Top Must Read Plays to Read During Quarantine
So, you’re stuck inside and that feeling of existential angst is starting to take over. You’re not sure what to do with your time, but you want to feel useful somehow so you decide the best use of all this sitting around inside is to read some plays.
Now you’re faced with a choice.
Do I read plays that reflect the situation I am in right now? Or do I opt for some escapist fare so I don’t have to think about it too much. While there is something to be said for the latter, many of us tend to go for plays that reflect our current situations. My experience is that actors tend to be masochists at heart so, of course, we’d be drawn to plays about isolation, alienation, loneliness, existential angst, and the like.
If, however, you are NOT that type of person, then, no judgement. Feel free to look at this as a list of plays you must AVOID during the Covid Crisis Quarantine (Hey, that’s a tongue-twister CovidCrisisQuarantineCovidCrisisQuarantineCovidCrisisQuarantine).
So, if you’re walking through your place and you trip and fall on one of these plays, for the love of God, do not accidentally start reading. Step away slowly, reach for some Neil Simon or Rogers and Hammerstein and read as if you’re mental well-being depended on it. It just might.
If you ARE the type of person who wants to read plays like the ones I’m about to recommend, then awesome. You’ll find these plays might move you in ways that they may not have if we all weren’t stuck in our homes and forced to keep away from other people for the next few weeks. You’ll notice I am not recommending plays that are specifically about sickness and death. Plays like Ibsen’s Ghosts, Edson’s Wit, or Kushner’s Angel’s in America just don’t cut it right now in my opinion.
Just a quick spoiler alert. I will be going over some of the plot of some for these plays, so for a spoiler-free version, just look at the list in the comments.
1. Buried Child by Sam Shepard. Do you love plays about buried secrets, dying alcoholics, tragic chainsaw accidents, and imaginary vegetables? Then this is the play for you.
The best part of this play is that it’s weird, darkly funny, and saturated with a sense of doom. Someone shows up with corn and then argues with someone else about where they got the corn. People don’t recognize each other when they should. It’s a very trippy play. It’ll probably take you a couple of reads to really get what’s happening in it, but, hey, you have time on your hands right now so take advantage.
This may be Sam Shepherd’s best play. Although True West comes pretty close. The fact is that he wrote tons of great stuff and you should read it all and decide for yourself which is the best. Buried Child though won the Pulitzer so there’s that.
The play deals with themes of Identity, Motherhood, Incest, and The American Dream. And is messed up AF. Seriously, I once read this back to back with Rainer Fassbinder’s Garbage, the City, and Death and couldn’t speak to anyone coherently for four days. Perfect when you’re already not really talking to anyone.
2. William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Speaking of isolation. The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s great plays about an old man and his very young daughter being forced to live on a desert island with supernatural creatures for about a decade and a half. Then, using his magical powers (because he’s a wizard now), he sees everyone of the people who betrayed him on a ship heading for a wedding. On their way back, he sends a storm to shipwreck them on his island prison with the intention of wreaking terrible vengeance using his magic and supernatural servants.
This isn’t as widely read as some of Shakespeare’s other plays and chances are good that you haven’t read this one yet, so please do give it a chance. If you’re afraid of Shakespeare or don’t read him because it’s hard to understand, now is the time to give it a chance. I mean, what else do you have going on?
Best Scene: There is no shortage of awesome scenes in this play, but one of my favorite quotes is:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Like most Shakespeare plays, some of the themes tend to be a tad problematic. In this case, the themes of colonialism and subjugation of native peoples are pretty crappy. But there are other themes like freedom, betrayal, loss, and, above all, forgiveness that makes this one of my personal favorites.
Prospero is, like Shakespeare was at the time he wrote the play, nearing the end of his life and is taking stock of it and the enemies he accumulated over the years. They both have a lot of power and that power is based on the magic of their words. Shakespeare was called “as Upstart Crow” by his contemporaries, was from Nowhere’sville as far as anyone in London was concerned, and by the time he was finished, was one of the chief shareholders of a theatre company in which the King himself was the chief patron.
Shakespeare could have used his power to settle old scores and take a measure of vengeance on his old enemies, but instead, like Prospero, may have opted to forgive them. It’s a beautiful sentiment and that’s why I love The Tempest so much.
3. The Seafarer by Conor McPhereson. This is another play with the ever-so-fun theme of alcoholism. This one deals with a poker game with the devil himself and is scary as hell.
Best part: The "What’s Hell" monologue that Lockhart delivers near the end of the play is worth the price of admission. He describes hell as a place of shame and guilt and lack of love. A place of cold emptiness. It’s truly a harrowing depiction and so fun for the actor to deliver. You’ll seriously just want to memorize that monologue for fun after you read it.
This play is so great and the atmosphere of it seems to just pour off the page. The characters are finely written and the character of Lockhart is just so fun.
Besides, what can be more fun than reading a play with themes of death, guilt, and isolation during a pandemic? What’s more, the play is absolutely terrifying. I seriously couldn’t recommend this play more if you want to really want to amplify those feelings of dread and impending doom that you probably already feel given the circumstances.
4. The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of The Marquis de Sade by Peter Weiss. Not only does this play hold the record for longest title of a play ever, Marat/Sade (as it is often referred) is the heartwarming tale of the Marquis de Sade directing a theatrical performance of the death of a hero of the French Revolution Jean-Paul Marat using inmates of the asylum in which he, himself was a patient.
Based in historical truth, The Marquis de Sade really was an inmate of that asylum and really did write and direct plays while an inmate at certain asylums. Additionally, people really did go to asylums to be entertained during that period. That being said, things never went quite as wrong as it does in this play, at least where the Marquis de Sade is concerned and I’m sure the musical numbers weren’t quite as good.
This is one of my absolute favorite plays and I really do think that the entire play is the most awesome thing ever. YouTube has a movie version of it available to view so if you want to watch that, you can go to this link. The songs are the most awesome thing about this play. I mean who doesn’t love a song with lyrics like :
"Marat, we’re poor and the poor stay poor.
Marat don’t make us wait anymore.
We want our rights and we don’t care how.
We want our revolution now."
Why I do recommend this? Themes such as class conflict, psycho-sexual violence, torture, cruelty, and exploitation make this is the perfect read for a young actor looking to torture themself in these harrowing times. If you’re already feeling a sense of confinement and your sanity slowly creeping away, then I highly recommend this play to put you right over the edge.
5. An Inspector Calls by JB Priestly. If you don’t live in the UK where this has been required reading for decades, then you probably haven’t read this play in which a detective visits a wealthy home investigating a seemingly unrelated suicide by a destitute woman.
I don’t want to spoil this too much for you, because it really reads almost as well as watching it, but when you start to realize how connected this family is to the poor girl who committed suicide and exactly what the inspector is doing, it’s pretty friggin’ brilliant.
I was thinking that this play should be in every theatre’s current season even before all this Covid-19 mess and now I want that to happen even more. It’s amazing how an epidemic like this can remind us how connected we all are and how much we need that connection. We really are responsible for one another right now and this pandemic has brought out how awesome and terrible we all are as a society. We need to take care of one another, even if you’ve never actual met them you still share some responsibility for them and them for you.
So that’s it. My five must-read plays for the Global Pandemic. What are your five? Let me know in the comments. Seriously, I need recommendations. I already read the plays on my list.
See you guys later.