When the pandemic began in 2020, I realized that one of the first things to change for me was my ability to read. If I was reading for work, I was fine, but reading for pleasure - especially fiction - became incredibly difficult. Novels I knew I would love and devour in other times took me months to get through because my brain was elsewhere. Then, with my self-imposed Goodreads reading challenge looking more and more like I would never reach it, I remembered all the plays I owned. So I started reading (or re-reading) them. It was wonderful.
This list is 21 plays that I think can be read and enjoyed to the same level as they are seen and enjoyed. Right now, with live theatre scarce for health and safety reasons, it's a great time to pick up a play script and have a read. They're shorter than novels, but they definitely engage the imagination. Whether you're looking for something different to shake up your reading or, like me, need to turn to shorter pieces due to your inability to focus, plays are a great choice. Every play on this list is relatively contemporary (late 1900s through 2000s) and I tried to encompass a wide variety of tastes, and they are all plays that I loved. I hope you find something that sparks your interest.
1. 33 Variations (Moisés Kaufman) A musicologist named Katherine Brandt is researching Beethoven's 33 Variations on a Waltz (aka the Diabelli Variations) while also dealing with the deterioration of her health and her fractured relationship with her daughter. Told in two timelines, the modern plot is supplemented by one in which Beethoven is creating the 33 Variations that Brandt is studying. One of my favorite aspects of this play is the exploration of the relationship between scholars and their subjects.
2. Behind the Beautiful Forevers (David Hare, adapted from Katherine Boo)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is based on a book by journalist Katherine Boo who spent several years recording stories of the lives of people living in a Mumbai slum next to an airport. Hare's play cannot cover the same scope as the book, but it does a great job of creating a layered look at the hopes and dreams (realized and dashed) as well as the realities (touching and painful) of life in the area.
3. Chinglish (David Henry Hwang)
When a white American businessman tries to expand his sign-making business into China, he quickly learns that communication and translation aren't simple things. Chinglish uses a combination of English and Mandarin Chinese to emphasize the humor that often emerges from two very different cultures trying to work together (though you don't have to have any knowledge of Mandarin to understand what's going on, since much of the humor comes from moments of questionable translation and misunderstanding). This east-meets-west culture clash is a good read for anyone, but people with an interest in languages and communication should find it particularly appealing.
4. Choir Boy (Tarell Alvin McCraney)
Choir Boy tells the story of Pharus, a young gay man attending a prep school with a reputation for producing well-educated, ethical Black men. Although Pharus is incredibly talented and an obvious choice to lead the school's famous choir, not a lot of his classmates accept him for who he is. Gospel music, performed by the cast, is used throughout the play. (I genuinely wish you could hear them while you read!) The result is an incredibly moving look at what it means to be 'different' and to find appreciation, as well as what exactly defines being a man.
5. Coram Boy (Helen Edmundson, adapted from Jamila Gavin)
Based on a (pretty dark) children's novel by Jamila Gavin, Coram Boy is a play that I've always wanted to see turned into a mini series. It has multiple narrative threads including one about a man whose job is to take babies and drop them off at the Coram Hospital for foundling children, another about an illegitimate child from a wealthy family, and a third about a young boy saved from a slave ship. Set in 1700s Britain, Coram Boy is a true historical epic.
6. Eclipsed (Danai Gurira)
This play is set in Liberia during the Second Liberian Civil War (c 1999 - c 2003). Although the actions of men cast major shadows over the play, no men appear in it. Instead, the cast contains five very different women: one who is working for a peace organization and four who are "wives" of a Commanding Officer that never appears on stage. The result is a fantastic and heart-wrenching tapestry of women doing their best to survive and make sense of situations they did not choose for themselves.
7. The Ferryman (Jez Butterworth)
The Ferryman is a drama set in the early 1980s in Northern Ireland, during the period of the Troubles. It takes place primarily in the Carney family farmhouse, but the cast is large and the scope of the drama is larger as strangers arrive and a dead body is found. Politics, history, violence, and family all converge in this multi-generational mammoth piece. (Oh, and yes, there are a few laughs and a fun celebratory family dance scene among all the heavy chats.)
8. God of Carnage (Yasmina Reza)
This French play (translated into English) centers around a meeting between two sets of parents after the child of one couple hits the child of the other couple with a stick. With only the four parents as characters in the play, and all of it taking place in one room, it isn't long before a civilized conversation about the conduct of children turns into something much more intense that reveals everything the adults usually keep behind closed doors.
9. The History Boys (Alan Bennett)
Without question, this is my favorite play. It centers around a group of boys preparing for the entrance exams to hopefully get them into either Oxford or Cambridge in the 1980s. If you've seen the film (which included Dominic Cooper, James Corden, Jamie Parker, and Richard Griffiths - the same cast as the original production that started in the UK and ended on Broadway) or heard the radio play version, you should still read the play: there are significant differences. The relationships of boys with each other, the teachers with each other, and the boys with the teachers are complex and nuanced. There is humor as well as tragedy, and the discussions about the point and use of knowledge and history are top notch. (The French scene is a serious classic.)
