IF YOU’RE PLANNING to continue as a student of theatre in college — whether as a major or in elective classes — there is some homework you could be doing now. The best way to prep for your next life adventure is to get a solid foundation in the main topic: dramatic literature. And the best way to do that is to see and read key plays from theatre history before you arrive on campus.

Why? Because familiarity with plays will activate your creativity, boost your confidence, and impress your professors. That’s what this list is for — to help you select which plays to read first from the thousands (millions?) that have been written. Individually, each work on the list demonstrates the power of dramatic storytelling through a playwright’s unique voice and theatrical sensibility. Collectively, they outline a history of Western drama characterized by enduring classics and lively experimentation.

Seeing a production on stage is ideal, but even then you can stretch your mind by reading the script after you’ve seen it performed — just to see the choices made in the production that you might not have imagined. Video recordings are an option as well, though plays on film and TV are usually adapted significantly due to the different demands of live and recorded performances.

Whatever method you choose — read alone or aloud in groups, attend a live performance, view a video — the main point is this: The future of theatre belongs to those who pursue it. As Thornton Wilder explained, if you don’t read, watch, and study in your teens and 20s, you’ll have nothing to say in your 30s, and those should be the prime years of your creative life in whatever career you choose.

Here’s our list. (Plus, make sure to check out 20 more plays you should read before college.)

NOTE: Some of these plays contain adult language and other mature content themes.


Oedipus Rex by Sophocles 
This play has provided a model for Western drama for more than 2,000 years via Aristotle’s Poetics, as well as numerous productions. 

Antigone by Sophocles 
Antigone introduces the theatre of protest and has been produced at pivotal moments in history by theatre companies around the world to make political statements about individual struggles against unjust governance.


Tartuffe by Molière
Religious hypocrites, hypochondriacs, misers, insecure lovers, and more find themselves in the bullseye of Molière’s satiric wit. In Tartuffe, a scoundrel disguised as a religious purist aims to dupe his benefactor, marry the man’s daughter, and take all his worldly possessions … until the King of France steps in.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
This famous exploration of introspection, identity, and action features a handful of central roles that have attracted the best actors of their day and often defined their careers.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Star-crossed lovers, street fights, elopement, and schemes of deception drive this tale of young love destroyed by feuding factions to its sad and bitter end. (Most of these roles, by the way, are perfect for teenage actors.)

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Part history, part tragedy — this tale of conspiracy and assassination pits political power against patriotism, and honor against friendship.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
Six pairs of lovers, two worlds, and the fairy kingdom collide in a romantic romp that demonstrates love is guided by forces we know not of.

These plays are great to know if you plan to study theatre in college.
These plays are great to know if you plan to study theatre in college. Photo by Susan Doremus.


A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
Ibsen’s plays ushered in a new era of socially and politically minded drama, and because of his emphasis on character, these plays remain relevant today. In this work, Nora, her family, and the final door slam offered a theatrical camaraderie for the burgeoning feminist movement, though Ibsen insisted he wrote a humanist play.

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
This play answers the question asked by poet Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Read it to discover the power of hope and belief in the face of adversity as an African-American family confronts their doubts and rises above insidious schemes of racist neighbors.

Fences by August Wilson
Fences is part of Wilson’s 10-play cycle focusing on the African-American experience in the 20th century. The “Pittsburgh Cycle” features one play per decade, and Fences focuses on a dysfunctional family in the 1950s struggling with hope, duty, honor, and betrayal, Wilson’s major themes.


Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Our Town has become one of the most-often produced plays in the world — in high schools and colleges, on Broadway, and on film. With minimal scenery and direct address from the Stage Manager, this play broke all the rules to break everyone’s heart.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Williams played with conventions of realism by having a middle-aged man reflect upon decisive moments in his younger days. The four characters in this lyrical drama have become icons in American culture: Tom, Amanda, Laura, and the Gentleman Caller.

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Miller mixes expressionist techniques — fantasy and memory — with explosive confrontations and the unfulfilled hopes of a family torn apart by their inability to transcend personal disappointments and forgive past indiscretions.

The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco 
This play breaks the dramatic mold completely. With its silly mockery of the middle class, this absurdist classic of the mid-20th century reads like a Monty Python script.

Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill
Churchill uses “epic theatre” techniques of Bertolt Brecht — such as songs sung by characters in modern dress — to dramatize the struggles of 17th century women (and one cat) accused of witchcraft.


Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner
No play made a greater splash in late-20th century American culture than this two-part marathon. Part 1: Millennium Approaches interweaves stories of seven characters, ghosts, fantasy figures, and an angel. Part 2: Perestroika continues the characters’ defiant struggles to find a way forward in the age of AIDS.

How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
This play is a disturbing tale of a woman coming to terms with her childhood and teenage relationship — personal and sexual — with her Uncle Peck. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, the elder Li’l Bit looks back on her driving lessons as a way of dealing with the incestuous acts of her uncle.

Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl
Ruhl updates the classic Greek myth in which Orpheus travels to Hades to bring his deceased lover Eurydice back to the land of the living. On the way back, however, Orpheus turns around to see Eurydice, which seals her fate in the Underworld for the rest of eternity.

Ruined by Lynn Nottage
This play was inspired by stories the playwright collected from women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Set in Mama Nadi’s bar, this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama depicts harrowing struggles to survive in a war-torn nation as divided loyalties threaten the women Mama Nadi has promised to protect.

Spring Awakening by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater
Yes, it’s important to know musicals, too. Based on an 1891 German drama, this one explores the tumult of teenage sexuality. The original play was banned for decades in Germany, but the American rock musical won eight Tony Awards in 2007.

You may want to argue that this list is arbitrary, and of course it is, in the sense that we could have substituted other plays for some of the titles here, and another writer might have prepared an altogether different list. It doesn’t matter. If the object is to give yourself a good grounding in the traditions and styles of Western theatre, this list or a similar one recommended by your theatre teacher will do that.

One hopes you will be reading and seeing plays for the rest of your life. These 20 are a good place to get started.

This story appeared in the January 2014 print issue of DramaticsSubscribe today to our print magazine.

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