass between the two worlds, when Knowledge and Discretion are left behind?

Good Deeds is a fusion of the spiritual and the physical. Every listener, the Doctor warns, should “make his account whole and sound” so that he too can ascend to God. The financial, earth-bound metaphor is no mistake: To ignore the spiritual is to be blind, but to be “enlightened” is to see the spiritual and physical bound together into one whole. And this respect for the physical aspect of life is seen in the form of the allegorical form of the play itself—with every spiritual reality represented by a character of flesh and blood.


Doctor Faustus


Best editions: The Oxford World’s Classic edition, Dr. Faustus and Other Plays, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (reissue edition, 2008), and the Dover Thrift edition, Dr. Faustus ( 1994), are both straightforward presentations of the play. The Norton Critical Edition, Doctor Faustus, ed. David Scott Kastan (2005), provides two different texts of the play (1604 and 1616) along with explanatory annotations (and twenty-five different interpretations).

Faustus already has degrees in divinity, law, and medicine, but although he has all the knowledge that any good medieval man could wish for, he wants more. Browsing through a book of magic, he decides to make a deal with the devil. Good and evil angels appear at once, the good angel begging him to forsake knowledge (“O Faustus, lay that damned book aside”), the evil angel promising, “Be thou on Earth as Jove is in the sky, / Lord and commander of these elements.” His mind is made up: Faustus raises up Mephistopheles, the devil’s servant, agrees to his terms, and signs the pact with his blood (which congeals as he tries to write).

With all the power in the world and twenty-four years of life left, Faustus at first demands explanations for the great questions of the universe. But as time goes on, he begins to trifle his power away. He turns invisible to play tricks on the famous, flies around the world, and demands to have Helen of Troy brought back from the dead for his own. As death draws near, he begins to panic, but each time he tries to pull back from the deal, Mephistopheles offers him another temptation. As he descends into hell at the play’s end, Faustus mourns, “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! One drop would save my soul. . . . Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ; Yet will I call on him—O spare me, Lucifer!”

Despite his pleas, Faustus never does call on God, although he has ample opportunity. Faustus is a Renaissance man—a seeker after great knowledge, set free from theological restrictions—yet in finding knowledge, he loses something. Marlowe is not recommending a simple return to medieval faith; Faustus cannot simply call on God. But a deep ambivalence about the new order comes through: If God is removed from the center of life and man is put in His place, what will the world be like? With no company but his own, man might find himself speaking the words of Mephistopheles, the devil’s servant, who describes hell in the new order as a state of mind:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place; for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.


Richard III


Best editions: There are dozens of Shakespeare editions. The Folger Shakespeare Library edition contains detailed annotations on facing pages (ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon & Schuster, 1996). Signet Classics (1988) and Dover Thrift Editions (1995) offer no-frills text.

Two branches of the royal family, the Yorks and the Lancasters, are battling over England’s throne. The Yorks murdered the Lancaster king, Henry VI, and his heir, Prince Edward; the York king Edward IV took the throne. But Richard, Edward IV’s younger brother, wants to be king. He murders his other brother Clarence (a possible contender for the throne) and marries Anne (the wife of the murdered Prince Edward). When Edward IV dies, Richard ascends the throne, poisons his wife Anne, and sends his nephews Edward and Richard—Edward IV’s rightful heirs—to the tower, where they are murdered. But Richard has been cursed by Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s widow, and Nemesis, in the shape of yet another Lancastrian cousin named Henry, arrives and challenges him to battle. Haunted by the ghosts of all he has killed, Richard III goes into the Battle of Bosworth Field shaken; he is killed after losing his horse (and crying out the play’s most quoted lines: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”).


It’s easy to be confused by the multiple Henrys, Richards, and Edwards casually mentioned by Shakespeare. Use the following chart to sort them out as you read. The common ancestry of Lancaster and York goes all the way back Edward III, who had five sons and thus produced way too many royal personages; he was the common great-great-grandfather of both Henry VI and Richard III. The Lancasters are in the middle of the chart below, the Yorks on the right side; the war between them (“The War of the Roses”) erupted after Henry IV, an illegitimate descendant of Edward III, claimed the throne; the Yorks could claim descent from a legitimate son of Edward’s.

The Richard of Shakespeare’s play is a mesmerizing figure: evil, compelling enough to convince Anne to marry him even though he is responsible for her husband’s death, charming when necessary, hypocritical, with just enough conscience to be afraid of ghosts. He is marked by his willingness to change his speech, his plans, and even his body to each occasion: “I’ll be at charges for a looking glass,” he muses, when Anne first rejects him, “And entertain a score or two of tailors / To study fashions to adorn my body.” Richard is an intelligent, practical, effective, Machiavellian ruler who uses any means to gain his own ends. Yet he can only exert so much control; Queen Margaret’s curse haunts him. Richard is caught in a cycle of history in which “every murder is both crime and punishment for crime, until at the end Richard pays the final penalty.”21


A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Best editions: The Oxford School Shakespeare edition (Oxford University Press, reprint edition, 2009) is designed for students but is useful for all readers; it contains explanatory footnotes, illustrations, and notes on staging. The play alone is also available from Signet Classics (1998) and Dover Thrift Editions (1992). Dover also publishes the play in an edition with Arthur Rackham’s wonderful illustrations (Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Illustrated by Arthur Rackham, 2003).

The plot of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy centers around three groups of characters: four young lovers, a group of rustic players, and a tribe of fairies. We meet the lovers first. Hermia wants to marry Lysander, but her father wants her to marry another suitor, Demetrius. He appeals to the local nobility—Duke Theseus, who is himself getting ready to marry Hippolyta, the vanquished warrior queen. Theseus tells Hermia that she has to marry her father’s choice, so Hermia and Lysander make plans to run away. Hermia tells no one but her best friend Helena, who (since she is in love with Demetrius herself) immediately runs to Demetrius and tells him that his intended is running off with another man.

Meanwhile, the rustics, led by Bottom the weaver, are meeting in the palace woods to practice the play that they will perform for Theseus on his wedding day. But the woods have fairies in them—Oberon the fairy king and Titania the fairy queen, who are in the middle of a marital tiff. To improve his wife’s temper, Oberon sends his servant Puck to gather magic nectar which will cause Titania to love whomever she sees when she wakes up. In the middle of this, Demetrius storms into the woods, looking for Hermia; he is followed by Helena, weeping pathetically. Oberon feels sorry for Helena and tells Puck to put the nectar on Demetrius’s eyes as soon as he falls asleep; unfortunately, Puck gets confused when Lysander and Hermia show up as well and puts the juice on Lysander’s eyelids instead. When Lysander wakes, he sees Helena, still trailing after Demetrius, jumps up, and runs after her—leaving Hermia all alone.

Oberon, who has decided to revenge himself on Titania, finds her bower and puts juice on her eyelids himself. The rustics blunder in and start their rehearsal; Puck, hovering mischievously in the wings, gives Bottom a donkey’s head. When Titania wakes, she falls madly in love with the ass-headed weaver and takes him to her bower. Oberon finds this funny, but he is annoyed when he finds that Puck has anointed the wrong young man; now Lysander is chasing Helena, Helena is chasing Demetrius, Demetrius is chasing Hermia, and Hermia is sobbing pathetically after Lysander, who has forgotten all about her. Oberon tells Puck to blot the scene out with a fog and anoint everyone’s eyes correctly; he himself goes to find Titania and takes the spell off her. The play ends with a triple wedding: Theseus and Hippolyta, Demetrius and Helena, and Hermia and Lysander (since Hermia’s father, finding that his prospective son-in-law is now in love with another woman, agrees to let Hermia marry her choice). The rustics perform their play (very badly), and Oberon and Titania show up to bless the wedding.

