Every new play, like the six featured at the Colorado New Play Summit that ended Saturday, aspires to take its place among the greats.
But when it comes to American plays, greatness can be as elusive as their favorite subject: that fickle American dream.
So which plays rise to the top over time? The Denver Post asked a long list of theater professionals nationwide to give an opinion. Their cumulative take: U.S. writers have produced only two plays in nearly 50 years that belong beside the very best, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and August Wilson’s “Fences.”
Our informal survey asked 177 playwrights, directors, actors, professors, agents, producers, students, bloggers, critics and theatergoers to rank the 10 most important American plays ever written.
The top 10 largely reflect a world of booze and brawls, of the disintegrating American family and the gross inequity of the American dream.
And the average age of those plays is 52.
Fittingly, the most historic American play is the one most often described as Greek in scope and tragedy: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” — a working-class “Oedipus Rex.”
Kushner’s apocalyptic “Angels” was next, hailed by The New York Times for creating “an astonishing theatrical landscape, both intimate and epic,” making it “the most thrilling American play in years.” It’s followed by “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”
Kushner calls “Salesman,” “Streetcar” and “Journey” “the unquestionable big three” of American playwriting.
“I feel fairly confident there’s not much better than those three anywhere,” Kushner said. “And I would say ‘Long Day’s Journey’ is the most important of the three because it’s written by the guy who was really responsible for the creation of theater as an American drama. It was just an empty space waiting to be filled by someone, and Eugene O’Neill filled it.”
But the top 10, while each inarguably meritorious, has an average birth year of 1958. Only two of our top-10 playwrights are still alive.
Which begs asking this question: Are we no longer writing plays that will stand the test of time?
“I think great plays are being written today, but it takes time to establish their place in history,” said Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson, one of the leading proponents of new plays in the American theater. His No. 1 vote: Eric Overmyer’s “On the Verge” (1985).
He also boasts newer plays like “Ruined,” “Clean House,” “Lydia,” “Next to Normal” and “August: Osage County.” He thinks the new plays that will last are those that redefine that actor-audience relationship, such as “Sleep No More,” a multisensory melding of Hitchcock and “Hamlet” — ironically, created by a British company.
Kushner says the musicals of Stephen Sondheim belong among the top 10 solely for the quality of their written words. He also cites John Guare, David Mamet and Sam Shepard.
Half the survey’s top 10 — all of them dramas — are fueled by addiction, self-destruction, corruption, unfulfilled potential and death. In other words, kind of Greek.
“This list of plays represents the most compelling stories ever told by American dramatists,” said Wendy C. Goldberg, the artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, the nation’s first play developmental laboratory.
“These particular stories touch our souls and reach into our collective consciousness as a people,” she said.
Goldberg, a frequent director for the Denver Center (“The Clean House”) believes “wonderful plays are being written now.” Her top 10 included newer plays by Tracy Letts, Edward Albee, Lynn Nottage and Sarah Ruhl.
“The challenge for anyone who develops new work is to continue to find artists and stories that have the ability to make us confront ourselves at our best, and at our worst.”
Thompson said he’d love to know what the young people of the theater world said for this survey. Surprisingly, they fell almost completely in line with their elders. No matter how the survey was broken down, whether by gender or age, the results yielded the exact same top 10 plays, with only slight differences in ordering.
The most significant difference: Women, and all voters under 30, ranked “Angels” No. 1, with “Salesman” second.
“That’s just great to hear,” Kushner said. “Any ranking of anything is inherently problematic, but I’m very happy there are people who like my play. I think I wrote a really good play, and it’s lasted 20 years now. That’s a good long time for any play.”
The Post’s voting panel included NPR commentator Frank Deford, Tony-winning Broadway actor Dana Ivey (“The Last Night of Ballyhoo”), playwrights Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”), Jason Grote (“1001”), Steven Dietz (“God’s Country”), Octavio Solis (“Lydia”), Joan Holden (“Nickel and Dimed”) and Ted Lange (“Soul Survivor”), as well as the artistic directors of the Goodman Theatre (Robert Falls) and Portland Center Stage (Chris Coleman), and staff from theaters across the country, including Actors Theatre of Louisville, host of the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Locally, voters included Denver Center actors Charlotte Booker and Sam Gregory, trustee Jim Steinberg, retired producer Henry Lowenstein, Colorado Shakespeare Festival artistic director Philip Sneed and Boulder native John Carroll Lynch (“Shutter Island”).
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1. “Death of a Salesman”
By: Arthur Miller
Survey points: 861
The story: The elusive American dream drives washed-up Willy Loman into a tree.
Did you know? When the film was released in 1951, the wary Columbia studio that released it also shot a short companion film titled “Life of a Salesman,” praising sales as a profession and condemning Willy Loman. It ran with the main feature.
Quote: “Attention must be paid.”
Most recently: At Thunder River, Carbondale, 2007
The photo: Ed Cord, Brett Aune, William Denis and Karen Erickson in the Aurora Fox’s 2006 production of “Death of a Salesman.” (Photo courtesy Aurora Fox)
2. “Angels in America”
By: Tony Kushner
Survey points: 800
The story: A two-part, seven-hour political call to arms for the age of AIDS in the form of two intersecting couples, a fallen angel ... and an antichrist.
Did you know? An off-Broadway revival is set for October.
Quote: “Greetings, Prophet! The great work begins!!”
Next: Vintage Theatre, Oct. 1- Nov. 7
The photo: Todd Coulter played the AIDS-infected Prior in Bas Bleu Theatre Company’s 2004 production of “Angels in America” in Fort Collins. (Photo by William A. Cotton)
3. “A Streetcar Named Desire”
By: Tennessee Williams
Survey points: 774
The story: An exiled neurotic is on a desperate prowl for someplace to call her own.
