Three books in one, The Oresteia is a set of Greek tragedies written by the famed Aeschylus of Classical Greece, one of the few Greek tragedians whose work survived to modernity. The tragedies deal with the mythological House of Atreus and the tragedies that befall them, starting with Agamemnon, where the titular character is returning from the Trojan War to his kingdom, where his wife plans to kill him for having sacrificed their daughter to the gods in order to ensure victory. The second play, The Libation Bearers, sees the children of Agamemnon avenging his death, while the third, The Eumenides, has a judicial hearing before the Greek gods meant to decide who’s guilty of what in this murderous family. A classic that deals with the morality of revenge and justice.
Based on a German legendary character, Faust, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is a scholar who becomes impatient with the limits of science. He turns to magic—to the dark arts, specifically—and summons the devil Mephistophilis from the underworld. Doctor Faustus requests to give his soul to Lucifer in exchange for getting Mephistophilis’s service for 24 years, and the offer is accepted. As he learns more about the dark magicks that Mephistophilis introduces him to, he faces doubts again and again over the morality and safety of what he’s doing, and wonders time after time whether he should repent and save his soul. But the powers he now has—he becomes invisible, summons the presence of Helen of Troy, and shows off his prowess in other ways too—continues to mesmerize him. As the 24 years draw to a close, Faustus finally tries to repent, but he’s too late, and his soul is given up to Lucifer, according to their pact. The play’s exploration of themes of sin, power, and corruption are complexly drawn and the play is still one of the most controversial of its time.
One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays (alongside King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and more) Othello deals with issues of humanity and jealousy. Though there isn’t a clear consensus on the race of the titular character, he’s referred to as a “Moor” in the play; while technically Moors was a term used for Muslims of North African descent, he is often assumed to be a person who is black or brown—who is, in context of the rest of the characters, other in some way. Othello is a brilliant general in the Venetian army and married to the love of his life, Desdemona. One of the men he commands, Iago, is jealous of Othello’s power, prowess, and believes he is unworthy of it because of his background or the color of his skin, and so he uses Desdemona to trip Othello up. Othello famously murders Desdemona, believing she cheated on him; when he realizes later that she didn’t, he commits suicide himself.
Tartuffe and Other Plays
Containing some of the most famous characters in Western theater, Molière’s Tartuffe revolves around its eponymous character, a vagrant and fraud who was brought into the family of a man called Orgon. Tartuffe has Orgon and his mother so blinded with his pious pretensions that they rely on his word in making decisions, even though the rest of their family as well as their friends see through the hypocrite. They try to devise a way to prove his inferiority when Orgon decides to marry Tartuffe to his daughter, who’s already engaged. While Tartuffe manages to escape their ploys several times by using reverse psychology, he is finally ordered out of the house when Orgon overhears Tartuffe unabashedly flirting with Orgon’s own wife. But Tartuffe’s wiliness continues and he has a plan in hand to continue his residency in the family home, one that very nearly succeeds…
A Doll's House and Other Plays
N.B. The author of these blurbs studied with a professor who specialized in Ibsen’s work and so insists on this original and more correct translation of the play’s title, A Doll House, despite the very rare number of translations that accurately name the play.
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen is known for his tense, slow, and deliberate dramas that often take place within a small set of spaces and in which people’s morals, ideals, and meanings are tested. He’s considered one of the early playwrights to really deal with the internal struggles of people and their complexities and miscommunications. In A Doll House, the protagonist, Nora, struggles to realize that she is caged within a sham of a marriage, one in which she doesn’t know her husband and he doesn’t know her. While at first it seems like she is going slightly mad, being controlled by her husband as she is, she ends up in what today seems like one of the sanest, saddest conversations regarding divorce portrayed in literature of any sort.
Fires in the Mirror
Anna Deavere Smith
This one-woman play by Anna Deavere Smith, an actor, playwright, and a pioneer in the genre of “verbatim theater.” That is, Smith’s methods are such that she extensively interviews people from varying communities—one of her recent shows was about death and the dying—and impersonates them, recalling their voices and inflection and speaking almost exactly the words they spoke, drawing directly from the transcripts or recordings of the interviews. In Fires in the Mirror, she chronicles the points of view of people from the Black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, regarding the Crown Height Riots that followed an event in which both communities clashed: a Jewish man drove off the road and hit a Black child learning to ride his bicycle. In the ensuing days, a different Jewish man was killed by Black youths. In her play, Smith portrays the words of over 20 people she talked to and tries to understand the conflict through their viewpoints.
Women of Will
Tina Packer, actor, director, and Shakespeare expert, explores the female characters in Shakespeare’s many plays in this book. She looks into William Shakespeare’s own evolving views, attitudes towards, and understanding of women as seen in their evolution in his plays. She begins with his early comedies, showing how the women are drawn as conquered, innocent, or tamed, and continues into the histories and tragedies, exploring the way the characters’ sense of sexuality, of power or the desire for it, and their complex natures grew. She goes so far as to say that starting with Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote women characters as if he were a woman himself, understanding their needs, desires, and goals as well as if he were a contemporary of the opposite gender. An important work on this most famous of playwrights of the Western world, Packer’s book is exciting and fresh.
Being a theatre major is hard. I know not because I was one, but because I was friends with a bunch of them. Theatre majors somehow have more classes or more time spent in class than anyone else, and yet seem—in my experience—to also have a kind of boundless energy that I, an introverted English, creative writing, and history buff (of course) have never had. But no matter how much time theatre majors spend on their feet (acting, auditioning, directing, designing costumes and lights and sets), they also spend a lot of time sitting with and studying texts, from the classic plays to theatre theory and/or history. Which makes them close kin to the rest of the sitting-down-and-reading-stuff majors. Theatre majors will recognize and love (or be incredibly opinionated about) the titles we’ve shared. And if you always wanted to be a theatre major but didn’t have the courage or wanted to do something “sensible” with your college degree? Well, we’ve got you covered with some Theatre 101 reading.
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