All is well, but only because of chance and fairy intervention, and even the wedding has its dark side; Hippolyta is only marrying Theseus because he conquered her, and Demetrius, at least, is still enchanted. At the play’s end, Puck concludes:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here,
While these visions did appear

The happiness at the play’s end is just as illusory as any shadow.




Best editions: The Oxford School Shakespeare edition (Oxford University Press, 2009) for notes and staging; the play alone is available from Oxford World’s Classics (2008) and Signet Classics (1998).

Hamlet is a hero, but he isn’t an active hero; unlike Oedipus, who goes to some pains to deliver Thebes from plague and to discover the truth of his birth, Hamlet broods, hesitates, and regrets that he must act: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” His greatest desire is not simply to avoid action, but to avoid existence; in his most famous speech (“To be, or not to be, that is the question. . . .”) he wishes to “dissolve into a dew.”

Told, in a visit from his father’s ghost, that his uncle Claudius (now married to his mother) killed him by pouring poison into his ear, Hamlet frets over what to do. He pretends madness to disarm his uncle (and as part of his act, brutally rejects Ophelia, the daughter of the lord chamberlain, Polonius). He then seizes on the chance visit of a group of players to stage a retelling of the murder in front of Claudius. Frightened, Claudius plots to get rid of Hamlet. Hamlet, on the other hand, is given a perfect opportunity to kill his uncle during prayer, but declines, making the excuse that the king would go straight to heaven were he killed in a state of grace.

Polonius, sure that the prince is insane, hides in the queen’s rooms when her son goes in to speak with her. But Hamlet, hearing the old man behind the draperies and thinking him to be Claudius, finally acts—at the wrong time and place. He stabs Polonius through the curtains and then discovers his mistake. Conscience stricken, he agrees to leave Denmark and go to England; Claudius has arranged for him to be killed, but he escapes and returns to Denmark, sending ahead of him a letter announcing his intentions.

Ophelia, her father dead, loses her wits and drowns herself. Her brother Laertes returns for her funeral; Claudius convinces him to challenge Hamlet to a duel with a poisoned sword, and, just to be on the safe side, puts poison in a cup as well. When Hamlet arrives they fight; Laertes wounds Hamlet, but Hamlet (not realizing the sword is poisoned) scuffles with him and wounds him with it as well. Meanwhile the queen drinks the poisoned drink; Laertes, dropping to his knees, confesses that he too is dying, and that Hamlet is doomed. Hamlet grabs the poisoned sword, kills Claudius, and dies himself—finally brought to action by a series of coincidences beyond his control.




Best translations: Richard Wilbur’s witty 1961 translation, Tartuffe, renders the play in rhymed couplets (Harvest Books, 1992). A more recent translation by Maya Slater, also in rhymed couplets, can be found in the Oxford World’s Classics volume, Molière: The Misanthrope, Tartuffe, and Other Plays ( 2008). Curtis Hidden Page’s unrhymed 1908 translation has held up well; it can be read at Project Gutenburg. Constance Congdon’s recent rendering of the play into iambic pentameter is also worth reading (Broadway Play Publishing, 2014).

The pious hypocrite Tartuffe meets Orgon, a Parisian gentleman, in church, and by pretending piety convinces Orgon to take him into his home. Tartuffe is a great favorite of Orgon and his mother, but the rest of the household is not deceived. When Tartuffe gives the maid a handkerchief and orders her to cover her bosom because “such sights . . . evoke sinful thoughts,” she remarks, “You are mighty susceptible to temptation. I could see you naked from top to toe, without being in the least tempted.” And Orgon’s brother-in-law Cléante warns him that he has been taken in: “There are hypocrites in religion,” he says. “I know nothing more odious than the whited sepulchre of a pretended zealot, than those downright impostors . . . who, from motives of self-interest, make a trade of piety.”

Instead of listening, Orgon accuses Cléante of becoming a freethinker. And worse is to come: he decides that his daughter Mariane, in love with Valère, should marry Tartuffe. (“I had promised you to Valère,” he sighs, “but beside his being inclined to gamble, as I am told, I also suspect him to be somewhat of a free-thinker; I never notice him coming to church.”) Elmire, Orgon’s wife, tries to convince Tartuffe to leave her daughter in peace, but instead the “holy man” tries to seduce her. (“Men of our stamp love discreetly,” he assures her.) Her son Damis overhears Tartuffe’s attempts and runs to Orgon with this tale—but Orgon disinherits him, accusing of slandering the “saint,” and makes over his estate to Tartuffe instead. “All the world’s goods have but few charms for me,” remarks Tartuffe, while accepting the gift.

So Elmire arranges for Orgon to hide under a table while she meets with Tartuffe and persuades him to renew his addresses; when Tartuffe does so, Orgon tries to throw him out. But since Tartuffe now owns the estate, the king’s officers have to remove him by force. “I renounce all pious people,” Orgon cries. “Henceforth I shall hold them in utter abhorrence and be worse to them than the very devil.” “You exaggerate again!” Cléante reproves him. “You never preserve moderation in anything. You never keep within reason’s bounds; and always rush from one extreme to another.” But lack of balance is not Orgon’s only flaw; the truth is that he has been able to exert complete control over his household through Tartuffe, using the holy man’s manners as a mask for his own tyrannical desires.


The Way of the World


Best editions: Available from Dover Thrift Editions (1994), Penguin Classics (The Way of the World and Other Plays, ed. Eric S. Rump, 2006).

The Way of the World is crammed with incident, even though it holds to the Aristotelian unity of time (taking place over the course of only one day). Intrigues and subplots boil from every act, but the skeleton of the plot is constructed around Mirabell, a gentleman who once pretended to be in love with Lady Wishfort but who is now in love with the heiress Mrs. Millamant; Lady Wishfort, who now hates Mirabell for pretending to love her; and Mrs. Millamant herself, who happens to be Lady Wishfort’s niece (and ward).

Mirabell may love Millamant now, but he used to keep Lady Wishfort’s daughter as a mistress, before she married his best friend Fainall. Fainall (who also keeps a mistress) would like Millamant to marry Mirabell, since Lady Wishfort would then get angry, disinherit Millamant, and pass that money along to her natural daughter—Fainall’s wife. But Millamant has not quite made up her mind to marry Mirabell, keeping him at a distance with witty remarks. “A man,” Mirabell complains, “may as soon make a friend by his wit, or a fortune by his honesty, as win a woman with plain-dealing and sincerity.” This lack of plain dealing continues. Mirabell has his servant pose as an imaginary rich uncle to convince Lady Wishfort of his worth as a suitor, but Lady Wishfort decides to court the “rich uncle” herself. When Lady Wishfort’s nephew, Sir Wilfull Witwoud, arrives and begins to woo Millamant (very awkwardly), Millamant and Mirabell manage to reach an agreement of marriage.

Meanwhile, Fainall has decided to take a more direct route to Lady Wishfort’s money; he tells her that he will publicize her daughter’s premarital affair with Mirabell unless she hands Millamant’s inheritance over. But Mirabell foils this by blackmailing Fainall in turn, threatening to reveal his present mistress. Sir Wilfull Witwoud, seeing that Millamant loves Mirabell, tells Lady Wishfort that he has no wish for Millamant and would rather travel to foreign parts; Lady Wishfort sighs “I can hold out no longer. . . . I am ready to sink under the Fatigue” and agrees to the marriage. The characters (none of whom are admirable) are moral insofar as they are successful. Fainall turns out to be the villain at the end, less because he is evil than because he has been outwitted. The play is famous for its conversations; the characters talk, talk, and talk, using wit and words to conceal their true feelings far more often than they do to reveal them.


