Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams

Starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy and directed by Elia Kazan – nope, not the film, but the initial Broadway run of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitizer-winner. The play is, quite consciously, a last gasp of melodrama as the American theatre transitioned to a more natural style, the ideal-type characters, the identity-as-performance, the pervasiveness of scandal all contributing to an overwrought and explosive look into desire and violence, the death throes of the American Old South juxtaposed against a newer symbol of America – the rough, the dangerous, the frank, the industrial worker. Continue reading “A Streetcar Named Desire”



William Shakespeare

Witches, betrayal, ambition and a whole lot of murder – that’s Macbeth. The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies plays fast and loose with Scottish history to paint a grim view of the drive to power and the madness of guilt. Not only stage and screen, but novels and comic books have told this tale that continues to weave itself into our cultural life and serve as perhaps the most important reference point for the theatre community.

Continue reading “Macbeth”


458 BCE

The only trilogy of ancient Greek plays in existence, the Oresteia combines Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides to tell the tale of King Agamemnon, his wife and murderer Clytemnestra, and their children Electra and Orestes, who kills his mother and her current lover to avenge his father.

The subject-matter of the Oresteia is familiar enough in Greek literature – betrayal, revenge, deceit in familial relationships. Its significance is far greater, however, as the play traces a profound transition in the history of western civilization – that shift from a kin-based justice of vengeance to a more formal and impersonal standard and process to assess innocence vs guilt and to order what compensation or punishment is appropriate. It reveals, then, the philosophical and moral debates that underpin the administration of justice in kin systems and those that come to predominate with the rise of the state. Continue reading “Oresteia”

Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett

Long before Jerry Seinfeld dubbed his TV sitcom a ‘show about nothing’, Irish playwright Samuel Beckett had staked out that territory in a simply brilliant piece of writing for the stage. An exploration of the existential, the absurd, the question of meaning in a world without God, Waiting For Godot is the definitive story about nothing. And it’s so full of nothing you can read and re-read and re-read again, and watch production after production, always walking away with something new. Continue reading “Waiting for Godot”


Approx 442 BCE

One of three plays concerning the city-state of Thebes during and immediately following the reign of Oedipus, Antigone is one of Sophocles’ best-known plays and by all accounts a classic not only of Greek literature but of western civilization in general. In the aftermath of the Theban civil war and during the reign of Creon, two brothers are dead – they are sons of Oedipus, killed in battle, fighting for opposing sides. Creon orders a burial of honors for the brother who fought on his side, and subjects the body of the other to public shame, forbidding any burial whatsoever and condemning his body to lie untouched, to be fed up on by vultures while it rots. Antigone, sister to the two brothers, is determined to provide her shamed brother with full traditional burial rites, despite Creon’s order of death for anyone attempting to touch the disgraced corpse.

Antigone deals with a moment of profound transition in Greek society and, in particular, the competing demands of traditional law as reflected in custom and state law as embodied in the rule of the king. Where does the authority of the monarch end? What constitutes legitimate civil disobedience? What is relationship between natural or traditional law and the state? What is citizenship, and on what terms can it be revoked? These are common questions and themes in classical Greek literature, and provide insight into the reconstitution of political order during a transition from traditional to state-based  forms of governance.

A contemporary of such important playwrights as Aeschylus and Euripides – who with him are the trio of Greece’s great tragedians –¬† Sophocles was the most-celebrated dramatist of his day, and is said to have written well over a hundred plays, though only seven have survived intact to the present. A politician and military leader, his life – some ninety years – spanned a remarkable period in Greek history, including the Persian and Pelopponesian Wars. His contributions to Greek culture and governance were well-recognized in his own day, and his impact upon Greek theatre lasting and profound – most notably for the use of additional characters to reduce the reliance on narration through a chorus, and for his more-detailed and in-depth drawing of his dramatic characters as individuals.

Threepenny Opera

Threepenny Opera
Bertolt Brecht (music, Kurt Weill)
Who’s the greater criminal – the bank-robber or the banker? This is the question posed by Brecht’s masterpiece of musical theatre, a Marxist critique of capitalism set to music and performed across the stages of the world. First staged in 1928, within 5 years there had been some 10,000 showings and translations into 18 languages; and within 5 years, too, Brecht and composer Kurt Weill were living in exile following the rise of Hitler.

In the London of Queen Victoria, street criminal Mack the Knife loves Polly Peachum; Peachum’s daddy – who’s gotten rich playing pimp to the city’s street-beggars – will have no part of it, and turns up the pressure on the cops to arrest Mack and have him hanged. Simple enough as far as a plot goes – the beauty is all in the lyrics and the music.

Ed Asner, Bea Arthur, Raul Julia, Sting, Cyndi Lauper – they’ve all hit the stage to perform the Threepenny Opera, and its songs have been widely recorded – most notably Mack the Knife, which became a jazz standard in the hands of Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darrin, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and countless more.

You can read the play; you can get a recording of the score and listen through. Both worth your time, perhaps. But what is important about Brecht is the way he fashioned theatre as social critique and theatrical performance as collective conversation. There ain’t many playwrights whose influence has been this widely felt, who impacted all aspects of theatre as broadly and as deeply as Bertolt Brecht. This is is theatre to be seen, to be shared, to be adapted to the politics of the time. And it’s always playing somewhere, so you’ve got no excuse not to check it out.

The Odd Couple

The Odd Couple
Neil Simon

An odd choice for this list, perhaps, but given the huge success of the movie version, the spin-off into television, and continued regular performances of the original, Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple has indeed made its way into our general consciousness – and has spawned endless imitations.

One room-mate neat and anal-rententive, the other slovenly and as laid-back as they come, two child-hood friends find themselves sharing quarters, causing no end of misunderstandings, rows, and lessons about frustration, trust and friendship.

Neil Simon doesn’t write especially literary stuff; his plays are entertainment, pure and simple. They are, however, hugely successful, enduring stories. And The Odd Couple, in particular, has grown from play to phenomenon to cultural reference point.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet
William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet – perhaps the most famous of love stories in the western canon. The classic tragic play about two young lovers whose families are engaged in a bitter and longstanding feud. No need to justify its inclusion on this list, to be sure, the play being second only perhaps to Hamlet as Shakespeare’s best-known, and the source of such now-common turns of phrase as “what light through yonder window breaks”, “parting is such sweet sorrow”, and “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.

One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Romeo and Juliet was likely written in the early 1590s and first published in 1597. And you don’t last as long as this without getting your share of praise and your share of critics and detractors. This, however, is not the place to enter that debate. It is the place to simply say this: if you haven’t seen it, see it – live; and if you haven’t read it, read it – preferably aloud.

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