Your Industry Pro Cheat Sheet: 5 Playwrights You Need to Know

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Scene: You’re at a dinner party filled with theater people and they’re discussing a name you’ve never heard of. Sure, you can nod your head faux-thoughtfully (you are a TV and film actor, after all) and pretend you know what they’re talking about, but wouldn’t it be better if you actually did know?

We’re here to help. If you’d like to round out your theater education, take a look at these five playwrights and the best ways to glean their lasting gifts.

Henrik Ibsen

The Norwegian dynamo is pretty much the godfather of realism (which playwright Eugene O’Neill ran with in the 20th century). His plays include the stone-cold classics “Ghosts” (1881), “Hedda Gabler” (1891), and “An Enemy of the People” (1882), which is currently on Broadway through June 23 in a new translation by Amy Herzog and starring Jeremy Strong. Ibsen’s works are malleable in forceful and fertile ways, and modern playwrights never exhaust new avenues to explore his themes of longing and languor.

Where to start: The 1879 play “A Doll’s House” is the ultimate marriage story (sorry, Noah Baumbach), and its depiction of a woman’s struggle with modernism is inexhaustible in the possibility of exploration. Even the 2023 Broadway revival starring Jessica Chastain, also adapted by Herzog, managed to retain all its themes and power via multimedia—proving Ibsen is as close to indestructible as a foundational playwright.

 

Eugene O’Neill

Considered the main arbiter of translating the idea of Ibsen’s realism to U.S. audiences, the dramatist remains the gold standard for depictions of despair and destiny among the working class. His successes include “Desire Under the Elms” (1924) and “The Iceman Cometh” (1946). O’Neill is the winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, a feat nobody else has matched to date.

Where to start: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is one of the landmark global plays, with its unwavering, semi-autobiographical look at the disintegration of a family struggling with addiction and failure. Published posthumously in 1956, it hasn’t lost one iota of its harrowing emotional impact over the years. There’s a reason actors as grand as Jessica Lange (soon to be seen in a new film version), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Robards, Vanessa Redgrave, and Laurence Olivier all took a whack at the magnum opus.

Lorraine Hansberry

Hansberry only lived to age 34, and it’s one of the great tragedies of the American theater, as her published work showed she was only getting started. In 1959, she became the first African American and youngest-ever winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for “A Raisin in the Sun.” Her 1964 rich political drama, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” was recently rediscovered and brought back to Broadway in 2023 by director Anne Kauffman and stars Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan.

Where to start: “A Raisin in the Sun” shines as bright as ever, no matter what version you’re watching—and there are several filmed stage versions you can find, the most notable being the original Broadway production starring Sidney Poitier. The plight of the relatable, hardscrabble Younger family is a slice of Black life unlike any other ever written.

Athol Fugard

The South African playwright was once hailed by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” and it’s hard to argue with that after looking at his bibliography. An anti-racism and anti-apartheid crusader, Fugard created works that are a fusion of social awareness and carefully drawn, intimate characters often at odds with the world surrounding them. These themes are fervently explored in plays like “Blood Knot” (1961), “Boesman and Lena” (1969), and “The Road to Mecca” (1984).

Where to start: One of the most performed of Fugard’s plays is his 1982 searing race drama “‘Master Harold’…and the Boys,” which is an unsparing look at servants and their duties, and how these stations can erode your self-worth. Danny Glover has revisited this play in different roles over the years, proving a great actor can age right alongside a work and continue to find new inspiration.

David Henry Hwang

One of the leading figures in the rise of Asian stories in the American theater, Hwang’s incisive, often very funny dissections of Asian identity and self-reflexivity remain pungent and prophetic in works such as “Yellow Face” (2007), “Chinglish” (2011), and “Soft Power” (2018). “Yellow Face” will have its Broadway premiere in September 2024, starring Daniel Dae Kim and produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

Where to start: Hwang hit it big with his 1988 romantic drama “M. Butterfly,” which was adapted into the 1993 David Cronenberg film. The play’s unwavering look at the real-life romance between a global ambassador and an opera singer remains one of the most probing looks at gender identity and the rise of China as a superpower. Hwang even revisited and revised his own text for the 2017 Broadway revival directed by Julie Taymor.

Jason Clark
Jason Clark (he/him) has over 25 years in the entertainment and media industry covering film, television, and theater. He comes to Backstage from TheWrap, where he’s worked as an awards reporter since 2021. He also has bylines in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Vulture, the Village Voice, AllMovie, and Slant Magazine, among many others. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in cinema studies from New York University.
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