10 Recommended Plays: 100 Books to Read #2

“The Play is the thing.”

While not originally reading material (unless we wanted to discuss Restoration closet dramas, which I don’t), it is undeniable that plays, particularly Shakespeare’s, are commonly found in literature courses. Despite being intended for performance, plays in printed form can stand up as fascinating reading material as well. Taking two terms of Renaissance and Restoration drama at university, I have read more plays than I might otherwise have done, but my list of suggested plays is still fairly shortish. And dominated by Shakespeare, as you might expect. In fact, not one of my non-Shakespeare reads from those classes has made it onto this list–I’m sorry, but Christopher Marlowe is not Shakespeare, no matter what day of the week it is. So here is my list of 10 plays to read.

  1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare—Ghosts and revenge oaths, villainous uncles and false friends, mistaken identity in the drapes and piracy on the high seas… it’s very hard to summarize this play’s plot with any comprehensiveness. Suffice to say, there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. Which reminds me, if the quote is from Shakespeare, there is a high chance it came from this play: “to thine own self be true,” “the lady doth protest too much, methinks,” the quote I used at the beginning of this post, and just about anything else that comes to mind.
  2. Romeo and Juliet by the Bard—“Tale as old as time” and all that jazz. It’s the classic doomed romance between members of feuding families, brimming with teenage angst and duels around every corner. Besides being an early example of the insta-love trope, miscommunication to create drama, and a double suicide, it is also written proof of the saying “Whatever can go wrong, will.” Or a cautionary tale about impulse control.
  3. Macbeth by Will Shakes—“Something wicked this way comes.” Fondly referred to as the Scottish Play when productions reenact this cursed tale, it is chock full of doom, death, and daggers. Macbeth, encouraged by a slightly loose interpretation of three witches’ prophecy, engages in a campaign for the Scottish throne, supported by his wife Lady Macbeth. Their machinations include treason and assassination, culminating in a final battle that fulfills two parts of Macbeth’s fate in an unexpected way. Fun fact: J.R.R. Tolkien was so unimpressed by this play that in The Lord of the Rings he made what he considered an improvement on the prophecy fulfillment loophole. See if you can spot what got Tolkien so steamed up that he had to write his own version of it.
  4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the same as the last three—Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. Fortunately, Lysander loves Hermia back or this would be a complete circle of unrequited yearnings… Wait, Lysander! What are you doing chasing Helena through the wood? There’s no reason—oh. I forgot about the fairies. There’s a love potion involved, not administered by a licensed practitioner. There’s also a play—within a play. And lingering questions of human free will. It’s a delightful romp.
  5. Dear Brutus by J.M. Barrie—A group of seemingly disconnected people are all invited to the home of an eccentric named Lob, for undisclosed reasons. On Midsummers Eve, a strange wood takes over the landscape outside the house and they severally enter it, encountering mysterious phenomena that lead them to their ultimate truth. If you have read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you may have noticed the familiar moniker of “Lob” as another name for Puck, and if you have read Julius Ceasar, you may recognise the title as from the quote, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Barrie draws on Shakespeare in this play while maintaining his own distinctive story and style.
  6. The Admirable Crichton by J.M. Barrie—The accepted roles of master and servant are upended when a shipwreck strands them all together, Gilligan’s Island style. There, merit and character elevate some and demote others in a shocking rearrangement of social classes, but can it last when the group is rescued and returns to the barbaric wilderness of London society? At once castaway adventure and political commentary, this play speculates on human nature and how survival interacts with the formation of society.
  7. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde—If you’re like Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2 and have somehow managed to miss this play, you should probably pick it up. A country gentleman invents an alter ego named Ernest in order to conceal his wild excesses when away from home, and ends up falling in love while in his alternate identity. Meanwhile, a friend of his decides to make use of the identity and ends up going to the man’s home to embody to them this dissipated “Ernest” they’ve been told so much about. Cue the hijinks, mixups, and romantic disasters, as the two men and one fictitious “Ernest” collide with their two love interests. There’s also a disapproving aunt and a long lost baby in the mix, with a romantic subplot with the vicar thrown in for good measure.
  8. Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde—The titular fan flutters at the centre of the intrigue in this play. With faked deaths, self-delusion, and the mysterious identity of a disreputable but fascinating woman, this plot deals in limited knowledge, secrets, perception, and reputation. From Lady Windermere’s vow to strike the objectionable woman with her fan should she meet her, to mistakenly leaving that same fan to incriminate herself in a man’s apartment, revelations emerge from a tangled web of private lives and public approbation, sprinkled with Wilde’s characteristic witty dialogue and shenanigans.
  9. Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey—A moving family drama set in a tenement in Dublin during the fight for Irish independence. “The Paycock” is a nickname for Juno’s husband, an endearing, if frustrating, slacker who goes to extreme lengths to avoid work and spend all his time drinking. Their son is dependent on them, having been maimed in the Easter Rising, and their daughter must to look marrying well in order to secure her future. Juno and the family end up banking on the promise of an inheritance that never materialises. As their fortunes rise and fall, a colourful cast of characters moves in and out of their lives, with the grim political unrest lurking to play its final role in their ruin.
  10. R.U.R. by Karel Capek—Written in Czech, R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) is the original story of mechanical life being created for menial labour and rising up in revolt against its human masters. When social reformer Gloria penetrates to the heart of robot production to advocate for robot freedom, she encounters people and robots unlike anything she ever expected. Part black comedy, part industrial apocalypse, part social commentary, this play written in 1920 also explores the human spirit and the question of the growing automation of the world and what that could mean for our future. This play is the direct ancestor of many science-fiction stories and tropes, one of its direct descendants being the Blade Runner films (I also noticed its influence on the main conflict of the new Battlestar Galactica series, but it’s an unfortunate comparison that pains me to think about). Fun fact: this play is where we get the word “robot” as we understand it today; Capek coined it from a Czech word meaning roughly “indentured slave”.

