Making a List, Arguing it Twice

June 5th, 2012 § 25 comments

Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments” with the original Top 10 List.

We have become a society of list makers.  It shouldn’t be a surprise, when the Judeo-Christian ethic draws so strongly on the world’s earliest “top ten” list: The Ten Commandments. It’s a common year-end journalistic ritual: the top ten movies, the ten worst books, and what have you. These lists can be expansive and informative; they can be narrow-minded and limiting.

This morning, I came across a list of Ten Contemporary Plays That Should be on Your Shelf from the website Flavorwire and, save for the first entry — of which I’d never heard — it wasn’t a bad 10 play survey if you had to give a crash course in modern American, British and Irish theatre, although limited in gender and racial diversity. But of course, it’s impossible to include everything, and many other opinions are quickly voiced, typically in disagreement, in this situation.  But while it’s easy to name plays and playwrights who are missing, commenters rarely stop to say what should be removed.

So I’d like to offer my blog for exactly that: what are the 10 plays you would name as the 10 Most Important Contemporary Plays, the 10 that belong on any theatre lover’s bookshelf, and let’s say by contemporary we mean the past 25 years.  Start posting your top tens in the comments below; I’m eager to hear what people think of the Flavorwire list and how they’d make such a list their own.  A parlor game, perhaps? Dinner party conversation? Could be. But if enough of you contribute, we might have a very interesting sense of what new works are most valued as essential right now, knowing that in only a couple of years, it could be entirely different.

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  • MrDG

    (in alphabetical order, and all but two are published)

    Angels in America by Tony Kushner
    Animals Out of Paper/Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo/Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph
    The Beauty Queen of Lenane by Martin McDonagh
    Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes
    eurydice by Sarah Ruhl
    The Four of Us by Itamar Moses
    Hurt Village by Katori Hall
    M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
    Ruined by Lynn Nottage
    Sweet and Sad by Richard Nelson

    • Ah, you’ve bent the rules, by including three of Rajiv’s plays that are published together. Is there one more than the others? 

      • MrDG

         Touche. If I had to choose, it’s be Bengal Tiger

  • This is a very interesting proposition, not a new one but always tantalizing. The issue with choosing the top 10 has more to do with the knowledge of the plays you’ve seen, read, studied. They are also (or should be) influenced by 
    our personal experiences, knowledge, race, culture, and economics.   

    The Flavorwire list is good but not incredible to me, “August: Osage County” is by far the most boring play I’ve seen and read because it is yet another play about a white upper class American family… boring! Regardless of who agrees or disagrees with me no that matter, I use this as an example of how our “TOP 10” are influenced by There is more to say of course but I have things to do. 
    That said, here are my to 10 plays in no particular order of importance:1. Angels in America by Tony Kushner2. How I learned to Drive by Paula Voguel3. Luminarias by Evelina Fernandez4. M Butterfly by David Henry Hwong5. The House of the Spirits by Caridad Svich6. Santos & Santos by Octavio Solis7. Cock by Mike Bartletts 8. Between Pancho Villa and a Naked Woman by Sabina Berman9. Deporting the Divas by Guillermo Reyes10. La Vida Loca by Carlos Manuel 

    • A wonderfully varied list. Do you think the Mike Barlett play is truly that important, or does it have greater impact by virtue of being so new and present in your mind?

  • I agree with Carlos that our lists will be greatly informed by the breadth of our knowledge. I myself have only been reading and seeing plays for about 6 years now, so my list is very much informed by that. But here it is:

    1. Angels in America by Tony Kushner
    2. …And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi by Marcus Gardley
    3. Cleansed by Sarah Kane
    4. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
    5. Cloud Tectonics by Jose Rivera
    6. Into the Numbers by Christopher Chen
    7. Slow Falling Bird by Christine Evans
    8. Far Away by Caryl Churchill
    9. El Otro by Octavio Solis
    10. Care of Trees by E. Hunter Spreen

    • If we’re smart, we speak only of that we know — but the query here is for *your* list, so your personal experience is inextricably bound up in the question. Of the plays you’ve listed, I’ve only seen one, and some I’ve never even heard of. I only know about half of Carlos’ list. So the value of this exercise, for me, is learning about plays that others find important to them, that I should make an effort to get to know.

  • Blueskyfox

    I’m not sure about a few titles on that list. I would question the inclusion of BENGAL TIGER and THE GOAT. My list would have to include:


  • DarrenEdward

    This is going to be hard–so I’m not going to put them in a specific order, and I’m  not going to include musicals, because that makes the task easier for me.  And my criteria is not about creative merit (not that these plays don’t have it), but about impact on the culture (both theatrical and in general).

    10 Most Important Plays of the Last 25 Years
    Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori ParksAngels in America by Tony KushnerAugust: Osage County by Tracy LettsThe Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraneyThe Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater ProjectDoubt by John Patrick ShanleyThe Vagina Monologues by Eve EnslerTwilight, Los Angeles: 1992 by Anna Deavere SmithRuined by Lynn Nottage
    The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey

    Honorable Mentions:

    The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis
    The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
    The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee
    and then some….

    • These lists are hard. To be honest, I tend to argue against lists which are so artificially limiting in quantity, but in this case it’s starting provide a fascinating snapshot of the plays that various people value as important. They are not all necessarily listing the best known or most critically praised, but the plays they would recommend, and I think that’s terrific. I thank everyone for the effort — it is indeed daunting.

