Monday 23 January 2006

Essential plays for theologians

Here’s our next essential list by Kim Fabricius:

Another list. And why not? Lists are as old as biblical genealogies and as contemporary as baseball statistics. Lists enthuse people, send them back to basic texts, start discussions, spark alternative suggestions, and invite us to new encounters.

But perhaps a list of plays is particularly appropriate in our current theological context. Tom Wright’s paradigm of the Bible as an unfinished dramatic script has been widely discussed and deployed, particularly in the field of (virtue) ethics. But then, long ago, didn’t Calvin speak of creation as the theatre of God’s glory, and doesn’t God call us all to improvise in the plot of his divine comedy?

One more thing: my terms of engagement. I have gone for a historical spread; I have limited each playwright to one play; and, when in doubt, I have used the venerable technique of flipping a coin. And—to get my retaliation in first!—Euripides lost the toss to Aristophanes, while Ben Jonson (1572/73-1637), The Alchemist, John Millington Synge (1871-1909), The Playboy of the Western World, and Tennessee Williams (1911-83), The Night of the Iguana, went out at the director’s last cut. Oh, and please, no hassles about King Lear! With Shakespeare, it’s a win-win (or is it lose-lose?) situation.

Finally, thanks to everyone in advance for telling me wherever else I’ve got it egregiously wrong!

1. Aeschylus (525-245 BCE): the Oresteia
2. Sophocles (496-406 BCE): Antigone
3. Aristophanes (c.448-380 BCE): The Frogs
4. The York Mystery Cycle (from 14th century)
5. Christopher Marlowe (1564-93): Dr. Faustus
6. William Shakespeare (1564-1616): King Lear
7. John Milton (1608-74): Samson Agonistes
8. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832): Faust
9. Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906): The Master Builder
10. August Strindberg (1849-1912): Miss Julie
11. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950): Man and Superman
12. Anton Chekov (1860-1904): The Cherry Orchard
13. Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936): Six Characters in Search of an Author
14. Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953): Long Day’s Journey into Night
15. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965): Murder in the Cathedral
16. Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956): Mother Courage
17. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80): No Exit
18. Samuel Beckett (1906-89): Waiting for Godot
19. Arthur Miller (1915-2005): The Crucible
20. Harold Pinter (1930- ): The Caretaker


Jim said...

Speaking of Faust- you should take a look at Hans Hübner's Goethes Faust und das Neue Testament. Brilliant. Yours is a very nice list, of course, though I would replace everything from 14 on- leave them off altogether, and have a list of 13.....


Ben Myers said...

What, Jim? You would even leave off Beckett? I'm scandalised!

Apart from everything else, I reckon Beckett is the funniest of all playwrights: no other writer has made me laugh more.

Jim said...

I'm sad to say I've never read him (or her- or whoever). Care to recommend the funniest?

Ben Myers said...

I think his funniest is probably Waiting for Godot. Even funnier (and also bleaker) is his trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.

Sharad Yadav said...

I've just recently discovered your lists and wanted to let you know how wonderful they've been! Keep doing these sorts of posts!

Anonymous said...

The play "The Physisists" should be on your list. I don't recall the author however. I read it many years ago. A very thougtful text. Don S.

Naomi said...

Ben, you forgot Brecht's most theological play: Galileo. And if you like humour then B.Shaw's Pygmalion must top the list too. Surely Hamlet would warrant a mention. Then there's Cyrano de Bergerac. Maybe the Aussie David Williams could get some honours too, like his "Emerald City". And what about some ancient plays like Trojan Women by Euripides or Oedipus Rex by Seneca. Yes, and what about the Passion Play too??? Of course, I know you can only fit 20 in. I wait desperately for the top 20 musicals, I wonder if Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: The Musical, will get a mention (note, it's true and I'm not joking, it became a musical).

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you've stumped me. But I looked it up. The Physicists is by the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). He's described as a Swiss Roal Dahl. Sounds like fun!

Naomi, thnaks for the suggestions. I considered Pygmalion . . . As for Hamlet and Euripides, see my introduction!

Galileo - good point, but you can't go wrong with Mother Courage.

Ben suggested a Seneca. I confess to ignorance.

And a Passion Play - I'm afraid I find them insufferingly boring. Mind, I haven't been to Oberammergau.

James Crossley said...

Not a very learned comment but just got to say that I'm very glad to see Beckett there (a personal favourite so I'm biased. I'm sure a couple of Becktt's other plays could have graced the list in another world. Also good to see Arthur Miller and Harlod Pinter get the nod.

Fred said...

Alas, no Thornton Wilder? And what of "Tis a Pity, She's a Whore"?

Jim said...

I agree with the deletion of the Passion plays- they are dreadfully anti-semitic and not very well written on the whole.

Ben Myers said...

I agree, Fred: Tis a Pity, She's a Whore would have been a great choice for the list. From the same period, The Revenger's Tragedy is another good one.

I'm glad to hear you like Beckett, James. As you say, it would have been easy to fill half the list with Beckett. Still, Godot has always been my own favourite.

Anonymous said...


Great lists. I was wondering what about these plays makes them essential for specifically theologians? To my mind, a good many here would easily fit on a list of "Essential plays for anyone wishing to be well-rounded member of Western Civilization." Thoughts?

Anonymous said...


I agree that "anyone wishing to be a well-rounded member of Western Civilization" should know such plays as those on the list, which isn't "specifically" for theologians, rather it contains essential reading for theologians, who themselves should be well-rounder members of civilisation. Yes? We may live in Jerusalem, but it broadens the (theological) mind to commute to Athens.

The truly great theologians - e.g. the Alexandrains, the Cappadocians, Augustine,
Aquinas, Calvin, et. al., right up to Barth and a contemporary like Rowan Williams - have always known this, and have carried on their theological conversation not only in but also ex cathedra.

Barth said that the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other - and that includes the art section.

Anonymous said...

Please check out this prose-opera-liturgical drama:
The Mummery Book: a Parable of The Divine True Love


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