So that’s my list of suggested plays to pick up. If you’ve heard of one and always thought you might read it one day, why not do it now? Given the ways things are, there’s probably no better time to get your household engaged and put on a home production, Mansfield Park style. Pick a scene and give it a read-through. Overact, underact, appoint a director, make a stage, and yell, “Line!” as much as you’ve always wanted to. And if you’re alone, well, there’s no one to judge you for doing a dramatic reading of all the lines yourself in a one-man-play.

Watching Suggestions

Because these days, you don’t have to visit the theatre to see a play. Enjoy a filmed version from home.

Hamlet: If you want to invest three hours watching a really well-acted adaptation of this play, check out the 2009 one with David Tennant and Sir Patrick Stewart. Or, for a more bite-sized serving, there’s a surprisingly well-acted movie with Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles filmed and set in 2000. There is nothing quite like seeing Hamlet give the “to be or not to be” soliloquoy while walking through a Blockbuster video rental store. (Personally, I’d give the Mel Gibson and Helena Bonam Carter one a miss.)

Romeo and Juliet: I do not have a watching suggestion for this besides the loosely adapted West Side Story (which is apparently getting remade this year by Steven Spielberg) that sets it in the inner city in the 1950s and makes the Montagues and Capulets rival gangs, the American Jets and the Peurto Rican Sharks. If you can get past the somewhat poorly aged dancing and just enjoy Leonard Berstein’s great score, this musical also has a couple of great songs and a surprisingly relevant conflict at its heart. I also have a listening suggestion, which is a short comedic summary of the plot you can listen to on YouTube by Andy Griffith.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The only one I’ve seen to recommend is the 1999 film adaptation with Michelle Pfieffer and Christian Bale, which I found quite enjoyable, if a little scarce on the attire.

J.M. Barrie: Barrie is of course best known for the novelization of his 1904 play Peter Pan. While I have not seen acted versions of any of his plays, I don’t hesitate to recommend the 2004 film about the writing and premier of Peter Pan, Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.

The Importance of Being Earnest: If looking for a good laugh with on-point comedic timing, the 2002 film with Judy Dench, Colin Firth, and Reese Witherspoon is a brilliant adaptation.

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