She Stoops to Conquer


Best editions: Available from Dover Thrift Editions (1991) and Oxford World’s Classics (She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies, ed. Nigel Wood, Michael Cordner, Peter Holland, and Martin Wiggins, 2008).

Goldsmith’s play, which involves two well-bred young men on their way to propose to two well-bred young women, has none of these well-bred people at its center; the true power of the play is Tony Lumpkin, an “awkward booby.” Mr. Hastings and Mr. Marlow, two gentlemen of education and wealth, set out to visit the Hardcastle household. Marlow is supposed to court the daughter of the house, although the two have never met; their parents have arranged the meeting, unaware that Marlow is incapable of speaking to a woman of his own class and can only be at ease with servants and barmaids. Hastings, Marlow’s friend, has volunteered to come along because he is already in love with the household’s resident niece, Miss Neville. The Hardcastles intend Miss Neville to marry Tony Lumpkin, Mrs. Hardcastle’s son from her previous (low) marriage—which will keep Miss Neville’s fortune in the family. But Tony is unwilling; he is in love with Bet Bouncer, a country girl with “cheeks as broad and red as a pulpit cushion.”

When Marlow and Hastings stop at the local alehouse to ask for directions to the Hardcastle estate, they accidentally insult Tony Lumpkin, who by way of revenge tells them that they will never reach the Hardcastle estate by nightfall—but that an inn is right around the corner. This “inn” is, however, the Hardcastle house itself. Hastings and Marlow storm into it, treating the bewildered Hardcastles like servants and innkeepers. When Hastings meets Miss Neville, he realizes his mistake—but the two decide to keep the joke going as cover for their own plans to elope. They tell Marlowe that Miss Hardcastle, by a great coincidence, is also visiting this “inn,” and introduce the two. But Marlowe is too frightened of this aristocratic lady to look her in the face. So she dresses as a barmaid and sashays past him (this is the “stooping to conquer” of the title), awakening his interest. Eventually, all mistaken identities are righted. Miss Neville marries Hastings; Marlow proposes to Miss Hardcastle and then discovers that she is the daughter of the house; Tony renounces his claim to Miss Neville in favor of Bet Bouncer. Goldsmith’s play casts into question the idea of “low”; who is lower, the honest Tony, or Marlow, who is ready to seduce a barmaid on first meeting?


The School for Scandal


Best editions: Available from Dover Thrift Editions (1990) and Oxford World’s Classics (The School for Scandal and Other Plays, ed. Michael Cordner, 2008).

Sir Peter Teazle is newly married to the daughter of a country squire; he has a lovely young ward, Maria; and he has acted as “a kind of guardian” to two young men who lost their father in childhood—the Surface brothers, Joseph and Charles.

In public, Joseph appears to be “amiable . . . and universally well-spoken of,” while Charles is “the most dissipated and extravagant young fellow in the kingdom, without friends or character.” But appearances are deceiving. Charles is actually good natured, although spendthrift; and Joseph is actually “artful, selfish, and malicious.” Charles is in love with Maria, but Joseph (who is favored by Sir Peter) wishes only for her fortune.

Charles and Joseph’s uncle, Sir Oliver Surface, arrives from Australia; he has been hearing contradictory reports about his nephews, so he poses as a moneylender (“Mr. Premium”) and calls on Charles. Charles tries to borrow from him on the strength of his possible inheritance from Sir Oliver himself: “Though at the same time,” Charles adds, “though at the same time the old fellow has been so liberal to me that I give you my word I should be very sorry to hear that anything had happened to him.” “Not more than I should, I assure you,” Sir Oliver remarks. Charles offers to sell the family portraits to raise money, and, in one of the play’s most famous scenes, auctions them off to “Mr. Premium” and two other moneylenders. But he refuses to sell the portrait of Sir Oliver—and Sir Oliver himself, touched, decides to pay off his nephew’s debts.

Meanwhile, Joseph is in his own library, carrying on an affair with Sir Peter Teazle’s young wife. While they are engaged in intimate conversation, Sir Peter arrives and Lady Teazle leaps behind a nearby screen. What follows is a “screen scene,” a convention of manners plays, in which characters overhear private conversations from a hidden place. Lady Teazle overhears Sir Peter telling Joseph his suspicions that Charles is having an affair with his wife, but Sir Peter then hears Charles arriving and leaps into a closet himself. When Charles comes in, he begins to describe how he once found Joseph and Lady Teazle together. To stop him, Joseph opens the closet door and reveals Sir Peter; Charles knocks the screen down and finds Lady Teazle, who begs her husband for forgiveness. Sir Peter collects his wife and marches out, giving Charles (now debt free) permission to marry Maria. All has been “righted” (despite Charles’s shaky character), but only because “manners” were breached in the two pivotal scenes: Sir Oliver and Sir Peter both hear speeches not intended for them.


A Doll’s House


Best translations: Frank McGuinness’s translation (New York: Faber & Faber, 1996) is contemporary and readable; it opened on Broadway in 1997. Another excellent translation, by James McFarlane and Jens Arup, is found in the Oxford World’s Classics edition (2008).

Nora Helmer has broken the law. Needing money for her husband’s medical expenses, she forged her father’s signature in order to borrow it from the bank. (It is illegal for women to borrow money without authorization from a husband or father.) Her friend Mrs. Linde is shocked to hear this, but Nora has been able to pay the loan back regularly through saving part of her dress allowance and doing copywork jobs late into the night. (“Oh, sometimes I was so tired, so tired. And yet it was splendid to work in that way and earn money. I almost felt as if I was a man.”)

But now Nora’s husband, Torvald, has become a director at the bank where she took out the loan—and the officer who approved it, Mr. Krogstad, is about to lose his job. He asks Nora to intervene for him. When she refuses, he tells her that he knows her secret: Her father’s signature was dated three days after her father’s death. If he loses his job, he will reveal her crime.

Nora tries to avert the crisis—but Torvald refuses to listen to her pleas for Krogstad. The man loses his job, and Torvald receives a letter from Krogstad describing Nora’s crime. “You’ve been my pride and joy,” Torvald bellows at Nora, “and now I find you’re a hypocrite and a liar and worse, worse than that . . . a criminal!” Torvald is afraid that Krogstad will broadcast Nora’s sins through polite society unless he’s given his job back: “It’ll have to be hushed up,” Torvald decides. “We shall have to make it look as if nothing has changed between us. . . . I mean, you’ll obviously have to stay on in the house, but you won’t be allowed to have anything to do with the children.” Then, in the midst of his diatribe, he receives another letter from Krogstad, who has decided to marry Mrs. Linde and no longer wishes to hold any threat over Nora’s head. Relieved of the threat of public humiliation, Torvald immediately reverses himself: “Poor little Nora, I understand. . . . For a man there’s something intensely reassuring and pleasurable about knowing that he’s forgiven his wife. . . . It’s as if she becomes somehow doubly his possession, as if he’s allowed her to be reborn, so that in some way she becomes both his wife and his child.”

At this, Nora packs up to leave. “I’ve been your doll-wife,” she tells him, “just as I was Daddy’s doll-child when I was at home.” It would take a miracle, she tells her husband, for their relationship to become a marriage; she walks out and leaves him. Nora loves her husband, as society demands, but this very love leads her into an act condemned by those same social laws. Caught in this paradox, she finds her home ruined and her husband’s love for her revealed as, simply, an extension of his own self-respect.


