Top 10 Best American Playwrights 

2nd January 2023

Top 10 Best American Playwrights 
Georgia Carter

Georgia Carter

Calling all actors, you should know these names of the best american playwrights, but if you don’t then listen up. We haven’t got all the time in the world to mention all of them, so I have curated a list based on the most notable playwrights. Playwrights need to have the skill of credible characterisation, interesting plotting of a story and maintain the audience’s attention for 70-90 pages. Not all are worthy of the accolades that these playwrights mastered and I would suggest you do a deep dive into their work after this article. You will not be disappointed I assure you. 

Tennessee Williams 

Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, U.S on 26th of March 1911.  His most famous works would be The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Rose Tattoo. I have been lucky enough to have either been in such productions or have seen them performed at venues such as The National Theatre and I can safely say that I cannot fault his writing. He wrote plays in the early part of the 20th century but still manages to relate to modern audiences as his themes of aging, death, addiction and madness strike a chord. He writes about deeply disturbed characters, and those who some would say are realistic portrayals of psychology of the South. He wrote from experience, as it is noted that his mother was the blueprint for the foolish but strong Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and Williams’ father represented the aggressive, driving Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Arthur Miller

Miller was born in Harlem, New York, on October 17, 1915. One of the best American playwrights of the 20th century. His best work such as Death Of A Salesman, The Crucible and All My Sons  – made him well known amongst his peers and to this day many actors praise his work. In addition, he notably was married to Marylin Monore for 5 years. All My Sons, opened on Broadway in 1947 and earnt Miller his first Tony Award for Best Author. Death of a Salesman, which opened in 1949 on Broadway, won him a Pulitzer prize, a Tony award for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. It was such a hit with his audiences and has found critical acclaim as an iconic piece of work even now. It is studied at school and if you are an actor in the industry right now, you will have certainly heard of Arthur Miller and his plays. 

Eugene O’Neill 

O’Neill was born in New York on the 16th of October 1888. His work, Long Day’s Journey Into The Night is one worth reading for any actor. His plays all carry the same theme of tragedy and his skilled penmanship is one to be praised here. He was a realist and this bled through into his plays. The Iceman Cometh was also a piece of work that won him approval. His characters are those that are on the fringe of society, and fail to become what they aspire to be. Dreams are lost and desperation and pessimism take over. His inclusiveness of speeches in American English vernacular in his plays paved the way for other playwrights to do the same. His first play, Bound East for Cardiff, premiered at a theatre on a wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts. His best-known plays include Anna Christie, Desire Under the Elms, Strange Interlude, Mourning Becomes Electra and Ah, Wilderness!, a re-imagining of his youth as he wished it to have been. 

Sam Shepard

Sherard was born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on the 5th of November 1943. His plays such as Buried Child, True West, Fool For Love, all include similar themes such as the bleak, poetic, surrealist elements, black comedy, and rootless characters living on the outskirts of American society. He won a Putizer prize for Buried Child and Drama Desk Award for Lie of the Mind. An adaptation of True West was performed by Kit Harrington and Johnny Flynn back in 2018 and also by Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano in 2019. His work explores themes of love, loss and dysfunctional family life and his plays are often set in the gritty small towns and open spaces of the American West. By the time he had reached the age of 30, he had written over 30 plays and he even acted amongst Hollywood elite. He played a pilot Chuck Yeager in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and as Frank Calhoun, in the 2004 film The Notebook. 

Edward Albee

Albee was born in Washington, D.C. on the 12th of March 1928. His most notable works include Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, The Zoo Story, Seascape and The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? He was quoted saying ‘art is not pacification, it is disturbance.’ And this is the theme that ran through all of his plays. The audience were not there to enjoy themselves, but to change how they view their character, and to address the question of what it means to be alive. Therefore, Albee’s plays are just as relevant now as when he first wrote them. His play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf  was met with critical success even though it included many examples of profanity, apparent sexual themes and it ran for 3 hours and 15 minutes.   

David Mamet

Mamet was born in Flossmoor, Illinois on the 30th November 1947. He won a Pulitzer Prize and received Tony nominations for his plays Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow. He is one of the best American contemporary playwrights of the 21st century and wrote another classic American Buffalo, which I was lucky enough to see on the West End in 2015, which starred John Goodman, Tom Sturridge and Damian Lewis. It is here we witness the examination of the world of business and enterprise. His plays in general offer us the themes of machismo and male dominance which have often sparked controversy amongst female audience members. His characters are for the most part quick, vulgar and not afraid to use foul language. Other plays of his include; Sexual Perversity in Chicago, Oleanna and The Duck Variations. He notably said, ‘Always tell the truth – it’s the easiest thing to remember.’

August Wilson 

Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 27th of April 1945. I’m sure you will have heard of his work such as Fences, The Piano Lesson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or The Pittsburgh Cycle? Viola Davis seems to be a fan of his work as she portrayed Rose Maxson in Fences in 2016 and also played Ma Rainey in the 2020 film about her recording session in Chicago in 1927. Wilson’s play Fences premiered on Broadway in 1987, earning the playwright his first Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award. Within his work, he explored love, honor, duty and betrayal. He believed that all art is political even though his aim was not to write political plays. He co-founded the Black Horizon Theatre in Pittsburgh in 1968, and it became a cultural hub of Black creativity and a community building. He produced plays that celebrated the history and poetic sensibilities of Black people. 

Tracey Letts

As another American playwright of the 21st century, Letts is also an actor and screenwriter. He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma,on the 4th of July 1965. His name is attached to plays such as Bug, Killer Joe, August:Osage County and The Minutes, to name just a few. I have been lucky enough to see Bug, which starred James Norton and Kate Fleetwood in London back in 2016. The horror and despair I witnessed in close quarters of a small pop up space Found111, on Charing Cross Road, was an example of why Tracey Letts’ writing is out of this world. 

Tony Kushner

Kushner was born in Manhattan, New York on the 16th of July 1956. He is one of the greatest acclaimed American playwrights of our generation. His play Angels In America made him a success back in 1993 and it won both a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. It was then made into a mini series in 2003. He is famous for his collaborations with Steven Spielberg for Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story. Kushner received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, 2013. As well as Angels In America, his other plays A Bright Room Called Day, Caroline, Or Change, Homebody/Kabul, Love’s Fire.  

Thornton Wilder

Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin on the 17th of April 1897. He won three Pulitzer Prizes — for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and for the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth — and a U.S. National Book Award for the novel The Eighth Day. He is one of the well known playwrights of the 20th century. The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, Pullman Car Hiawatha and The Long Christmas Dinner are among his well-known shorter plays. Wilder’s many honors include the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Book Committee’s Medal for Literature and the Goethe-Plakette Award. In addition to his talents as a playwright and novel­ist, Wilder was an accomplished essayist, translator, research scholar, teacher, lecturer, librettist and screenwriter. In 1942, he teamed up with Alfred Hitchcock on the classic psycho-thriller Shadow of a Doubt. 

Closing Thoughts

Now I have noticed that I have not mentioned any of the best American female playwrights in this list, so maybe I should revisit this topic on another day. But it is clear that when we cover the best American playwrights, you cannot debate that they are all geniuses in their own right. I am now going to settle in with a copy of All My Sons and you should too. Happy reading!

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