CLASSIC PLAYLIST CHALLENGE MUST SEE

03/11/2013 at 8:34 pm Leave a comment

Challenge as set on twitter during random discussion around “classic” plays – a two day turnaround to create an essential must-read catalogue for a theatre canon. A concept at odds with itself given the archaic notion of “canonical” in 21C and my own fractious relationship with the idea of “theatre text” in general – the tension between subjective and objective is palpable even before we have begun. My own list will be different to yours (ooh, subjectivity) whereas the very concept of “classic” implies an objective, historical consensus. An absurdity given the highly localised nature of theatre and sense of community resonance certain plays will have in certain regions but not in others.

Moreover, concepts of authorship and “text” have their own contentious place in the modern classic ouvre. it’s a topsy-turvy argument, with the popular citation that the “Author is Dead” (blithely followed with a pretentious reference to the author of that phrase). But let’s not go there right now. This exercise is more about must-reads for appropriate knowledge of theatre convention and history. Classics are defined by their influence.
And so, we begin at the beginning:

THE ILIAD
Constant re-interpretation of a tale that was a classic before it was ever writ down and thus taking the estimation of “Literature” before Literature existed as a concept. The complex dramatic ironies set around the epic Trojan War foreshadowed all Athenian dramatic convention and Achilles’s ‘lost-boy’ rage became the template for tragic heroism. It also opens up notions of authorship story would evolve and adapt for different audiences over generations in spoken word form regaled in tavernas before it existed as Homer’s ‘text’.

CYCLOPS
A rare Satyr play with a direct link to Homer’s Odyssey. Hardly ever done but vastly influential on the likes of Aristophanes.

OEDIPUS REX
The mother of all romantic comedies. Ted Hughes’ translation is to die for. So to speak.

THE BACCHAE
Our personal favourite of the Greeks and something less of a tragedy than ancestor to the horror genre. Euripides’ vicious breakdown of the God vs State power struggle is currently undergoing the Sancez treatment for modernisation; with a tale involving a *religious foreigner*, some *psychic powers* and an outbreak of *hypersexual women* in the context of a *strictly conservative and repressed leader* [GASP].

ORESTEIA
As epic trilogies go this one spawned more imitators than Star Wars and Lord of The Rings combined. Everyone from Seneca to Sartre has had a crack at translating/retelling/adapting/updating this post-war tale of the fall of the house of Atreus. It’s like a thing.

AGAMEMNON
If ever a play demonstrated the function of art as social critique and conscience this is it.

MEDEA
But which version?

LYSISTRATA
Love it or hate it this is a very clever play subverting (or reinforcing?) the traditional role of women in Athenian politics. The quintessential farce.

THE FROGS
“Shall I begin with the usual jokes at which the audience never fail to laugh?” Aristophanes demonstrating a capacity for meta-theatre and post-modernity before even hipsters thought it was cool.

THE CLOUDS
Again Aristophanes with an expressionistic vision of conceptual metaphor as social critique. Way ahead of it’s time. Or maybe Everyone Else is just way behind.

KING LEAR
Not every Shakespeare is a classic. Some are a kind of terrible crowd-pleasing fap [Romeo & Juliet, anyone?] But Lear is in my top ten plays of all-time.

HAMLET
In conversation at the Opera House a couple of years back Tom Stoppard was asked to reduce this play to a single word. He chose the word “if”. Well it would save a lot of time, anyway…

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
This simultaneously bold, visceral, absurd and hilarious literary lark is everything a play should be, and nothing a play can ever really capture since.

THE TEMPEST
Probably one of the Bard’s more visionary and exciting plays with resonances well into today’s politic. In a word? Boats.

THE SCOTTISH PLAY
A play so dark we dare not speak its name. For the uninitiated:
Breaking Bad with witches and iambic pentameter. Say No More.

FAUSTUS
Anything that can be turned into a Rolling Stones song has my vote. Again, a defining characteristic of the classic is the universality of its retelling.

THE RECRUITING OFFICER
The first play ever to be put on in New York and the first play ever to be put on in Sydney (and subsequently spawning OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD).
Irrespective of quality, a classic.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST
“Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” And there you have it.

TARTUFFE
Points purely for getting banned by the wealthy French factions but Moliere’s devastating critique of hypocrisy and religion demonstrates just how dangerous comedy can be.

UBU ROI
A pleasure to read – and to watch – was privileged enough to see Bille Brown in the title role at Belvoir St in Kantor’s prodction. Alfred Jarry opened the door towards dada, surrealism and the most influential 20th Century movement: Absurdism. Fearless and joyful.

NORA
Hedda might be better but A Doll’s House broke the necessary ground by becoming the most influential text of the modern era. It speaks volumes that writers still ape his technique, and the Realist form is now the most conservative type of theatre writing you will find – practically the rule for ‘safe’ dramatic form. But only exceptional writers have been able to match Ibsen for his ‘drama of ideas’ fusing socio-political critique into painstakingly constructed dialogue and radical representation of action. A better model for circumspect use of stage direction is lacking… “That slammed door reverberated across the roof of the world.”