The Importance of Being Earnest


Best editions: The play is widely available as a public domain ebook, as well as from Dover Thrift Editions (1990), Prestwick House (with explanatory notes, 2005), and with four other plays in the Oxford World’s Classic edition, Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (2008).

In London, Jack Worthing calls himself Ernest; when he is at his country estate, where his eighteen-year-old ward Cecily lives, he calls himself Jack and attributes all his city doings to his (nonexistent) brother Ernest. Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the cousin of his friend Algernon Moncrieff. He proposes to her in town, using the name Ernest, and she agrees, since it has always been her dream to marry a man named Ernest. Her aunt, Lady Bracknell, demands to know Jack’s family background; when Jack reveals that he was discovered in a handbag in Victoria Station, Lady Bracknell refuses to consent to the match. Gwendolen promises to write to Jack at his country address. Algernon, overhearing (and knowing that Jack’s ward Cecily, an extremely pretty girl, lives at this address along with her governess, Miss Prism), decides to visit.

He arrives at the estate before Jack and introduces himself as Ernest, Jack’s brother. Cecily falls in love with him at once and promises to marry him (since she has always wanted to marry someone named Ernest). Unfortunately, Jack has decided that his dual identity has gotten too complicated; he arrives in black and announces the death of his brother Ernest to the bewildered Cecily. Gwendolen then arrives in a fury, having heard that Cecily has become engaged to Mr. Ernest Worthing. To straighten things out, Jack and Algernon admit their real names; both girls threaten to break off their engagements unless Jack and Algernon are both rechristened Ernest immediately. Lady Bracknell, arriving for the christenings, recognizes Miss Prism as the nursemaid who, twenty-eight years before, accidentally left Lady Bracknell’s baby nephew at Victoria Station in a handbag. Jack is this nephew, Algernon’s older brother—and he was christened Ernest. “Gwendolen,” he says solemnly, “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” Wilde, who was convicted of homosexuality in the courts and sentenced to two years at hard labor, mocks conventions of heterosexual marriage. The dual identities of his male characters (Ernest-Jack, Algernon-Ernest) are the more remarkable since his female characters are undivided; all that frothy comedy stems from more serious uncertainties about the nature of identity.


The Cherry Orchard


Best translations: Sharon Marie Carnicke’s contemporary, lyrical version is published by Hackett (trade edition, 2010). The Penguin Classics translation by Peter Carson in Anton Chekhov: Plays (Penguin Classics, rev. ed., 2002) contains four other Chekhov plays as well. Perhaps most interesting is the version done by Tom Stoppard, a brilliant playwright in his own right, for Grove Press (2009); his work is based on a literal translation by Helen Rappaport.

Lopakhin, once a peasant, is now a rich man. He is waiting at Madame Ranevsky’s elaborate family estate for her return from Paris. The estate has been under the management of her adopted daughter Varya and her brother Gaev, but Madame Ranevsky’s extravagances have run it into debt. When Madame Ranevsky arrives with her daughter Anya, Lopakhin tells her that the estate will have to be auctioned—unless she raises money by dividing the land and renting it to weekend vacationers. “Forgive me, you appear not to understand,” she says. “If there is one truly remarkable thing in this entire region it is my cherry orchard.” Unable to face the gradual dismantling of her aristocratic way of life, Madame Ranevsky ignores the debts; Varya, more realistic, frets over her unsettled relationship with Lopakhin. (“He’s too busy with his . . . business,” she tells Anya. “There’s great talk about the impending wedding. . . . [B]ut there’s nothing, it’s just . . . a dream.”) Anya, who once loved the cherry orchard “like a person,” is courted by Peter Trofimov, a socialist who hates what the orchard represents. “Why do I care less about the cherry orchard than I used to?” Anya says to Peter, and he answers, “Your orchard is all of Russia. Your father’s father, and his father, and his, were owners of serfs. They owned human lives. From every tree in your orchard there are people hanging, they peer at you through the branches, you can hear their voices moaning in the leaves.”

Finally the family decides that the money sent to them by an aged relative will suffice to buy the place back, and Gaev goes cheerfully off to the auction. But the estate sells for six times Gaev’s money—to Lopakhin, who now owns the place where his father was a serf. “The dull and lowly Lopakhin will take his axe to the cherry orchard and send the trees whistling to the ground!” he shouts, drunkenly. Although they weep, the family promptly makes new plans. Gaev finds a job at a bank, Madame Ranevsky plans on returning to Paris, Anya decides to go to university and promises her mother that she will soon support both of them. At the play’s end, the sound of axes is heard offstage as the cherry orchard is chopped down. There are no villains or heroes in The Cherry Orchard, and Chekhov offers no answers. Instead he shows us the world of the aristocrats, now passing away, as simultaneously beautiful and oppressive, wistfully desirable and fatally flawed; the complexities are carefully painted, not resolved.


Saint Joan


Best edition: The Penguin Classics (2001).

Shaw’s own preface lays out his twin preoccupations: to deal fairly with the medieval belief in the miraculous (“In the Middle Ages people believed that the earth was flat, for which they had at least the evidence of their senses: we believe it to be round . . . because modern science has convinced us that nothing that is obvious is true”), and to write a tragedy with “no villains . . . If Joan had not been burnt by normally innocent people in the energy of their righteousness her death at their hands would have no . . . significance.” The play continually returns to this question of perspective: Truth and falsehood depend on the position of the observer.

As the play begins, Joan arrives at the fortress of the soldier Robert de Baudricourt to convince him to give her a horse and a company of soldiers so that she can help the Dauphin regain his throne (now held by Henry VI). Robert is skeptical, but his friends have already agreed to accompany Joan; “What is the good of commonsense?” they ask. “Nothing can save our side now but a miracle.” So Robert sends Joan to the Dauphin, who eventually gives command of his army to “the Maid.” Joan leads the army against the English, who are besieging Orleans; the wind miraculously changes direction, allowing her soldiers to sail across the river, and the English are defeated.

The English then meet with the French bishop of Beauvais. The English chaplain insists that Joan is a witch, and the earl of Warwick is afraid that loyalty to Joan might distract the masses from loyalty to their own feudal lords. The bishop believes that Joan’s nationalism is a threat to the church; “the Catholic Church knows only one realm, and that is the realm of Christ’s kingdom.” He is at first reluctant to cooperate with the English: “You great lords are too prone to treat the Church as a mere political convenience,” he snaps. “I am no mere political bishop.” But he finally agrees to help turn Joan over to Warwick and his soldiers, who burn her at the stake. The tragedy of this ending is lightened, though, by the epilogue, in which Joan and her enemies appear to Charles in a dream. “The burning was purely political,” Warwick tells her pleasantly. “There was no personal feeling against you, I assure you.” “I bear you no malice, my lord,” Joan says politely. A 1920s clergyman then enters the dream to announce that Joan has been made a saint; when they laugh at him for his “extraordinarily comic dress” he retorts stiffly, “You are all in fancy dress: I am properly dressed.” This is Shaw’s summation: Each character in the play thinks himself “properly dressed,” doing what is right in his own eyes. And the play itself leaves the final judgment on Joan’s life to the audience.


Murder in the Cathedral


Best edition: Harcourt (1964).

Eliot’s priest, Thomas Becket, shares the reservations of Shaw’s bishop: He too worries that political ambition will distort his service to God. But while Saint Joan employs a slightly tongue-in-cheek theatrical realism (Shaw’s medieval Frenchmen speak like twentieth-century gentlemen), Eliot’s play is impressionistic, featuring symbolic characters (Tempters, Assassins, and a Chorus that speaks in unison) and written in verse.

