Welcome to our Theatrical Reading List, a three-act list of plays by American playwrights curated by AWM staff member Matthew Masino. Matt graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BFA in Theatre Directing and he really misses live theatre right now. So sit back, enjoy the show and add these plays to your reading list. Act I starts off with, you guessed it, the classics.
By Matthew Masino
In a time when it’s easy to feel isolated, many of us are turning to art to bring back a sense of reality. Whether that be the newest Netflix original series or a book off the New York Times Best Seller List, there’s no better feeling than finding yourself lost in a story. While connecting with others may be difficult for now, reading allows us to connect with another (albeit, fictional) person immediately. Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde described the theatre as “the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” While theatres across the country are closed, the works of great American playwrights are just waiting to be consumed and shared.
I’ve been spending much of my time catching up on a long list of plays and musicals on my reading list. It would be foolish to try and sum up the entirety of the American theatre catalogue in a single blog post, so I won’t even try. Today, I’ll be spotlighting six classics of the American theatre to add to your reading list. These six plays are only a dip in the bucket of the Classics. I’ve also included a list of honorable mentions at the end of the article to further spark your interests. Don’t see your favorite classic play or musical on the list? Share it in the comments! Come back next week and I’ll be highlighting some contemporary works right here on the AWM blog.
Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés
Fefu and Her Friends, by Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés, tells the story of eight women who gather to rehearse a presentation for their charity. This immersive play, split into three parts, breaks down the fourth wall and asks the audience to rotate through different locations in the house to watch four scenes happening simultaneously including the library, the backyard, and the kitchen. During the course of the play, we learn more about each of these women and learn about their relationship with each other and the world outside. Fefu and Her Friends is a great play for those who enjoy feminist works and history or have an interest in immersive theatre. Watch a trailer for Fefu and Her Friends here.
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
“No curtain. No scenery.” Originally premiering on Broadway in 1938, this Pulitzer Prize-winning play tells the story of life in the fictional village of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The play tells the story of two neighbors, George and Emily, whose friendship blooms into romance and then into marriage. A Stage Manager (who was played by Wilder himself for two weeks in the original Broadway production) introduces the characters of the play and guides the action. Each act of the play showcases a different period of life: adolescence, adulthood, and death. With no props and minimal sets (chairs, tables, and two ladders), you could even perform Wilder’s classic play in your own home. Take an afternoon and journey back to small town America in Our Town.
Mame with Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman and Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
Based on the play Aunt Mame by Patrick Dennis, Mame made its Broadway premiere in 1966 at the Winter Garden Theatre starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur. When Mame Dennis’s brother dies, her bohemian lifestyle is interrupted as her 10-year-old nephew is entrusted to her care. She introduces the boy, Patrick, to her lifestyling and instills in him her philosophy, “Life is a banquet, and most poor sons-of-bitches are starving to death.” After Wall Street crashes, she is left with little but her nephew, her creativity, and her impeccable sense of style. This classic American musical is for anyone looking to laugh and learn how to persevere when things go wrong.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin in the Sun made history when it premiered on March 11, 1959, showcasing the first ever work written by a black woman. It was also the first play ever directed by a black man on Broadway. The play tells the story of the Younger family and explores the effects of racial segregation in Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s. After the death of the Younger patriarch, the family eagerly awaits a settlement check and discusses what they should do with the money. When Mama decides to use the money as a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, the conflict between the family grows. Listed as one of the best plays ever written by the Independent and Time Out, A Raisin in the Sun is a fantastic read for anyone looking to take a look back at a play that, according to columnist Frank Rich, “changed the American theatre forever.” When the AWM reopens, you can learn more about A Raisin in the Sun and Lorraine Hansberry on our Featured Works Table and in the Wintrust Chicago Gallery. In the meantime, watch Lorraine Hansberry: The Black Experience in the Creation of Drama.
The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S Kaufman and Moss Hart
Having been invited to dine at the home of Ernest W Stanley, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside (‘Sherry’ to his friends) slips on a patch of ice and breaks his hip. Confined to the Stanley house for six weeks, Whiteside drives his host family mad through insults, astronomical phone bills, and bizarre visitors. The Man Who Came to Dinner premiered on Broadway on October 16, 1939 and would later be adapted into a 1942 film starring Monty Woolley and Bette Davis. This play brings together elements of farce, romance, and high comedy into one of the most beloved comedies of the American theatre. The Man Who Came to Dinner is a great read for anyone looking for a laugh or looking for advice about what to do when someone just won’t leave.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Inspired by the Salem witch trials that took place in Massachusetts in the 1690s, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was written as an allegory for McCarthyism after Miller was questioned by the Committee on Un-American Activities in 1956. The play begins after several young girls are discovered attempting to conjure spirits from the dead. Rather than receive harsh punishment, the girls begin accusing the other citizens of Salem of practicing witchcraft. As the distrust grows amongst the residents of Salem, a terrifying cycle of accusation, arrest, and conviction emerges. The Crucible is a fantastic read for anyone who loves historical drama and is interested in stories of paranoia and betrayal.
Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder (1942); The Zoo Story by Edward Albee (1958); Cabaret by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff (1966); Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949); Trifles by Susan Glaspell (1916); Oklahoma! by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (1943); Machinal by Sophie Treadwell (1928); Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill (1933); The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman (1934); Private Lives by Noel Coward (1930); The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Willaims (1944)
Matthew is a content creator, writer, and theatre director based in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a B.F.A. in Theatre Directing from Columbia College Chicago in 2019. Matthew began writing for the AWM blog in April 2020, just after the museum’s closure and has since written more than two dozen articles for the blog. He is also responsible for creating the AWM Destinations blog series. As a theatre artist, Matthew has worked with the International Voices Project, the Chicago Fringe Festival, and BYOT Productions. You can learn more by visiting his website www.matthewmasino.com.