A DREAM PLAY
Strindberg was at his best when he wasn’t jealously trying to mimic Ibsen and this (pretty much indecipherable text)

THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD
If I haven’t had at least one riot following my play I will consider my career a failure.

THE SEAGULL
A play that must be performed perpetually. Not by the same actors or directors, a revolving troupe. Right? This is the kind reform our industry needs. Am I getting through?

THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR
More proof that farce and comedy rule the pre-modernist epoch. It feels dated no but the critiques remain relevant, even if the form is not.

PYGMALION
Nothing against Shaw but he’s largely derivative of better writers. However this play has so many imitators and revisions it’s made the list.

CHICAGO/ PLAY BALL
The play, the film, the musical, the dance moves, the iconic jazz-handed red-and-black spectacular- the original was writ as a class assignment for Yale Drama School by journalist Maureen Dallas Watkins based on the true story of two allegedly murderous ‘jazz-babies’. Goes to show: take that drama school shit seriously.

MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL
TS Eliot’s gorgeous modernist poetic script on Becket and his struggles against authoritarian rule is too rarely done and I cannot imagine why.

THE THREEPENNY OPERA
Probably the first great European modernist work, subverting form, genre and content in a radical way that quickly took hold. Read all of Brecht but read this one more.

THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE
Powerful, inspirational stuff.

THE MAIDS
Another ‘based on a true story’ this play is a master class in playwrighting as the execution of conceptual metaphor. This is not nor ever was the story of the murderous French maids that scandalised the Paris aristocracy but a ritual dance teased out from the very idea that the working class might dare such a thing. Genet knew any attempt to act on class rage with violence or murder can only end terribly, and so depicted a cycle within a ritual within a wheel, wrapped in fur and flowers.

STREETCAR
One’s ability to say a single word to convey reams of meaning defines the classic. In this instance, a masterpiece of American postwar ennui.

SALESMAN
Ditto. Yeah but still kind of depressing.

THE CRUCIBLE
One of the first plays I ever read, and re-read, and read again. Probably why I’m a writer.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF
I want to arrange a production of this in real time. Over six hours before dawn, with monstrous pauses and real booze. Should be good.

TRAVESTIES
“Your monocle is in the wrong eye”

ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
Take note. This is how you write an adaptation. Sideways. Anything less is derivative claptrap.

CAN’T PAY WON’T PAY
A delightfully cheeky comedy about price gouging. On an unrelated matter it is never put on at major theatre companies in Oz.

ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST
More wilful political farce from the Italian Nobel Prize-Winner. It’s scandalous his work is not done more often in Sydney.

THE CHAPEL PERILOUS
The only Australian writer to be included on the list but this rare, adventurous play says much about our development as a nation, culture, our insecurity about finding our voice and our struggle with reconciling the past.

DECADENCE
I’m biased. Because I’m currently touring this and our next performance is in just a month at 505. But it really is a brilliant modern classic and Berkoff is unmatched by any writer of the day. Come and see for yourself. The text is like climbing a small mountain – but the view is exhilarating.

TOP GIRLS
See my response the recent production at the New Theatre

WAITING FOR GODOT
You thought I’d forgot about it? Never. If imitators and adaptations by numbers define a classic, this one defines itself. You cannot mess with the best. And Beckett is a once in ten generational genius. Untouchable.

These are not my *favourite plays* (some are) but the ones you have to have read a few times to stnd a chance at writing anything vaguely original. Hopefully that helps. Read them all immediately.

POST-SCRIPT
Honourable mentions go to a bunch of writers for whom I had not the time to narrow down and exhume the quality of their work; Jack Davis, Sarah Kane Harold Pinter, Buchner, Eugene Ionesco, Yasmina Reza, Corneille, Lope de Vega, Calderón, not to mention some fabulous modern writers of the last twenty years. But the exercise was to turn it around in just two days. Also it would be disingenuous to claim a play less than twenty years old as a “classic” when by definition I am looking beyond populism and especially for revolutionary or stylistically ground-breaking works. There is also a lack of women and a deliberate overlooking of classic Eastern texts, Kabuki and traditional Hindu theatre are two areas I have only passing knowledge so would baffle to guess which are the most radical or influential texts from those regions.

As I stated at the outset: notions of canonical lists are abstract and weighted towards systemic power structures. Men have the lion’s share because for thousands of years men were given positions of influence within the theatrical community. So they were influential. You will notice a similar trend upon viewing the upcoming work by POST interrogating canonical works (Oedipus Schmoedipus; playing at Belvoir in January) I had almost this exact discussion with the two women devising that piece when I interned with them last year…

So we (those of us with appreciation of post-modern etiquette) abandon adherence to the canon as less than useful as a guide but more as an historical facet of the craft. For if we cling too tightly to the past we will never find the future. Imitation is flattery – but innovation is battery. That is all.

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Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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