Act 2 Looks at Plays: European and American realists.

"How do you know what to say? It's written down for you in the script" - Ian McKellen, Extras

It's been a while since I sat down and thought about scripts beyond the one or two sat in front on me - as a dramaturg and reader my focus is very often the script sent to one of the theatres I work for by an agent or writer seeking production/feedback/notice rather than the produced scripts more readily available to a reading public.

I was forced out of this writing indolence by the post on, with a lovely picture of Michael Sheen and curiously no writer's name in the byline. It suggested 25 plays actors should read to enhance their craft and learn more about theatre. I widely disagreed with the many of the choices - there were glaring omissions, it was very white male heavy and whilst I agreed with the choice of playwrights for some of the selections the play chosen, I felt, didn't best showcase their work.

I've canvassed some opinions on this topic from friends and, whilst 25 only a drop in the ocean of plays you can be inspired by, we've come up with a few lists of 25 plays (we cheated this time and there's 26 - it's so hard) of our own. We'll publish one of these every few weeks or so.

First up: The European and American realists.

Henrik Ibsen

Henrik Ibsen was a realist and a modernist playwright born in modern day Norway in 1828. Ibsen is a strong personal favourite and he really gets into his stride in a playwriting sense around 1880.  Ibsen finds his own twist on the then hackneyed Germanic Sturm und Drang to create a drama which in its style is closer to that of the everyday but stays clear of all-out naturalism, retaining melodramatic devices, contrived but exciting plots and some elements which require a slight suspension of disbelief. He writes four of his best plays - A Doll's House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), The Wild Duck (1884) - in the space of five years and follows them up a few years later with Hedda Gabler (1890) and The Master Builder (1892). All of these are worth a read, especially if you're wanting to write a 'conventional' drama. I'd suggest reading Ghosts and then moving on to An Enemy… as you can see the ideas Ibsen draws from the earlier play, and its public controversy, and how he uses them in the latter.  

To Read:

        A Doll's House
        An Enemy of the People
        The Wild Duck
        Hedda Gabler
        The Master Builder

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov again falls into the realist-modernist frame and was undoubtedly influenced by Ibsen. Born in 1860 in Russia, near to the modern day Ukrainian border, Chekhov's greatest works don't come until he's developed his craft - he started writing short stories and comic sketches. His big four - The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1900), Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904) - plus the beautiful short Swansong (1887) will always be part of European theatre repertoire and are something any writer should read or see. Described by Tolstoy as "an artist of life" Chekhov takes Ibsen's realism and runs with it creating some of the most prescient and compellingly truthful dramas of his time. Whilst some of the themes date, the characters and the writing a still dazzlingly brilliant. He also wrote letters prolifically and this advice to Maxim Gorky is one a writer can use today.

To Read:

        The Seagull
        Uncle Vanya
        Three Sisters
        The Cherry Orchard

August Strindberg

Coming up alongside Chekhov was the young Swedish August Strindberg. Born in 1849, Strindberg's career is one that develops the more he reads and investigates in the field of literature but also in those of politics, psychology and philosophy. His earlier works The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888) were influenced by Ibsen but also novelist Emile Zola and the idea of Naturalism, of presenting life on stage. Miss Julie does push the boundaries of this but stays roughly within them, creating a hotbox of tension and sexual anger. As he gets older though he eschews this face-value naturalism for an attempt at creating a play that charts the internal logic of a dream - A Dream Play (1901). Strindberg's stage direction-cum-preface to the play is one of the most liberating things a playwright has ever written.

To Read:

        The Father
        Miss Julie
        A Dream Play

Arthur Miller

Arthur Miller was born in New York in 1915 and was, for a while, married to Marylin Monroe. As a writer he was a proletarian - his style was one unfettered with affectations, the speech he used was that of the docks or of the down and outs. His protagonists are most often working-class Americans whose lives are shaken up and spat out. He's sympathetic and compassionate to their downfall but never offers a quick-fix happy ending. His style also got him into serious trouble with the authorities for a perceived Communist bent in his work, which he denied and later dramatised in the Salem witch trials drama The Crucible. Miller's greatest works are generally considered to be All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Crucible (1953) A View from the Bridge (1955) plus his later drama The Price (1968). All are worth looking at and especially if the gritty drama of real life is something you're planning to write, although his grasp of the potentially slippery "world of the play" is excellent too - most notably in the case of Willy in Death of a Salesman - whilst The Crucible is a masterclass in political allegory.

To Read:

        All My Sons
        Death of a Salesman
        The Crucible
        A View from the Bridge 
        The Price

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1911 (and in this picture looks like Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz). As a writer he creates the world of the fractured Deep South on stage - it's hot, sweaty, racist - and is more concerned than many of his contemporaries about the role that women play in this. The style of Williams is one which is never over sympathetic but does employ a level of heightenedness, which Miller rejects, and poetry, most notably in his florid stage directions. Williams is a personal playwright: The Glass Menagerie, about a family struggling to make ends meet after being abandoned by their alcoholic father, is strongly autobiographical and themes from his life surface in the characters and themes of later plays. Blanche du Bois, the protagonist of perhaps his greatest play A Streetcar Named Desire is loosely based on both his mother and sister.

To Read:

        The Glass Menagerie 
        A Streetcar Named Desire 
        Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 
        Sweet Bird of Youth 
        The Night of the Iguana

Eugene O'Neill 

Eugene O'Neill was born in New York in 1888 - he's much older than Miller and Williams but his work hold compare with theirs and acts as a useful reference point. He was strongly influenced by Ibsen's work (Mourning Becomes Electra is an Ibsenite reworking of The Oresteia by Aeschylus) and is widely credited for introducing psychological and social realism to the States. His three best plays are considered to be Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), The Iceman Cometh (written 1939, first performed 1946) and Long Day's Journey into Night (written 1941, first performed 1956). Like Miller, O'Neill  uses American vernacular and presents on stage characters who to that point had not been part of the American theatre tradition - the working class, black people, women - and charts them as they slide into disillusionment struggling to maintain their hopes and aspirations. Like Williams, O'Neill is autobiographical too: excavating his the stories of his own family's tortured relationships and expanding them to find their universal meanings - most notably in Long Day's Journey into Night. Guilt, fury, despair, and the symmetrical need for pity, forgiveness, contrition: these are O'Neill's great themes. O'Neill is the only American playwright to have won the Nobel prize for literature, and the only dramatist to have won four Pulitzer prizes, one posthumously.

To Read:

        Mourning Becomes Electra
        The Iceman Cometh
        Long Day's Journey into Night

 I hope if you're reading this as a writer, actor director or other theatre interested person, that you might seek out some of the scripts mentioned here. Equally I want to flag up that this is a list of 6 white men and promise that there will be other more diverse writers when we look at other areas - for this European and American realism post though, I find these 6 to be the best examples I know. If you want to challenge the findings or suggest plays we've missed then please tweet us - @act2playwriting or find us on Facebook and write on our wall - Act 2.
Happy reading!