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The Bluffer's Guide to Playwrights

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 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.

Before there was Grumpy Cat, there was Eugene O'Neill.

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 quotes

  • Bernard Shaw: social commentary disguised as farce, political satire, more quotable quotes

  • 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: ...?

  • 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 (i.e. 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: —— 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 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


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