The play’s central character is the archbishop of Canterbury, the “turbulent priest” Thomas Becket, who has spoken against Henry II’s extension of royal powers into areas that he believed should belong to the church. Afraid of the king’s anger, Becket has fled to France. As the play begins, he is returning to England, in a scene reminiscent of Palm Sunday as the people line the road and throw down their capes before him. The people of Canterbury are ready to welcome him (“He . . . was always kind to his people”), but unresolved tensions between Becket and the king remain. Three priests worry about the dangers of Becket’s return: He, like the king, is a proud and powerful personality, resentful of all earthly authority, answering only to God.

In another echo of Christ’s story, Tempters come to Becket, promising him wealth, influence, and peace if he will only satisfy the king. Becket rejects each temptation, musing that, since he holds the spiritual authority to grant or withhold “heaven and hell,” he has no need for earthly power. But Becket’s final temptation leads to a severe psychological struggle, one with no resolution: He is tempted to become a martyr willingly, and so to have even more glory. No matter what decision he makes, Becket sees corruption in himself.

At the play’s end, the Knights sent by Henry chase Becket, murder him, and then step forward to address the audience directly, explaining in prose that they are “four plain Englishmen who put our country first.” Becket may lose himself in anguished contemplation of his own sin, but these knights are convinced that they are acting rightly. Eliot, like Chekhov and Shaw, refuses to resolve his conflicts, but the struggle he presents is an internal one—taking place not primarily between Henry and Becket, but within the mind of Becket himself.


Our Town


Best edition: Harper Perennial Modern Classics (2003).

Our Town begins by drawing our attention to its unreality; the Stage Manager comes onto the scene and introduces us to the actors who play each character. This story of the small-town residents of Grover’s Corners is meant to be a philosophical reflection, a set of illustrations revealing a truth about human existence. Emily Webb and George Gibbs meet as children, marry (“Almost everybody in the world gets married,” the Stage Manager remarks, as they prepare for the wedding), and have children; Emily dies and enters the community of the dead. The play’s climax comes when Emily decides to relive her twelfth birthday. She sees her parents and brother (now dead), and tries to go through the day as she did when she was twelve, but she grows frustrated with the blindness of ordinary people: “Oh, Mama,” she bursts out to her mother, “just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother. . . . Wally’s dead, too. . . . Don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.” Mrs. Webb, unheeding, goes on cooking, and Emily breaks down. “It goes so fast,” she sobs. “We don’t have time to look at one another. . . . Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?” “No,” the Stage Manager answers. “The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”

Our Town shows the details of those lives that go “so fast”; it aims to illustrate the particular value of each moment of ordinary time. In the end, the play is hopeful about the human condition. “We all know that something is eternal,” the Stage Manager remarks. “And it ain’t houses, and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars. . . . [E]verybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings.” Wilder is a humanist: We may have little control over our world, over our decisions, and over the passage of time, but what we do within that world is meaningful in some eternal sense. Our Town is a tragedy, but a tragedy that recognizes humanity’s essential worth—not its essential insignificance. (Wilder is the only American to win Pulitzer Prizes for both drama and fiction, for the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth and the story The Bridge of San Luís Rey.)


Long Day’s Journey into Night


Best edition: Yale University Press (2nd ed., 2002).

O’Neill (1888–1953) wanted this play, written in 1940, to remain unpublished for twenty-five years after his death, but it was first produced in 1956.

James Tyrone, his wife Mary, and their two sons—Jamie, in his mid-thirties, and Edmund, ten years younger—have just finished breakfast on an August morning. But amid the trivial family exchanges, tensions grow: James and Jamie quarrel, Jamie sneers at Edmund, Edmund coughs, and Mary begins to yearn for the morphine to which she is addicted. By lunchtime, when the doctor calls to tell Edmund that he is consumptive, Mary has taken her first shot of morphine and James has started to drink. In midafternoon, Mary makes an effort to reconnect: “James!” she cries. “We’ve loved each other! . . . Let’s remember only that, and not try to understand what we cannot understand. . . . [T]he things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.”

But James is unable to respond. Each member of the family, isolated and dreading this solitude, tries to form alliances with the other members, and these alliances continually shift and change, creating anger and bitterness.22Mary mourns over the death of the child born between Jamie and Edmund, blaming both James and Jamie: “If I hadn’t left him with my mother to join you on the road,” she accuses her husband, “because you wrote telling me you missed me and were so lonely, Jamie would never have been allowed, when he still had measles, to go in the baby’s room. . . . I’ve always believed Jamie did it on purpose. He was jealous of the baby.” “Can’t you let our baby rest in peace?” James asks wearily. But Mary can find peace only by retreating further into her drug addiction and pretending a return to her girlhood. “You go back,” she muses, “until at least you are beyond [pain’s] reach. Only the past when you were happy is real.”

Night finally falls. Edmund, who has left the house in anger, returns at midnight to find his father, drunk, sitting at the table. He drinks with his father, quoting Baudelaire: “If you would not feel the horrible burden of Time weighing on your shoulders and crushing you to earth, be drunken continually.” Jamie enters, drunk as well; Mary descends from her room, high on morphine. Edmund tries once again to connect with his mother. But she is trapped in the past. “I remember,” she says, slowly. “I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” And the play ends.

O’Neill shows the slow building of tension partly through dialogue, but largely through the characters’ faces and voices; he uses dialogue tags to reveal this hidden dimension of the drama (He gives her a quick apprehensive glance, reads one dialogue tag, but if his suspicions are aroused her tenderness makes him renounce them and he believes what he wants to believe for the moment. On the other hand, Jamie knows after one probing look at her that his suspicions are justified. His eyes fall to stare at the floor, his face sets in an expression of embittered, defensive cynicism).


No Exit


Best translation: The Stuart Gilbert translation in No Exit and Three Other Plays (Vintage, reissue edition, 1989).

Garcin, newly dead, enters hell and finds himself in a French drawing room, with no bed (so that he cannot sleep), no mirrors (so that he cannot reflect on his own identity), no windows (so that he cannot connect with the outside world), and no toothbrush (no personal possessions)—just a weird bronze ornament on the mantelpiece, too heavy to lift, and a paper knife for cutting the pages of books (although no books are in the room). In Sartre’s version of hell, humans are incapable of taking any action—and also barred from any oblivion, even the briefest. The lights never turn off, and the valet who shows him to his room never even blinks. “Ah,” Garcin says, “it’s life without a break. . . . One has to live with one’s eyes open all the time.” And there is no escape; outside the room are only passages, more rooms, more passages, and stairs.

Two more characters enter the room: Inez, a lesbian whose lover killed both of them (“For six months I flamed away in her heart, till there was nothing but a cinder. One night she got up and turned on the gas while I was asleep”), and Estelle, a society woman who ran away with her lover, killed their baby, and then died of pneumonia. Estelle laments the lack of a mirror: “When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help much.” “You’re lucky,” Inez answers, “I’m always conscious of myself—in my mind. Painfully conscious.” Each character wants something from the others; Inez wants Estelle, Estelle wants Garcin to affirm her desirability to men, Garcin wants Inez to recognize him as brave and courageous. But in hell, each character has lost the capacity to act. Exasperated with each other, they manage to get the door open—but can’t bring themselves to leave the room. “Hell is—other people,” Garcin concludes, “we are together forever, and ever, and ever. . . . Well, well, let’s get on with it. . . .”

Those are the play’s last words, but of course they cannot “get on with it.” Sartre’s existential philosophy found meaning only in what man is able to do; when action is impossible, man is in a meaningless hell. No Exit points out a contradiction in existentialism itself: Meaning only comes when man is able to act with some control to change his future. Yet this action must always involve other people—and whenever man is dependent on the actions of others to validate his own, he lacks control and is caught in a cycle that never ends. The only meaningful choice that remains is death. And when man cannot choose death, he is truly in hell.