10. I am My Own Wife (Doug Wright, based on Charlotte von Mahlsdorf)
Based on the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. I am My Own Wife is a one-person play that depicts Charlotte's life as a trans woman who survived the Nazis and communist East Berlin while working as an antiquarian. Although, yes, there is only one performer in the play, it contains over thirty characters, they're just all performed by the same person. Charlotte's autobiography has the same title, and is widely available.
11. In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play (Sarah Ruhl)
In the Next Room is an alternately touching and amusing piece of historical fiction
set in the late 1800s. It tells the story of Dr. Givings, a man who treats women suffering from 'hysteria' using an early version of a vibrator, while his wife Catherine is kept at arm's length even though she wants to have a closer relationship with him. 12. King Charles III (Mike Bartlett)
What will happen when Prince Charles becomes King Charles III? That is the central question in this modern play, written in verse and set in a non-specific future. It posits a time when King Charles, concerned that a proposed new law will restrict the freedom of the press too much, considers withholding royal assent. This sparks conflict with Parliament, questions about the role of the monarchy in Britain, and conversations that dig into possible behind-the-scenes family dynamics. (The play was written before Prince Harry's marriage to Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, and so while he is in it, his love interest character is not based on the Duchess.) There is a television film adaptation of the play and a radio play version, but as with the others on this list, I suggest reading the play first. If you want to really get in the mood, the music used in the play was released as an album.
13. The Little Dog Laughed (Douglas Carter Beane)
A wonderful send up of Hollywood, acting and relationships, The Little Dog Laughed tells the story of a Hollywood agent, her in-the-closet client, his secret rent boy love interest, and the secret rent boy's girlfriend. The comedy is all over here, grounded almost entirely in language as opposed to physicality (which is what makes it so fun to read) and it never fails to make me laugh. Plus, it has some monologues/speeches that are absolutely perfect.
14. Mauritius (Theresa Rebeck)
Mauritius is a play about sisters and stamps. When a pair of half-sisters come into an inheritance that includes a stamp collection, deciding what to do with the stamps causes friction. The title comes from the name of a specific, very valuable stamp. The power struggle between the sisters and the questionable intentions of those who want to procure the stamps make up the majority of this work. The scenes between the half-sisters are particularly interesting.
15. Oslo (J.T. Rogers)
Based on a true story, Oslo takes a look at the work of Norwegian diplomat and her husband as they try to broker peace between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the early 1990s. It's on the longer end of the plays on this list, but it's well dramatized and a great gateway to the history of this period.
16. Other Desert Cities (Jon Robin Baitz)
Like several others on this list, Other Desert Cities, is about family and the secrets they keep. Here, on Christmas Eve in Palm Springs, Brooke Wyeth throws her family into turmoil when she shows them that she has written a tell-all memoir.
17. Outside Mullingar (John Patrick Shanley)
Anthony and Rosemary grew up on neighboring farms in Ireland. He is shy and retiring while she is forthright. Their families are close, but there remains one problem: Rosemary's family owns a tiny piece of land that sits between the road and Anthony's family farm. This means that in order to enter their land, Anthony's family has to open and go through two gates every time, something that severely detracts from the value of the property. Over the course of this heartwarming and witty play you learn why the piece of land belongs to Rosemary's family and what it has to do with the relationship between the two lead characters. (This play was recently adapted to a film called Wild Mountain Thyme, but in my opinion the play is a very different creature, and a much better one, though the film is entertaining.)
18. The Pillowman (Martin McDonagh)
Katurian Katurian is the author of stories in which children are regularly on the receiving end of violence or murder. When someone begins murdering children in ways reminiscent to his stories, he is arrested and interrogated about his writing and possible connection to the crimes. The exchanges about what it means to be an author are, in my opinion, brilliant, and this is my second favorite play of all time, but please note, this play is unapologetically very dark. It is definitely not for everyone.
19. Stick Fly (Lydia R. Diamond)
Stick Fly is a family drama set in the Martha's Vineyard home of the LeVays, an affluent Black family. When the two LeVay brothers bring home their respective girlfriends (one a Black woman who is an academic and the other a white woman who works with children from the inner city), things don't go as planned. Many issues the family never about can no longer be avoided and serious topics like race, privilege, and deep-buried family secrets are tackled amidst the ample amounts of humor. (I still quote this play to my family on occasion even though it's been a few years since I revisited it.)
20. Sweat (Lynn Nottage)
Workers at a steel mill in Pennsylvania at the start of the 21st century learn that loyalty and hard work don't always get you far when your company is reorganizing. As the prospect of layoffs grows and fears increase that they will be replaced with non-union employees, tempers burn and personalities clash.
21. Translations (Brian Friel)
It's 1833 in an Irish-speaking region of County Donegal, Ireland, and an ordinance survey is being conducted by the English-speaking Royal Engineers that includes translating all the place names into English. Translations is certainly about language, the love of your own and the fear of losing it, and identity, but it is also about people...and it contains what is, in my opinion, one of the sweetest romance scenes I've ever encountered- and the two characters involved can't understand a word each other is saying.