Did you know? The American Film Institute ranks “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” as the 75th best line in film history.
Most recently: Vintage Theatre, 2008
The photo: Haley Johnson was Blanche and Patrick Collins played Mitch in Vintage’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Photo by Ellen Nelson).
4. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
By: Eugene O’Neill
Survey points: 650
The story: An autobiographical account of the author’s sickly youth with a drug-addicted mother, a boozy ex-actor for a father an emotionally unstable, jealous brother. The American family at its worst.
Quote: “We are such things as rubbish is made of, so let’s drink up and forget it.”
Did you know? O’Neill dedicated the play to his wife on their 12th wedding anniversary.
Next: It’s now playing through March 13 at Paragon Theatre
The photo: From left: Brandon Kruhm, Michael Stricker and Jim Hunt as the boozy Tyrones of Paragon’s current production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” (Photo by Warren Sherrill)
5. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”
By: Edward Albee
Survey points: 608
The story: Professional drunks George and Martha savagely toy with each other and a visiting young couple, as if just another Saturday night drinking game.
Did you know? Its 1963 Pulitzer Prize was yanked by Columbia University because of its profane elements.
Quote: “Dashed hopes, and good intentions. Good, better, best, bested. How do you like that for a declension, young man?”
Next: April 29-May 16 by Star Bar Players, Colorado Springs
The photo: Sam Gregory and Martha Harmon Pardee in Paragon Theatre’s four-star 2007 production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Photo courtesy Paragon Theatre)
6. “Our Town”
By: Thornton Wilder
Survey points: 591
The story: A 1930s stage manager narrates the tale of an average town in the early days of the 20th century.
Did you know? Wilder dedicated the play to Alexander Woollcott, the critic and inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, the main character in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
Quote: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it ... every, every minute?”
Next: Colorado Shakespeare Festival, summer 2010
The photo: Benjamin Bonenfant and Christina Bakken as George and Emily in Colorado Springs TheatreWorks’ 2009 “Our Town.” (Photo by Tom Kimmell)
7. “The Glass Menagerie”
By: Tennessee Williams
Survey points: 336
The story: A family of displaced and self-absorbed misfits representing the Southern social order, collapses like so much glass in Depression-era St. Louis.
Did you know? Laura has long been assumed to be based on Williams’ frail, mentally ill sister, Rose, but many scholars now believe he was writing about himself.
Quote: “How beautiful it is, and how easily it can be broken.”
Next: Feb. 25-March 13 at Thunder River, Carbondale
The photo: Barbra Andrews as Laura Wingfield in Paragon Theatre’s 2008 staging of “The Glass Menagerie.” (Photo by Erin Tyler)
8. “A Raisin in the Sun”
By: Lorraine Hansberry
Survey points: 314
The story: A forthcoming insurance payment could mean financial salvation or personal ruin for a poor black family.
Did you know? In the play’s initial review, The New York Times called it “A Negro ‘Cherry Orchard.’ ”
Quote: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?”
Next: By Inspire Creative, at Parker Mainstreet Center on March 12-20, featuring Cris Davenport and Gwen Harris.
The photo: Russell Hornsby as Walter Lee Younger in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s 2009 “A Raisin in the Sun.” (Photo by Terry Shapiro)
9. “The Crucible”
By: Arthur Miller
Survey points: 300
The story: The Salem witch trials as an allegory for the McCarthy anti-communism blacklisting campaign.
Did you know? The real John Proctor was 60 at the time of his trial; his accuser, Abigail, just 11. But they never met before Proctor’s hearing, the affair between them being Miller’s invention.
Quote: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”
Most recently: Arvada Center, 2009
The photo: Anthony Powell, Ellie Schwartz, Erik Tieze, Jessica Austgen and Jeffrey Roark were part of a 2009 Arvada Center ensemble that made the hysteria depicted in “The Crucible” not only seem logical but inevitable. (Photo by P. Switzer)
By: August Wilson
Survey points: 230
The story: Set in 1957, a former Negro League baseball star has been reduced to a garbage man. As his world inevitably crumbles, his bitterness touches everyone he loves.
Did you know? James Earl Jones originated the stage role of Troy Maxson.
Quote: “Life don’t owe you nothing. You owe it to yourself.”
Most recently: Denver Center Theatre Company, 1990
The photo: Stephen Henderson, Omar Carter, Edythe Davis and John Hancock in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s 1990 “Fences.” (Photo by P. Switzer)
Two ways to see the complete voting results
To see the complete list of 294 plays that received votes, ranked from most points to least, click here
To see all 294 titles that received votes listed alphabetically, showing rank by overall votes, gender and age of voters,
Survey odds and ends
294: Total number of American plays receiving top-10 votes, from a panel of 177.
21: The percentage of those plays written by women.
38: The percentage of survey-takers who are women.
20: The percentage of survey-takers who are under age 30.
Highest ranking comedy: Kaufman and Hart’s “You Can’t Take it With You,” finishing 16th, with 100 points.
Highest-ranking musical: “West Side Story,” by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, finishing 42nd, with 31 points.
Male writer with the most individual titles receiving votes: Eugene O’Neill (9), followed by August Wilson (8) and Lanford Wilson (7). But none of Lanford Wilson’s plays scored more than eight points.
Female writer with the most individual titles receiving votes: Suzan-Lori Parks (6), followed by Maria Irene Fornes (4).
Only six of our top 10 plays won Pulitzers. Those that didn’t: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “”The Glass Menagerie,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Crucible.”
The plays our panel most-often incorrectly assumed to be American: “Noises Off” (by Michael Frayn) and “Equus” (Peter Shaffer), both Brits.
Compiled by John Moore