27 Plays Every Playwright Must Read
(CW: plays about racism, sexual abuse, suicide, war, violence; language in the discussion of the plays here; please research the CWs of individual plays before reading them.)
As someone who majored in English without reading a book: you need to read plays; if you wanna hop into playwriting without knowing how high the bar is, you’re gonna be aiming low. Devour these 27 plays. Understand that their insane craftsmanship shouldn’t become a discouragement, but a recognition that all of these writers finding their voices each made the world stop and you’ll do the same if you let yourself find yours too.
1. The America Play by Suzan-Lori Parks, and then
2. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Parks is the best playwright alive; read her plays and read what she’s written about her plays. The evolution of America—about a Black man who impersonates Abe Lincoln so customers can assassinate him—to Topdog—about the same exact thing but with another world of dynamics added—is a landmark in rewriting that you’re required to visit. We get caught up in our pages becoming glued together—in believing that redoing a script we’ve spent months on is killing a child: Parks had a play off-Broadway and still said it needed a full rewrite. The result won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
3. Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, and then
4. Ruined by Lynn Nottage
It’s a celebrated trope to reimagine a classic play for a contemporary setting. Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, many more to be mentioned further down, but taking a play about a 17th century Europe war and bringing it to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo wasn’t done to reboot a cash cow or dissect a text, but rather showcase how war as a capitalist paradise hasn’t blinked in the eighty years between the plays’ writings. There’s no whimsy in this reimagining but devastation at the fact that it could be done. Another Pulitzer winner, Ruined is a masterclass in how to modernize a classic.
5. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, and then
Burn 6. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris (Fire by You)
And this is how you don’t. There’s exhaustive dialogue today about how much Raisin helped force white playwrights to surrender their monopoly, alongside claims that the play catered to white theatremakers, but as a text it remains an outstanding explosion of character and conflict. For Norris, a white guy, to continue where Raisin left off wasn’t just appropriation but full colonization. This was the All Lives Matter play, except Norris got to force words in Black mouths to agree with him. There’s maybe nothing more important right now as a writer than knowing which stories aren’t yours to tell and Clybourne is one of the most prominent examples today of gentrifying Black art. Raisin didn’t win the Pulitzer or Tony while Clybourne did both; you must read Clybourne before you do something stupid.
7. Underground Railroad Game by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, and then
8. Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris
I saw Game then Play (in its infancy at the O’Neill) with the same playwright friends, and we unanimously agreed the two were in direct conversation. Where Game explores the inherent fetishization between a white man/Black woman couple, Play expands this to every binary combination of white/Black man/woman, making four couples. Harris expected Play to be an unknown passion project hidden off-off-Broadway at best, never the behemoth ticket of the decade that surpassed Angels in America for most Tony nominations ever. Given that its “predecessor” won the Obie and toured, the vital reason to read these two plays is not only because they’re some of the best theatre of the past few decades, but they’re showcases in that you don’t need to just converse with Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Williams: confront a play that came out the year prior, no matter its breadth, and as long as the topic makes you excited, the public will mirror that.
9. Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn,
10. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, and
11. Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead by Bert V. Royal
And these ones take the pool of “classics” resources a leap even further. Burns explores a post-apocalypse in which recalling episodes of The Simpsons evolves over generations into a Dionysian theatre festival, Spike is a mixed-up Chekhov modernization that utilizes Snow White costuming to pull off glamor and nostalgia, Dog reimagines the Peanuts characters years in early adulthood with depression and abuse rampant. While I honestly think Spike is the only great play out of these three, all are valuable in showing three different levels of modernizing using a non-theatrical source (as though that source were real in Dog, as though it were a story in Burns, as though it were plain old vibes in Spike) while most importantly: having fun. There’s too much pressure to write the next Sweat: if you know funny is your strength, you can be successful writing funny.
12. Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, and
13. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
While you’re at it, go ahead and confront the very nature of stories. Salt the earth. Time isn’t real so fuck it. You can be sweet about it like Eurydice, retelling the myth of Orpheus through the loving perspective of his wife, or as let’s-skullfuck-the-basic-construct-of-fiction like Pillowman, exploring a police-state in which a writer has been arrested due to his violent stories being reenacted by a serial child murderer. Both are writers having fun writing about writing, with Ruhl commandeering a fabled myth into her own comfort food and McDonagh declaring fiction is fascist. Both are breaths of fresh air to read and for that reason vital lesson plans for you: you can literally write a play about any fucking premise you want (except a Raisin white history month special)—you can create, you can steal what others created, you can steal what you yourself created, you can fuck the sun. You don’t have to worry about how it’ll happen onstage. The director’ll figure it out. Be free. (It’s very important to note that Pillowman has been debated as having ableist themes core to its plot and characterization; there still isn’t a clear consensus on this, so just be warned that there are r-slurs intended to denigrate as well as a violent character with an unspecified mental disability.)
14. Sweat by Lynn Nottage, and then
15. Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morrisseau
If you were to write about how the corpse of the American Dream festered into the Great Recession, how would you do it? Sweat looked at a Pennsylvania mining town pre-Recession, Skeleton at a Detroit factory at the start of the Recession; both were looking back on the era’s economic desperation with a Trumpism-conscious lens, but how did each playwright pick their plays? How does the all Black cast of Skeleton differ from the racially mixed cast of Sweat? Why’s one pre-Recession and the other during? Why’s one an urban industry and the other rural? The characters of Sweat would likely vote red and Skeleton blue: how does this affect audience attitudes about them? You as a writer have a million choices to make: reading these two plays is a vital lesson in freeing yourself from your first instincts and recognizing that there’s a whole spectrum of ways to tell a story on a specific topic. All you need to do is find the version that speaks to you the most and trust the audience will follow. Sweat won the Pulitzer and Morrisseau’s whole Detroit Trilogy should be on your shelf—there wasn’t a good reason to put it on this list, but Morrisseau’s Paradise Blue is one of the best plays you’ll ever read.
16. Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, and then
17. An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
What makes these plays so exceptional to read against one another is that the two feature the playwright as the protagonist, the two confront racism within actual theatre making, and the two are absolutely nothing alike. Yellow has “DHH” trying to steady a social narrative by being personally responsible for casting a white man in an Asian role, whereas Octoroon has “BJJ” trying to rile up a social narrative by reversing the blackface of Dion Boucicault's 1859 play, The Octoroon, joining the skirmish in “whiteface”—Yellow is disarming a live bomb where Octoroon has a special treat of putting them under the audience’s seats. Beyond just differences in how to put yourself in a play literally, these two are a lesson for playwrights in accountability outside the page. If you’re hopping into a hard topic where plenty of writers have eaten shit, do you showcase how good you are at eating around the shit to still talk about shit, do you shit on the shit and devour the double-shit to showcase the godliness of your shit-eating, or maybe something in between? Yellow was a finalist for the Pulitzer and Octoroon polled among NYT critics as the second best play of the past 25 years, coming only behind Topdog/Underdog.
18. Wit by Margaret Edson,
19. ’night Mother by Marsha Norman, and
20. How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
Individual traumas like terminal illness, suicide, and molestation will hit audience members differently: some are learning its nuances for the first time from you, some are not. Each one of these is common in plays—usually as gut punch endings—but if they’re instead your premise from the start, you may need levity to create a welcoming environment for your audience. Wit has a woman whimsically explain her battle with terminal cancer, Mother has a daughter courteously explain to her desperate mother what’ll happen to her after the daughter killed herself that night, Drive has a woman educationally explain molestation by her uncle as though it were as mechanical as operating a car. If any of these were to bust out the gate with the horrors of the traumas, the audience would’ve put their defenses up and not have empathized, interacted, or maybe even finished the show. Instead, these plays each won a Pulitzer recognizing that the hardest gut punch is the one coming from hands you thought were gentle.