A Streetcar Named Desire


Best editions: The New Directions paperback (2004) or the Signet mass market paperback (1984).

Blanche Dubois, a southern lady, arrives at her sister’s house with nothing but her suitcase; she has lost the family estate in Mississippi, Belle Reve (“Beautiful Dream”), and has nothing left. Her sister, Stella, is married to the blue-collar Stanley Kowalski. Blanche finds Stanley common and “ape-like”; Stanley finds Blanche snobbish, affected, and dishonest. The two battle for Stella’s loyalty. Blanche’s weapons are her gentility, the memories of their shared past, and guilt. “I stayed and struggled!” she tells her sister. “You came to New Orleans and looked after yourself!” Stanley’s hold over Stella is sexuality; “There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant,” Stella tells Blanche. She becomes pregnant, and Stanley’s hold over her is strengthened. In a fight over a poker game, Stanley wrecks the apartment’s living room and hits Stella; Blanche carries her off to a friend’s apartment, but Stella returns as soon as Stanley calls her. “The only way to live with such a man,” Blanche snaps, “is to—go to bed with him! And that’s your job—not mine!”

Blanche is tentatively courted by Stanley’s friend Mitch. But Stanley, snooping through Blanche’s past, discovers that she is notorious for her drunken promiscuity. He tells the idealistic Mitch of Blanche’s reputation, and Mitch rejects her. When she realizes what Stanley has done, Blanche begins to scream at him—but Stella goes into labor and Stanley takes her to the hospital. Mitch arrives, driven to see Blanche one more time, and Blanche admits that she has lied about her past: “I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth.” When Mitch refuses to marry Blanche but tries to seduce her anyway, Blanche throws him out. Stanley, coming back to the apartment from the hospital, high with excitement, finds Blanche alone there and rapes her. She goes insane; in the play’s last scene, a nurse and doctor arrive to take her away. She goes with them, puzzled but accepting, while Stella weeps in Stanley’s arms, distraught and guilty, but not moving away from her husband’s body. The play is realistic psychological drama: Stanley hates Blanche but also desires her; she loathes him but finds his sexuality compelling. It is also social commentary: There is no place for Blanche, the genteel southern lady, in this new urban world.


Death of a Salesman


Best editions: Available from Penguin Classics (2000), or with explanatory notes and interpretive essays from Viking Critical Library (1996).

Willy Loman, sixtyish salesman, lives in a tiny New York house, trapped and caged by the buildings all around him and by his own insufficiencies. He has just returned from a fruitless attempt to drive up to his sales territory “beyond Yonkers”—“I suddenly couldn’t drive anymore,” he tells his wife Linda. “The car kept going off onto the shoulder, y’know.” He is losing his sales territory, reduced from his salaried position at the company to working on commission, suffering from confusion between past and present. Willy’s two sons, Happy and Biff, in their thirties and unsuccessful, are both home; their presence exaggerates Willy’s confusion. As he speaks to them in the present, he imagines the past, and these scenes play out on stage. He sees himself encouraging the young Biff’s athleticism, overlooking his tendency to cheat and his failing grades in math.

When Biff and Happy realize that their father is borrowing money to pay his bills, they plan to ask Biff’s former boss, Bill Oliver, to invest in a new sporting goods business. They tell Willy that they will meet him in the evening for dinner, after getting the money from Oliver. Willy, inspired, goes himself to ask his own boss for a salaried position: “Selling was the greatest career a man could want,” he muses, while his employer waits impatiently for him to be done. “In those days there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship. . . . Today, it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality. . . . I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can’t pay my insurance! You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!”

But Willy is “thrown away”—he is fired. Meanwhile Biff sees Bill Oliver but doesn’t dare ask for money, suddenly realizing what a failure he was in his previous job for Oliver. When Willy arrives at the restaurant, the three quarrel over the past. The young Biff appears on stage. He has just failed his senior math class and won’t be able to take up his college athletic scholarship. He searches out Willy to ask for help, but finds his father in a motel room with another woman. The young Biff storms out, giving up on college; the older Biff accuses his father of ruining his life.

They leave the restaurant separately. Back home, Willy realizes that his life insurance (twenty thousand dollars) would set Biff up in his new business. “That boy—” he cries out, “that boy is going to be magnificent!” He leaves the house and crashes the car, killing himself. In the epilogue, Linda stands at Willy’s grave with her sons and Willy’s only friend, their neighbor Charley: “I can’t understand it,” she laments. “He only needed a little salary.” “No man only needs a little salary,” Charley replies. Miller himself called the play a tragedy—one about “the common man,” who is “as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were,” because the psychology of all men is the same. In this psychological tragedy, Miller adds, the “tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure . . . his ‘rightful’ position in his society. . . . There are among us today, as there always have been, those who act against the scheme of things that degrades them.”23 Twentieth-century capitalism degrades Willy: “The competition is maddening!” he complains at the play’s beginning, but his efforts to resist the market are doomed.


Waiting for Godot


Best edition: The Grove Press paperback (2011).

In the first act of Waiting for Godot, two tramps—Vladimir and Estragon—arrive on stage and stand beside a tree, waiting for Godot to arrive. They chant back and forth, trying to figure out what they’ve asked Godot for, what he said he would provide, why they’re waiting.

But no more information is ever provided. Two other travelers—Pozzo and his slave Lucky—arrive on stage, chat for a while, and then leave. A boy arrives and tells the two that Godot won’t be coming, but will come the following day. They decide to go, but don’t budge. (“Well, shall we go?” “Yes, let’s go.” They do not move.) In the second act, the exact same events occur: Lucky and Pozzo arrive again, although they have changed roles, and don’t remember meeting Vladimir and Estragon the previous day. Vladimir makes an effort to change the situation: “Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!” he suddenly exclaims. “Let us do something while we have the chance!” But they keep on waiting. The boy shows up again and says that Godot will not be coming, but doesn’t remember delivering the identical message the day before. Vladimir and Estragon debate hanging themselves, but don’t have a strong enough cord. “I can’t go on like this,” Estragon says. “That’s what you think,” Vladimir retorts. They again decide to leave, again fail to leave, and the curtain falls.

Godot never arrives (asked what Godot “means,” Beckett once remarked, “If I knew, I would have said so in the play”). But waiting, not Godot, is at the center of the play. Beckett is a symbolic writer, and the two tramps waiting for some vague and undefined end are symbols for the human experience: in Martin Esslin’s words, “the act of waiting as an essential and characteristic aspect of the human condition.”24 Every human being waits out the period between birth and death, unable to perform any significant act, to understand the world, or even to communicate meaningfully with another human being.


A Man for All Seasons


Best edition: The Vintage Books paperback (reissue edition, 1990). The preface, by Bolt himself, is an essential part of the play and suggests Bolt’s own preferences for sets, costumes, and so on.

