By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith and Mia Walby
Within the realm of classic literature, there are a variety of texts that contribute to defining the genre. As such, it is not just classic fiction that typifies the classic genre – although it does dominate the field – because there is also classic poetry, non-fiction and, of course, classic plays. From William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, there are numerous classic plays, from those that arose in modernity to those from the ground-breaking commencement, that are now considered classics.
The Bourgeois Gentleman by Molière
The Bourgeois Gentleman (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) is a comedy-ballet written by French playwright Molière and first performed in 1670. The play is a satire of a wealthy but uneducated man who aspires to enter the ranks of nobility. The main character, Monsieur Jourdain, attempts to reach such status by adopting the clothing and mannerisms of the aristocracy. He is notably interested in becoming a gentleman and hires tutors to help him achieve this goal. However, Jourdain’s actions lead to humorous situations as he tries to adopt a lifestyle far beyond his understanding.
One of the prominent subplots of this play involves Jourdain’s desire to arrange a marriage between his daughter Lucile and a young man named Cléonte. However, Jourdain now wishes for Lucile to marry a nobleman, causing friction with Cléonte, who is willing to go to great lengths to win her hand.
The play incorporates a significant amount of dance and music, making it a comedy-ballet. The Bourgeois Gentleman is Molière’s most famous comedy, celebrated for its witty dialogue, satire and social themes.
Richard II by William Shakespeare
Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, written in 1595, which follows the eponymous king’s downfall as he allows his hubris to plague his monarchical responsibility. It is the first of four plays which depict the house of Lancaster ascending to the British throne, thus Bolingbroke’s rise is juxtaposed with Richard II’s fall in the final scenes of the play.
Shakespeare highlights Richard’s wasteful spending and lavish lifestyle despite his pressing need to fund wars. Ultimately, his hubris plagues his vision and he becomes detached from the common people and his respected uncle. This makes it difficult for the audience to sympathise with Richard, especially because he is depicted as the “Landlord of England” whereby he rents out various pieces of land to noblemen in order to fund his petty wars, all of which implies that his position as monarch is merely temporary. Despite this, Richard reaches anagnorisis at the end of the play and acknowledges his sins under the crown when he is imprisoned by Bolingbroke. The tragedy is that Richard realises this too late, and is thus killed in the castle.
Look Back in Anger by John Osborne
“I suppose you’re an angry young man,” the Royal Court’s press officer George Fearon is alleged to have remarked to John Osborne after watching his 1956 play, Look Back in Anger. While the “angry young man” label sought to undermine the frustrations of writers attempting to voice their disillusionment with Britain, to be an angry young man was to vent and be attentively listened to.
Osborne's play stages razor-sharp dialogue that delivers powerful social critique, providing an enduring examination of class. It also astutely captures the uncertainties surrounding masculinity in the 1950s. In the aftermath of World War II, Jimmy, the protagonist, grapples with the inability to showcase masculinity traditionally through wartime heroism. All he can do is verbally express his resentment, delivering passionate tirades against society and the people around him. The play reflects the challenge of finding one's place in a post-war society where conventional notions of masculinity are being redefined.
Oasis might croon “Don’t look back in anger” in their famous song, but Osborne’s play is certainly one worth returning to.
Salomé by Oscar Wilde
Originally written in French in 1891, Oscar Wilde’s one act tragedy follows the eponymous character, Salomé. As the niece and stepdaughter of King Herod, Salomé is the central figure in Wilde’s biblical adaptation which focuses on her destructive desire to seduce Jokanaan – John the Baptist.
The English translation was attempted by Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie Douglas), although it was not fully understood. Despite his efforts, the play did receive additional revisions from Wilde himself to translate the plot into English, with the surviving text today still relying on Bosie’s efforts. Reading the play in its original French will incite Wilde’s desired impact, but the English version is still highly recommended if you would like to read one of Wilde’s career-defining works. Contextually, it received negative reception and was banned for its sexual content. However, Wilde’s imagination is praised in his depiction of Salomé’s dance of the seven veils and its elaborate production, having since been the subject of numerous adaptations.