21. Twilight: Los Angeles by Anna Deavere Smith,
22. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph
23. The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth, and
24. Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland
Collective traumas are a different animal entirely. We all experienced world events, but from different perspectives: spectators, participants, or students. How do you talk about an event that folks already have an opinion on? For Twilight, Smith interviewed hundreds of people who were present for the 1992 L.A. uprising and turned them into character monologues, delivering all possible opinions at once, giving the biased audience plenty with which to excitedly agree and ferociously disagree. For Tiger, Joseph did the opposite: telling the Iraq War through a perspective nobody had seen: that of an escaped zoo tiger. The Troubles remain an open wound in Northern Ireland for former IRA members like in Ferryman or present loyalists like in Cyprus, and both plays claim their only common language is violence. Tonally, Tiger and Cyprus use dark humor (in Cyprus, the protagonist believes his infant granddaughter is alleged former IRA leadership figure Gerry Adams in disguise) while Ferryman and Twilight keep things relatively serious—because unlike with individual traumas, for collective traumas we’ve already bitten the bullet as audience members before you even wrote the play, so you’re free as a playwright to take whichever path you please. Read these four for a fantastic spectrum. (Also worth mentioning that a certain horrifying scene in Cyprus was the only time I’ve ever actively had to remind myself during a play that it was all pretend. That play really shows how far you can take your audience’s psyches.)
25. The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe and
26. The Flick by Annie Baker
It’s hard to describe what Chekhov created to somebody today who doesn’t care, but Wolves and Flick do it better than an essay ever could. These 2017 and 2015 plays are characters seemingly just existing, Wolves about a youth soccer team practicing on the field and Flick about movie theater workers cleaning up popcorn, but when you watch something so normal—so nothing—you’re looking at life itself and realizing how tragic it is, how funny it is, how you yourself will be a character once the show is done. These two plays don’t dive into the existential comedy of Chekhov so much, Wolves focusing more on perseverance and Flick on heartbreak, but regardless it’s so refreshing to know as a playwright that “just life” remains one of the most captivating premises in your toolkit. They’re required reading because they show the inspirations for your plays don’t have to be other plays, or traumas, or your own life, but can be just life. (While Flick won a Pulitzer, it’s important to note that it’s a play about racism written by a white woman, and the play must be understood through that lens.)
27. And yes, all of the ancient texts too.
Whether you like it or not, you’ll be a better writer after going through The Big Three (Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller), though I’m a part of both the Make-It-A-Big-Five Camp (adding Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee and the later Fences by August Wilson because it just fits the whole mood) as well as the Death-of-a-Salesman-Is-Not-That-Play Camp (replacing it with better Arthur Miller plays, like All My Sons or The Crucible). You also have to read as much Chekhov as you can possibly find, but The Seagull is 100% that play. Shakespeare made more than enough good plays, but there’s a reason nobody has shut the fuck up about Hamlet—also, Twelfth Night. Ibsen had bops, but Hedda Gabler is to this day hot girl shit. Beckett is vibes, but read as much as you want and stop whenever you want. Our Town by Thornton Wilder can have some laborious foreplay, but it leads to one of the greatest orgasms to ever happen onstage. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is unmatched in dialogue—Shaw can fuck off. You never need to read a single page of David Mamet or Tom Stoppard. Angels in America by Tony Kushner remains eight hours of “I can’t believe this play is only eight hours.” I counted all of these plays as one here because I liked the way 27 looked in the title. You have to read them not because they’re historically good—we don’t do nostalgia reading here—but because they’re good to this day.
I promise you that you don’t realize how much fun you can have as a playwright—where you can arrive, where you can depart—until you have a literary foundation. There are dozens and dozens more plays that’d be helpful for you to also read, but these are a terrific foundation to get you started. It’s also great to note that despite me baiting you into reading these with Pulitzers, Pulitzers don’t mean anything. Tonys don’t mean anything. Hierarchy is a scam to sell more hierarchy. If you like the play, it’s now a Pulitzer winner. If there are other plays you think playwrights need to read and plays you think they shouldn’t—especially if they’re on this list—100% please educate readers in the comments.