The Play’s the Thing!

Si eres un apasionado del teatro y estudias inglés, en esta lista te traemos las que, a nuestro juicio, son buenas obras para seguir aprendiendo.

Our students often ask us for suggestions about what to read in order to improve their knowledge of English and expand their vocabulary. My first response is that they need to find something that they will enjoy reading; something similar to what they would read in their own language. It may seem obvious, but as a lover of classic literature, it wasn’t until I discovered Benito Pérez Galdós that my reading in Spanish really took off and my love for Spanish literature began.

But Galdós isn’t easy and my Spanish level was quite advanced when I started to tackle his novels (having said that, I remember moments of desperation when faced with different terms for lace in Fortunata y Jacinta!) So I’d feel quite wary recommending a novel by Charles Dickens or Viginia Woolf to many students due the difficulty and often the density itself of the book in question. Students often want to read a classic they’ve heard about or maybe seen a film adaption of, but feel that the challenge is too much for them. And often it is!

One suggestion I have for these students is to consider reading a play. The fact that you’re only reading the spoken word tends to make them less complicated to read than straight prose with its descriptive writing. It means that you are focusing on communicative language that has been created to represent drama – this means that in a relatively short amount of time, you’re taken on a journey the aim of which is to entertain and/or move the audience – in this case, you!

Apart from the text itself, plays will also contain stage directions which, for the reader, helpfully set the scene. The language tends to be quite direct, practical and not too difficult to understand.

For this post I’ve chosen four texts that all have an important place in the history of English-speaking theatre in the early and mid-twentieth century. I’m sure that you’re familiar with some, most or all of them!

The first play we’re going to look at is George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the world-famous story of how Professor Henry Higgins transforms cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a duchess at ease in polite society. Pygmalion is a witty and entertaining read which looks at class conflict and the battle of sexes, themes that were as topical at its time of writing one hundred years ago as they are today.  A recommended read without a doubt, but you’ve also got the spectacular adaptation, My Fair Lady, to enjoy if you fancy something a little more musical. The film, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, is a Hollywood classic that has entertained generations.

Our second text is a Pulitzer Prize winner, regarded as one of the twentieth century’s finest plays and its creator’s greatest achievement, Streetcar Named Desire. Written in 1946, Tennessee Williams takes us to post-war New Orleans and Blanche Dubois’ quest for love and some kind of security. At times a heart-breaking piece of theatre, the play deals with the universal themes of fantasy and reality, and leaves us with unforgettable characters and scenes. A perfect example of Williams’ rich, powerful use of language which lets us ponder over lines such as ”I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”. Streetcar Named Desire was famously filmed in 1951, earning Oscars for its stars Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. Tennessee Williams wrote other remarkable plays like The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, all of which you can discover and enjoy by reading the printed plays or, if you prefer, by watching the wonderfully filmed versions of the 1950s and 1960s.

Another vitally important mid-century American playwright is Arthur Miller and here we’re going to take a brief look at his 1953 play, The Crucible. The play is a dramatization of the Salem witch trials of Massachusetts at the end of the seventeenth century.  Miller wrote The Crucible as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the United States government, through Senator Joe McCarthy’s House of Representative’s Committee on Un-American Activities set about identifying those suspected of being communists. The sense of persecution, the mass hysteria and the betraying of others to save yourself are all elements that link these two historic episodes and make The Crucible fascinating reading. Three years later, Arthur Miller himself was ordered to appear at the Committee and was convicted of contempt of congress for refusing to name other suspected communists.

Finally, let’s consider something a little lighter: Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Noel Coward was one of the most well-known personalities in Britain for much of the Twentieth Century, as playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, infusing much of his work with a particularly British wit and style. Private Lives is typical of this, showing us in elegant pre-war Deauville, the war of words between sophisticate divorcees, Amanda and Elyot. At the time of its opening thought too risqué, it may seem a little tame for modern audiences. However, if you want to experience quick-fire dialogue full of witty asides, then this is for you. Maybe not a book for great analysis; as “the Master” once said himself: “many years ago an earnest young man wrote a book about my plays. It was very intelligent and absolute rubbish”.

So I hope you feel encouraged to pick up a play. Here we’ve looked at a very small selection of works – there are so many others that have made their mark. In a subsequent post I’ll be looking at some more examples from the latter half of the last century.

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