The Bluffer's Guide to Playwrights
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
I rediscovered Lily Allen’s music earlier this month, and ended up reading her memoir My Thoughts Exactly. It’s one of the better autobiographies I’ve come across, but her songs say much of the same thing in four minutes or less.
This got me thinking. Allen’s songs are invariably about her life, and it's a testament to her songwriting skill that they remain interesting despite recycling an admittedly wide variety of topics. She writes what she knows – but how much does anyone know? Is repeating yourself the same as being boring?
And then I thought of how I’ve struggled with the Complete Plays of Eugene O’Neill over this summer.
It dawned on me that I've read almost everything written by a surprisingly large number of playwrights, and their best-known, most representative plays happen to be their least boring ones. Ergo, here’s a reductio ad absurdum of what to expect when you encounter anything written by:
Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides: war, incest, gods interfering with men’s plans (and vice versa)
Aristophanes: satire bordering on absurdism, sexual humour, women in power
Plautus: originality is overrated, everything is a coincidence, the help are the smartest characters
Shakespeare: c’mon, do you need to be told?
Molière, William Congreve, R.B. Sheridan: social satire, romantic intrigue, mistaken identity
Pierre de Beaumarchais: Plautus takes on the aristocracy
Henrik Ibsen: one person against the world, proto-feminist women, accidental deaths
August Strindberg: battles of the sexes, the family as an institution for the insane, death is no release whatsoever
Oscar Wilde: more battles of the sexes, upper class satire (your identity is a mistake), quotable lines for days
Bernard Shaw: social commentary disguised as farce, political satire, more quotable lines for days
Anton Chekhov: "no, Strindberg, death really is the ultimate release"
Luigi Pirandello: meta-theatre, the concept of truth
Alfred Jarry: Macbeth meets Mr. Bean (MacBean?)
Jean Giraudoux: man smart, woman smarter
Stanislaw Witkiewicz: what the...
Eugene O’Neill: tuberculosis, madness, sailors, self-proclaimed poets, women who are expected to be saints
Jean Cocteau: man smart, legend smarter
Agatha Christie: like her novels, but better
J.B. Priestley: Agatha Christie with a Time-Turner
Thornton Wilder: this
Bertolt Brecht: Shaw has a bad trip
Federico García Lorca: women’s troubles (read: men)
Ayn Rand: capitalist Pirandello
Jean-Paul Sartre: hell isn’t just other people – it’s you too
Samuel Beckett: nothing. Really, expect nothing.
Eugene Ionesco: David Byrne without the music
Jean Genet: Brecht has a bad trip
Tennessee Williams: misunderstood men, shrewish women, all unlikable
Albert Camus: lowlife Chekhov (but also fashionable Chekhov)
Arthur Miller: the American Dream, the concept of honour, society as a destructive force
Mohan Rakesh: everyone’s got something to hide except the live animals on stage
Badal Sircar: to hell with the government
Mahasweta Devi: everyone’s either human or inhuman
Peter Shaffer: love as a cause (and result) of psychological trauma
Murray Schisgal: love as a cause (and result) of interpersonal drama
Neil Simon: everyone wants to be in show business except those who are already in it
Vijay Tendulkar: bad news: everyone’s human
Edward Albee: Diet Strindberg
Sławomir Mrożek: Immigrant Strindberg
Harold Pinter: it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so scary
Arnold Wesker: everyone’s a prole
Fernando Arrabal: exiled from (almost) everywhere
Joe Orton: lowlife Wilde (but also darker Wilde)
Tom Stoppard: Umberto Eco with clever (and typically British) wordplay
Girish Karnad: good news: everyone’s only human
Caryl Churchill: all the big “isms”
Mahesh Elkunchwar: at least half the production isn’t on the page
Franz Xaver Kroetz: now half the play isn't on the page
Christopher Durang: nothing is sacred
Satish Alekar: absurdism as a state of denial
Mahesh Dattani: everyone’s an outsider
Me: I’m not good enough to be published/performed