The 50 Best Plays of The Past 100 Years

The Number one play of the past 100 years is Arthur Miller’s 1949 play “Death of A Salesman,” according to Entertainment Weekly’s issue of July 5/12, 2013.  Number 50 is Conor McPherson’s 1997 play “The Weir.” In-between are 48 other plays (the scripts, really, not any specific productions) that EW’s critics have chosen. (The print edition includes a brief description and explanation for each selection. I’ve linked each play below to its Amazon page, which provides a brief description of the play and a chance to purchase it.)

[Also check out: The Latest Theater Book Bestsellers (not necessarily scripts — also biographies, memoirs, histories, etc.)]

There are no musicals on this list. But beneath it is EW’s list of the 10 greatest musicals.

The top 3 plays over past century: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (Pictured are latest productions of thee plays on Broadway.
The top 3 plays over past century, according to Entertainment Weekly: Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller; A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee (Pictured are latest productions of these plays on Broadway.

In order, they are:

1.  Death of a Salesman (1949) by Arthur Miller

2. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams

3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: (1962) by Edward Albee

4. Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) by Eugene O’Neill

5.Fences(1985) by August Wilson

6. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (1993-94) two plays by Tony Kushner

7. Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (1953) by Samuel Beckett

8. Pygmalion (1913) by George Bernard Shaw

9. A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry

10.Our Town (1938) by Thornton Wilder

11. Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) by Luigi Pirandello

12. The Glass Menagerie (1944) by Tennessee Williams

13. Glengarry Glen Ross(1984) by David Mamet

14. August: Osage County (2007) by Tracy Letts

15. True West (1980) by Sam Shepard

16. The Iceman Cometh (1946) by Eugene O’Neill

17. Look Back in Anger (1956) by John Osborne

18. A View from the Bridge (1955) by Arthur Miller

19. The Little Foxes. (1939) by Lillian Hellman

20. The Real Thing (1982) by Tom Stoppard

21. Master Harold and the Boys (1982) by Athol Fugard

22. The Homecoming (1965) by Harold Pinter

23. Ruined (2008) by Lynn Nottage

24. Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) by Bertolt Brecht

25. Six Degrees of Separation (1990) by John Guare

26. Doubt (2004) by John Patrick Shanley

27. Top Girls (1982) by Caryl Churchill

28. Present Laughter (1942) by Noel Coward

29. Noises Off (1982) by Michael Frayn

30. Marat/Sade (1964) by Peter Weiss

31. The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) by Martin McDonagh

32. Machinal (1928) by Sophie Treadwell

33. The Norman Conquests(1973) trilogy by Alan Ayckbourn

34. The Bald Soprano (1950) by Eugene Ionesco

35. M. Butterfly (1988) by David Henry Hwang

36. The Dybbuk (1920) by S Ansky

37. Saved (1965) by Edward Bond

38.Topdog/Underdogby Suzan-Lori Parks

39. The Front Page (1928) by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur

40. Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970) by Dario Fo.

41. Picnic (1953) by William Inge

42. Journey’s End (1928) by R.C. Sherriff

43 The Odd Couple (1965) by Neil Simon

44. The orphans’ home cycle (1962-2009) nine short plays by Horton Foote

45. The Women. (1936) by Clare Boothe Luce

46. What The Butler Saw (1969) by Joe Orton

47. Awake and Sing! (1935) by Clifford Odets

48. The Piano Lesson (1987) by August Wilson

49. Uncommon Women and Others (1977) by Wendy Wasserstein

50 The Weir (1997) by Conor McPherson

The 10 Greatest Musicals, according to EW

1. Guys and Dolls

2. Gypsy

3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

4. Oklahoma!

5. West Side Story

6. Cabaret

7. A Chorus Line

8. Rent

9. Carousel

10. The Book of Mormon

Click on any of the covers to purchase the album

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

33 thoughts on “The 50 Best Plays of The Past 100 Years

      1. Seriously. It’s like whoever’s decided that list has visited their TV and their community theatre only. They’ve clearly never even stepped foot into a theatre in Chicago, Seattle, or New York.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Missing: The How to Succeed in Business without really trying, Hello Dolly, Mame, The Producers, A funny thing happened, etc, Promises, Promises, 1976, and I pulled those without really thinking about it. Oh, and Cats…I didn’t like Cats bu t apparently I was in the minority. My Fair Lady…please define “best” Mr. Mandell.

    2. “The Book of Mormon” over “King and I”, “South Pacific” and “Sound of Music”. Come on now. Let’s discuss scores for one. I’m sure people will be singing those haunting melodies from “Mormon” for decades to come compared to those simple tunes Rodgers knocked off. Notice the hidden word in MUSICals.

    1. Opps sorry. Missed out Beckett and Fugard. In that case, it should be “50 Best English Language Plays of the Past 100 Years”. Whatever it is, the original scope is too Eurocentric!

