Classic Plays Throughout the Years
While literary fiction and poetry dominate the book charts, both contemporary and classic, the joys of reading plays can often be forgotten. Unfortunately the arts are struggling under the troubling restrictions of lockdown, and theatre is no exception. In honour of these establishments and the literary traditions we are missing out on, The Publishing Post’s dedicated Classics team have put together a list of the most poignant and seminal plays, loved both in print and on the stage, to get you through the most peculiar of summers.
We start with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603), which has one of the most iconic and universally known lines: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” The play follows the Prince of Denmark’s attempt to avenge his father’s murder after he appears to him as a ghost. The King was killed by his own brother Claudius, who marries his widow to become king himself. Through Hamlet’s plot of revenge, he experiences madness and turmoil.
Sensing the plot, the usurper Claudius concocts his own plan to kill Hamlet.
To some, Shakespeare plays may seem difficult to read as they are designed to be performed. There are many adaptations of Hamlet which capture the true essence of the play. For a modern approach with original script, the Almeida Theatre’s 2017 production, starring Andrew Scott, is truly sensational and captivating. It provides a new and welcome contemporary experience of viewing Shakespeare.
The Rover or The Banish’d Cavaliers (1677) by Aphra Behn is a piece of Restoration theatre, adapted from an earlier play by Thomas Killigrew. It was Behn’s most popular work for several centuries. The Rover reflects the anarchic and scandalous humour of Restoration theatre, showing the adventures of three dashing banished Cavaliers, and a trio of women they meet at the Carnival in Naples. Behn was England’s first female professional playwright and her feminist perspective rings through even now. Her play explores social and sexual politics in the 17th century, depicting the women with agency and sensuality, and using themes of carnival and misrule to subvert the audience’s expectations.
Hilariously funny, The Rover has an undeniable modernity, something that the RSC’s incredible and very successful 2016 production really played into, and the play provides another dimension to our male-dominated theatre history.
An Inspector Calls
An Inspector Calls (1945) by J. B. Priestley is a popular and accessible play that has won a stream of awards. It takes place throughout a single night and follows the Birlings, a seemingly upstanding family, who receive a visit from an inspector looking into the death of a girl. The butterfly effect, a concept stressing that every action has repercussions beyond those which the individual comprehends, is brought to life. The inspector probes into the Birlings’ individual relationships with the girl, and deconstructs the elaborate façade the family puts on. Seeing the turmoil caused by ignorant and selfish actions, the message of the play is clear – be kind. Stephen Daldry's version of Priestley's play is making its way across the world and is hailed as an iconic exploration into the social consciousness and moral compasses of individuals.
A Raisin in the Sun
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) is set in a small apartment inhabited by three generations of the Youngers: a working class, African American family living in 1950s Chicago. In the opening scene we find out that the head of the family, Big Walter, has died, and the remaining Youngers are waiting to come into $10,000 of life insurance money. Each character has a different view of how that money should be spent, and as the play unfolds Hansberry reflects how each of the Youngers’ unrealised dreams have shaped their individual identities and relationships. The play features moments of hope, but is not idealistic. It reflects the economic and social effects of systemic racism, questions ideas of social progress and interrogates the intersectional burden of gender expectations. Hansberry’s domestic masterpiece has been revived on stages across the World. It has inspired film, television and musical adaptations, which attests to its enduring, powerful impact on audiences.
Brian Friel’s Translations (1980) is a moving and powerful play about the colonisation of Ireland. It is about the power of language, and how it can be used as a form of identity.
Set in the 1830s, Translations examines the Ordnance Survey, in which the British Army has invaded Ireland and is replacing the traditional Gaelic names with their English translations.
For such a short play, it really packs a punch. The erasure of the Gaelic language (names of places and people) was a huge social and political point in Irish history. Their identity was, too, being erased. Friel is masterful at writing a moving portrayal of this loss, with a dynamic bunch of characters and thoughtful plot.
It is a tense, emotive and compelling play that manifests the terror of losing a part of yourself: your language.