Thomas More is under pressure from Henry VIII to sanction his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, so that he may marry Anne Boleyn; but More refuses. Cardinal Wolsey wants More to agree with the king. “If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint,” he says, “you could have been a statesman.” But Wolsey displeases the king; More succeeds him and comes under even greater pressure from Henry VIII, who wants More’s public blessing because “you are honest. What’s more to the purpose, you’re known to be honest.” When the king commands More to swear on oath that the marriage is legal, More refuses and is imprisoned. No one can find grounds for executing him, but Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to the Council, is determined to smooth the way for the king. He offers More’s pupil Richard Rich the gift of a position as Collector of the Revenue, collects from him seemingly innocent “tidbits of information,” and dangles the possibility of public recognition before the younger man. Rich is susceptible to this temptation. (Early in the play Rich complains that the only recognition he’s ever had is “one half of a Good Morning delivered at fifty paces by the Duke of Norfolk. Doubtless he mistook me for someone else.” “Be a teacher,” More counsels him, advising him to avoid the quest to be well known. “You’d be a fine teacher.” “And if I was, who would know it?” Rich objects. “You, your pupils, your friends, God,” More replies. “Not a bad public, that.”) Trapped by his increasing wealth and prominence, unable to give either up, Rich agrees to lie about More in public, accusing him of treasonous statements. More, condemned, turns to Cromwell: “What you have hunted me for is not my actions, but the thoughts of my heart,” he says. “It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen walk your road.”

“Thomas More,” wrote Bolt in his own preface, “knew . . . what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. . . . At length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal.” More’s identity is located in his integrity before God; the oath which Henry demanded of him would have identified his most private self with a lie. Like Saint Joan and Murder in the Cathedral, Bolt’s play combines historical truth with nonrealistic elements (the Common Man, a choruslike figure who comments on the action and takes minor roles) in order to investigate a psychological problem: the location of the self.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead


Best edition: The Grove Press paperback (reprint edition, 1994).

Two minor characters from Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are trying to figure out why they have been summoned to Elsinore, but they keep getting interrupted—first by the Players, arriving to perform at Claudius’s court, and then by Ophelia charging through, pursued by Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are helpless to direct their own lives; they can’t act, because they can’t make up their minds about what to do next. “Set loose to find our own way,” Guildenstern mourns. “We are entitled to some direction. . . . I would have thought.”

All of the actions of the play are determined by Hamlet, which (running offstage) turns into a theatrical version of Fate, providing an inevitable sequence of events, but no meaning to accompany them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to get rid of Polonius’s body, take a sea voyage with Hamlet to England, are attacked by pirates, and discover that Hamlet has ordered their deaths. To their surprise, they discover that all of the Players are (improbably) on board as well. “Pirates could happen to anyone,” the chief Player says, comfortingly, but the two are inconsolable over the letter. When the Player adds, “Most things end in death,” Guildenstern stabs him: “No one gets up after death!” he screams—but the Player, after dying spectacularly, hops up to take a bow. All the Players then kill each other, leaving Guildenstern and Rosencrantz among the bodies. “There must have been a moment at the beginning where we could have said—no,” Guildenstern says. “But somehow we missed it.” Both disappear from view as lights come up to show the final scene from Hamlet, with the last speech of Horatio slowly drowned out by music and darkness. There is no cause and effect in the play; the two occupy a world they cannot understand; they have nothing to help them interpret the actions around them. Language is useless, their efforts to take action end in absurdity, and the form of the play itself reflects the impossibility of reaching true understanding.25




Best edition: The Scribner paperback (2005).

Equus, told as a Brechtian series of numbered scenes, follows an extended psychotherapy session between psychiatrist Martin Dysart and his seventeen-year-old patient Alan Strang, who has blinded six horses with steel spikes. Strang, isolated from his family and from his society, is a worshipper of a great, strange, elemental god he calls “Equus.” Equus is a force compounded from his love of horses, sexual desire, a warped sense of religion, isolation, disappointment, and (above all) his sense that something great, overwhelming, transcendent, and beyond his control occupies the universe. Alan’s worship of Equus torments him, but it also serves to protect him from the banalities of a world filled with chattering consumerism: “Remington ladies’ shavers!” customers shout at Alan, as he desperately tries to fulfill his duties as a shop attendant. “Robex tableware? Corydex? Volex? Pifco automatic toothbrushes?” The psychiatrist Dysart discovers this belief, but is reluctant to remove it: “He’ll be delivered from madness,” Dysart cries out at the play’s end. “What then? . . . I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered . . . blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads!” He may “cure” Alan Strang, returning him to the twentieth-century world of materialism and irrelevance by taking away his delusions of the cruel, powerful, beautiful, mocking god Equus. But Dysart himself knows that some great inexplicable force lies hidden in all men “crying out, ‘Account for Me!’ ”

Shaffer argues for the irreducible complexity of human beings, their ultimate mystery. His play deals with the internal, not the external, landscape, and so he sets Equus on an abstract stage, where the actors sit on benches on the stage (and sometimes in the audience) while waiting to perform their scenes. The action is both internal and clearly symbolic, standing for some part of man which is in danger of being eliminated altogether by “normality.” The “gods” have returned in Shaffer’s play; but this time they dwell in the deep reaches of the mind, not on Olympus.


Ball, William. A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing. Hollywood: Drama Publishers, 2003. A good guide to all the basics of directing scenes.

Bloom, Michael. Thinking Like a Director: A Practical Handbook. London: Faber & Faber, 2001. Begins with the first reading of the play and takes you right through rehearsals.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. New York: Touchstone, 1995. The director of the Royal Shakespeare Company analyzes the issues every director must face when staging a new play.

Gillette, J. Michael. Theatrical Design and Production: An Introduction to Scene Design and Construction, Lighting, Sound, Costume, and Makeup, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. This standard textbook covers all aspects of staging for beginners.

Ingham, Rosemary. From Page to Stage: How Theatre Designers Make Connections Between Scripts and Images. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998. A little more detail on designing sets and scenery.


The versions below are only a few of those available; search the Internet Movie Database at for more.

Most of these can be purchased in DVD or watched online through streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.). Many can be viewed in part, or whole, on Youtube. Use the title, director or stars, and date in in your online search.


1983, directed by Peter Hall for the BBC National Theatre; translation by Tony Harrison.

Oedipus Rex

1957, directed by Abram Polonsky and Tyrone Guthrie; translation by William Butler Yeats; starring Douglas Campbell and Eleanor Stuart.

1968, Oedipus the King, directed by Philip Saville, starring Christopher Plummer, Orson welles, and Donald Sutherland.


1959, adapted by Robinson Jeffers, starring Judith Anderson; this is the black-and-white film made from the Broadway production.

1970, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Maria Callas in a nonsinging role. In Italian, but you can sometimes find it with subtitles.

1988, directed by Lars von Trier, starring Udo Kier, Kirsten Olesen, and Henning Jensen.

Doctor Faustus

1968, directed by Nevill Coghill, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

2012, directed by Matthew Dunster, starring Charlotte Broom, Michael Camp, Paul Hilton, and Arthur Darvill; a production from the Globe Theatre.

Richard III

1955, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier; long considered one of Olivier’s best performances.

1995, directed by Richard Loncraine, starring Ian McKellen and Annette Bening; set in the 1930s.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

1936, directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt, starring James Cagney, Olivia De Havilland, and Mickey Rooney; includes Mendelssohn’s music.

1969, directed by Peter Hall, starring Ian Holm and Judy Dench; a Royal Shakespeare Company production that also includes Ian Richardson, Diana Rigg, and Helen Mirren.

1996, directed by Adrian Noble; a video adaptation of a staged Royal Shakespeare Company production.

1999, directed by Michael Hoffman, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Kevin Kline; set in late nineteenth-century Italy.


1948, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier; significantly but thoughtfully cut, this film won four Oscars.

1964, directed by Bill Colleran and John Gielgud, starring Richard Burton; a staged Broadway performance.

1969, directed by Tony Richardson, starring Nicol Williamson and Judy Parfitt.

1990, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, starring Mel Gibson; heavily cut and very quick moving.

1996, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh; Branagh set out to film the entire play, cutting nothing.

2000, directed by Michael Almereyda, starring Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan; set in modern-day New York City.

2009, directed by Gregory Doran, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart; a Royal Shakespeare Company production.