  • JeremyFRichter

    Compelling, difficult & fun! As Mr. Sherman indicated, this is allowing me to see what other’s find worthy and inspirational so that I might check them out. My 10, in no particular order:1. the Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kris Diaz2. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks3. How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel4. Orange Flower Water by Craig Wright5. the Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein
    6. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts7. Lonely Planet by Steven Dietz8. Angels in America by Tony Kushner9. the Pillowman by Martin McDonagh10. Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet (Ok, so I stretched a tad past 25 years)

    • Compelling, difficult and fun — that’s a perfect description for me (I hope)!

  • Noe Montez

    I’m teaching a course in 21st-century American Theatre at Tufts and have been grappling with this question. So limiting myself to 10 post 2000-American works I’m teaching, I’d list
    Antebellum- O’HaraAt the Vanishing Point- IizukaAugust: Osage County- Lettsbobrauschenbergamerica- MeeClybourne Park- Norris Detroit- D’AmourIn the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)- RuhlThe Motherfucker with the Hat- GurguisRuined- NottageWater by the Spoonful- HudesThat’s probably not what I’d choose solely for my shelf, but I think that’s a pretty good collection for my students shelves.

    • Sounds like a great list and, therefore, a great class…

  • Ryan

    My ten favorites, in no particular order:

    – Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (Kushner)
    – The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (Albee)
    – The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow (Rolin Jones)
    – Sleep No More (Punchdrunk)
     – Church (Young Jean Lee)
    – The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Guirgis)
    – Take Me Out (Greenberg)
    – Columbinus (Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli)
    -How I Learned to Drive (Paula Vogel)
    -Eight (Ella Hickson) (a sentimental choice, I admit. But a brilliant play nonetheless.)

    • I’m fascinated by one choice on your list: SLEEP NO MORE. I agree that it’s fascinating theatre, but is it a play? I wonder whether there is or will be a published outline that would allow other companies to perform their own version of the piece?

  • Taylor

    In no particular order

    1) One Flea Spare
    2) Fucking A (though I like top dog a lot I feel this one doesn’t get enough love)
    3) Intimate Apparel
    4) Angels in America -I’m bored with this option but admit it meant a great deal to me at the time I first saw it and still has ridiculously beautiful passages.
    5) Measure for Pleasure – completely underrated and needs to be done everywhere.
    6) The Lily’s Revenge (I include this only because I’m so proud of it and would like to see a copy on everyone’s shelf).
    7)  That Pretty Pretty or the Rape Play
    8) Hairspray (a musical but so was Oedipus and this musical is so subversive the general population doesn’t even know it’s subversive).
    9) The Goat or who is Sylvia – my favorite Albee by far (and I love Albee).
    10) Brooklyn Bridge

    Runner up for me is Karen Hartman’s Gum

    • Taylor Mac

      I swear I typed intimate apparel

  • This sort of exercise is irresistible even though one’s resulting list always feels incomplete.  Here’s what I threw together:

    Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
    M Butterfly
    The Pain and the Itch by Norris
    Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven by Young Jean Lee
    Far Away by Churchill
    The America Play by Parks
    One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace
    Enron by Lucy Prebble
    White Hot by Tommy Smith
    And for the last one I’d probably pick either David Adjmi’s Stunning or Glen Berger’s Great Men of Science Nos. 21 & 22, depending on my mood at the time.

    And still all the things I left out nag at me.

  • EBJacinto

    I’ve been thinking about this almost all day … so here’s my list, for better or worse (not in a ranking order)

    Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
    The America Play — or I would choose Venus, hard to pick
    Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
    The Brother/Sister Plays
    The Clean House
    El Nogalar
    Braided Sorrow
    Our Lady of 121st Street
    Rabbit Hole

    if I could expand a little beyond 25 years, I’d put in The Normal Heart and M. Butterfly to replace (3) and (4), respectively

  •  Angels in America
    The Goat
    Clybourne Park
    The Lieutenant of Inishmore
    The Pillowman
    The History Boys
    Bridge and Tunnel
    Rabbit Hole
    Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

  • Bouli

    In no particular order:

    GNIT – Will EnoMARIE ANTOINETTE – David Adjmi
    ROBERTO ZUCCO – Bernard-Marie Koltès
    BLASTED – Sarah Kane
    CROWTET 1 – Mac Wellman
    THE FEVER – Wallace Shawn
    TOTENAUBERG – Elfriede Jelinek
    HILDA – Maria N’Diaye
    NO DICE – Nature Theater of Oklahoma

  • JD

    Fefu and her Friends, Maria Irene Fornes
    How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel
    Angels in America, Part One, Tony Kushner
    Angels in America, Part Two, Tony Kushner
    Blasted, Sarah Kane
    The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy Wasserstein
    Ruined, Lynn Nottage
    Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith
    Top Dog/Underdog, Suzan Lori Parks
    M Butterfly, David Henry Wang
    Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, Naomi Wallace

  • Ryan

    No particular order.1. The Coast of Utopia Trilogy-Tom Stoppard, I know it’s three plays, if I had to pick one it would be Shipwreck.
    2. In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play-Sarah Ruhl4. Gruesome Playgroud Injuries-Rajiv Joseph
    5. Red-John Logan6. How I Learned to Drive-Paula Vogel7. Killer Joe-Tracy Letts8. The Aliens-Annie Baker9. The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek-Naomi Wallace10. Blue Surge-Rebecca Gilman
    OTHERSreasons to be pretty-Neil LabuteBug, August: Osage County-Tracy LettsEurydice-Sarah RuhlAs Bees in Honey Drown-Douglas Carter Beane

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