      1. I think they get a pass on the English language thing seeing as how it is an English language publication. It seems fairly well-read for EW. Just wondering where Peter Shaffer is. And REAL THING is Stoppard’s entry, really?

      2. Pirandello wrote _Six Characters_ in Italian; likewise Dario Fo and _The Accidental Death of an Anarchist_. Brecht wrote _Mother Courage_ in German. Ionesco wrote _The Bald Soprano_ in French. All that said, no, this list clearly wasn’t assembled by an international theater-going cohort.

      3. Um, the list also includes Pirandello, Brecht, Weiss, Ionesco, Ansky, and Fo, none of whom wrote in English. Not that the list is worth defending–it’s pretty ludicrous.

      4. I definitely agree with the euro-centric charge, but the apparent accusation that it’s all English Language? In addition to Beckett (often writing in French), what about Ansky, Brecht, Fo, Ionesco, and Pirandello? Yes, Kobo Abe, Lorca, Soyinka, and many more belong on this list, but for an EW article? I’m pretty impressed.

  1. Interesting that ODD COUPLE, which is a very funny (if dated) play was chosen as the best representation of Neil Simon’s work and not one of the Brighton Beach trilogy or Lost in Yonkers which won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

  2. How did CAROUSEL, an absolutely dark and maudlin musical which arguably glorifies family abuse (“Sometimes when you love someone a slap can feel like a kiss”) make it onto this list ahead of other Rodgers & Hammerstein vehicles like THE KING & I or THE SOUND OF MUSIC? An even better question, how can you leave off your list of musicals FIDDLER ON THE ROOF or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA — two of the longest running musicals in Broadway history — while including CAROUSEL? You might want to re-think that choice!

    1. I agree that CAROUSEL shouldn’t be on the list because there are better musicals, not because it glorifies abuse. It clearly doesn’t glorify it. The play is about forgiveness and it an important comparison to OKLAHOMA with its general “gaiety”. Forgiveness is not easy and often comes at a serious cost. This is what the musical explores. Back when this was written, there where many musicals about po folk celebrating the simple life, but CAROUSEL examines a gritty, more troublesome consequence to poverty and sin. In this play, it is possible to hate the sin and not the sinner.

      1. “To Kill A Mockingbird” is number 13 on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the 100 “greatest novels ever”, which is in the same issue of the magazine.

    1. A play is a play, a crappy play written by a woman doesn’t get better just because a woman wrote it, likewise with plays written by men. If I had my way, all authors would leave their first names at an initial just so people wouldn’t get so hung up on it.

  3. There are excellent translations of Brecht, and Czechov and many others. An article like this is irrelevant when you fail to recognize important staples to the Theatre (English-speaking or otherwise). Where would LORT be without Czechov?

    1. Chekhov died in 1904. This somewhat arbitrary list — created by Entertainment Weekly and NOT endorsed by me, by the way — focuses on “the last 100 years.”
      But your basic point, and your example of Brecht, strike a chord.

  4. Pretty poor list by my standards. Too much tragedy and angst. Not enough laughter and music. That’s what’s wrong with the world today anyway. Had to get down to #28 before I found something I would go see again and I have seen or read most of the others. And I agree with those who are looking for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. And BOOK OF MORMAN one of the top Musicals? I don’t think so. They needed to go back further on that list too. Porgy and Bess, Show Boat, etc.

  5. I’d like to see data over opinions. These critics only seem to name musicals that have been made into movies. (or BoM because its the popular thing to say you’ve seen). Perhaps EW could have stated a brief recount of how they concluded these results instead of having an intern list the first ten titles found on IMDB. I would have accepted The Highest Grossing: Lion King, Longest Running: Phantom of the Opera, Most Accolades: The Producers. Most Revived Show: Porgy and Bess, ANYTHING would have been better than this list!

  6. For a show that has energized Broadway, broken sales records, and rebuilt many a touring Broadway theatre for nine years, Wicked probably should be considered in any list of major musicals.

  7. I love most of the list, and really, it is just a list. I am amazed that No One mentioned Les Miserables, which has been produced in more countries and more languages than any other musical, and happens to be the most attended musical of all time. Honestly, a list of best musicals that does not include Les Mis. is suspect.

  8. I’ve never been a huge Death of a Salesman fan. I’ve always thought “The Crucible” and “All My Sons” we’re better. “Salesman” jumps around a lot and I’ve always thought can be hard to follow.

  9. Love “Death of a Salesman,” but Streetcar Named Desire achieves more emotional complexity, character development, and to me, just feels more poetic and dynamic. To me, Death of a Salesman feels somewhat contrived and a bit one-dimensional in comparison. No American playwright, for my money, even comes close to Williams’ genius. He’s the closest thing we have to Shakespeare. Who else? To me Williams’ “Night of the Iguana” is better than most of the plays at the top of this list. Where is it? Its seems to me that both Pinter and Williams should both have WAY more plays on this list, several of them near the top.

  10. Stoppard’s Arcadia is not on the list but Osborne’s Look Back in Anger is makes the list a load of nonsense.

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