1978, directed by Kirk Browning, starring Donald Moffat, Victor Garber, and Tammy Grimes.

She Stoops to Conquer

1971, starring Ralph Richardson and Trevor Peacock; a British television production.

2008, directed by Tony Britten, starring Roy Marsden, Ian Redford, and Susannah Fielding.

2012, directed by Jamie Lloyd, starring Sophie Thompson, Steve Pemberton, and Timothy Speyer; a National Theatre production.

The School for Scandal

1959, produced by Hal Burton, starring Joan Plowright, Felix Aylmer, and John Saunders.

2003, directed by Michael Langham and Nick Havinga, starring Bernard Behrens, Blair Brown, and Pat Connolly.

A Doll’s House

1959, starring Julie Harris and Christopher Plummer; a stage performance, broadcast for television.

1973, directed by Patrick Garland, starring Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins.

1992, directed by David Thacker, starring Juliet Stevenson and Trevor Eve; a televised version.

2015, directed by Charles Huddleston, starring Ben Kingsley, Julian Sands, and Michele Martin.

The Importance of Being Earnest

1952, directed by Anthony Asquith, starring Michael Redgrave and Joan Greenwood.

1988, directed by Stuart Burge, starring Joan Plowright and Paul McGann.

2002, directed by Oliver Parker, starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, and Judy Dench.

The Cherry Orchard

1959, directed by Daniel Petrie, starring Helen Hayes and John Abbott.

1962, directed by Michael Elliott, starring Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud.

1971, directed by Cedric Messina, starring Jenny Agutter, Peggy Ashcroft, and Edward Woodward.

1981, directed by Richard Eyre, starring Judi Dench and Bill Paterson.

1999, directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis, starring Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates.

Saint Joan

1957, directed by Otto Preminger, starring Jean Seberg and John Gielgud.

1967, directed by George Schaefer, starring Theodore Bikel and Genevieve Bujold.

Murder in the Cathedral

1951, directed by George Hoellering, starring John Groser and Alexander Gauge (with T. S. Eliot as the Fourth Tempter).

Our Town

1940, directed by Sam Wood, staring William Holden and Martha Scott; significantly different from the Wilder play.

1977, directed by George Schaefer, starring Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook, and Glynnis O’Connor.

1989, directed by Gregory Mosher, starring Spalding Gray and Penelope Ann Miller; a PBS-filmed version of a Lincoln Center performance.

2003, directed by James Naughton, starring Maggie Lacey, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Jane Curtin.

Long Day’s Journey into Night

1962, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson.

1973, directed by Peter Wood, starring Laurence Olivier and Constance Cummings; originally aired as Episode 20, Season 5, of ITV Sunday Night Theatre.

1987, directed by Jonathan Miller, starring Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, and Kevin Spacey.

1996, directed by David Wellington, starring Peter Donaldson and Martha Henry; the full title of this Canadian film is Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.

No Exit

1964, directed by Philip Saville, starring Harold Pinter; a BBC production.

A Streetcar Named Desire

1951, directed by Elia Kazan, starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando.

1984, directed by John Erman, starring Ann-Margret and Treat Williams.

1995, directed by Glenn Jordan, starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.

Death of a Salesman

1966, directed by Alex Segal, starring George Segal, Gene Wilder, and Lee J. Cobb; a television version, abridged from the play.

1985, directed by Volker Schlondorff, starring Dustin Hoffman and Kate Reid.

Waiting for Godot

1961, directed by Alan Schneider, starring Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith; first aired as Episode 28, Season 2, of the Play of the Week.

1988, directed by Samuel Beckett himself, starring Rich Cluchy and Lawrence Held; the full title of this television production is Beckett Directs Beckett: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett.

2001, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, starring Barry McGovern and Alan Stanford; an Irish production.

A Man for All Seasons

1966, directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Paul Scofield and Wendy Hiller.

1988, directed by and starring Charlton Heston, also starring John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

1990, directed by Tom Stoppard himself, starring Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss.


1977, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth.

1Joyce Carol Oates, “Plays as Literature,” Conjunctions, vol. 25 (Spring 1995): 8–13; 9.

2Readers who are interested in investigating these traditions could consult a complete theater history as a starting place. History of the Theatre, 8th ed., by Oscar Brockett (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1998), is a standard text; the paperback Oxford Illustrated History of the Theatre, edited by John Russell Brown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), is a briefer, more affordable history.

3Leon Golden, “Othello, Hamlet, and Aristotelian Tragedy,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 142–56.

4Katharsis, a word used only once in the Poetics, is a hotly debated term, but many scholars now agree that it refers, not to an emotional “purging” felt by the audience, but rather to the clarity that comes within the play when the reasons for the hero’s fall come sharply into focus. George Whalley writes, “It is the incidents within the action itself (not the emotions of the audience) that are purified, brought into a sharp focus specific to tragedy” (“On Translating Aristotle’s Poetics,” the introductory essay to Whalley’s translation of Aristotles Poetics [Montréal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1997], p. 27).

5Since evidence is scant, this is speculation. Some scholars have suggested that the mystery plays might instead have grown out of secular roots (folk dances, mummers’ plays, and so on), but that’s speculation too.

6Albert Wertheim, “Restoration Drama: The Second Flowering of the English Theatre,” in 500 Years of Theatre History, ed. Michael Bigelow Dixon and Val Smith (Lyme, N.H.: Smith and Kraus, 2000), p. 82.

7Walter Benjamin, “Studies for a Theory of Epic Theatre,” in Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (London: NLB, 1973), pp. 15–22 (first published in German in 1939).

8Haskell M. Block, Mallarmé and the Symbolist Drama (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963), p. 103.

9Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1973), p. 4.

10Quoted in A Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama since the Late Nineteenth Century, by Oscar G. Brockett and Robert Findlay, 2nd ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1991), p. 312.

11Anne Fleche, Mimetic Disillusion (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), p. 26.

12Quoted in G. W. Brandt, “Realism and Parables (from Brecht to Arden),” in Contemporary Theatre (London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1962.), p. 33.

13Daniel C. Gerould, American Melodrama (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983), p. 14.

14Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), p. 204.

15Peter Brook, The Empty Space (New York: Atheneum, 1983), pp. 42–43.

16Theresa Rebeck, Theresa Rebeck: Collected Plays 1989–1998 (New York: Smith and Kraus, 1999), p. 9.

17Interview in BOMB Magazine (New York), January 1999, online at and

18Ronald Hayman, How to Read a Play (New York: Grove Press, 1977), p. 14.

19Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt, 1998), p. 197.

20The play also assumes that the audience knows how the Trojan War began: The goddess of discord, Eris, offered a golden apple to the fairest of the goddesses. Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena asked Zeus to decide which one was the most beautiful, but he (wisely) declined to judge and sent them to Paris instead. Paris chose Aphrodite, not for her beauty, but because she promised to reward him with the most beautiful woman in the world. With the competition over, Aphrodite helped Paris to magic Helen away from Menelaus and back to Troy.

21Wolfgang H. Clemen, “Tradition and Originality in Shakespeare’s Richard III,” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer 1954): 247–57.

22I owe this insight to Stephen A. Black, “O’Neill’s Dramatic Process,” American Literature, vol. 59, no. 1 (March 1987): 58–70.

23Arthur Miller, “Tragedy and the Common Man,” New York Times, February 27, 1949, section II, pp. 1, 3.

24Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, p. 29.

25Roger Ebert, who saw the play in its original theatrical run and later reviewed the film, provides several intriguing comments on the differences in form between the two in his 1991 review of the film in the Chicago Sun-Times, available online at