Playwriting is the basis of all drama and that remains true today, in the 21st century, when it seems far more plausible that all the world is a screen rather than a stage. The ability to write dialogue and story for characters on a stage is one that all writers and specifically all screenwriters should attempt to master. So, to help you get some inspiration and education, here are five of the best 21st-century plays to read if you’re a screenwriter.
Ranging from global epics to intimate family dramas, and from the streets of Beijing to the fields of England, each one is a modern classic. Several of them have subsequently been adapted for the screen (either TV or film); collectively they provide a vital reminder of the primary importance of live dramatic storytelling.
Written by Jez Butterworth
Jerusalem has been described by one prominent British drama critic as “the greatest British play of the 21st century” and, despite being written just over a decade ago, it is already a set text on the English Language A-level course in Britain. However, such accolades can easily make Jerusalem appear dull or worthy when it is anything but. In fact, it is a frequently hilarious and often deliberately provocative examination of what it means to be a rebel in our modern, corporate-dominated age.
The plot of Jerusalem is so simple that sometimes there appears to be no plot at all. Jerusalem’s hero/anti-hero is Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a caravan-dwelling, tall-tale-telling, 21st-century avatar of “ye olde Englande”, so much of which appears to have vanished completely, if indeed it ever existed at all. Both a modern-day Falstaff and a low-rent/low-class Withnail, with all the swagger and bluster that those descriptions imply, Johnny survives by selling drugs, which he considers a wholly honorable occupation as it allows people (including children) to escape from all the entrapments of so-called civilization. However, time appears to be finally running out for him, as he faces eviction from the land he regards as his own. Nevertheless, one thing is absolutely certain: like Falstaff and Withnail before him, Johnny will go down fighting, or at the very least ranting and railing.
This is definitely one of the best stage plays to read if you want to learn how to write something funny and provocative.
Le Père (The Father) (2012)
Written by Florian Zeller
The “dementia drama” is virtually an invention of 21st-century theatre (and film and television), as the problems of neurological degeneration in old age become ever more common with aging populations, especially in the Western world. However, the finest of a very large crop is almost certainly Le Père (The Father), by the French playwright, novelist, and filmmaker, Florian Zeller.
The reason that Le Père (The Father) stands out in such a crowded field is that the play does not so much depict dementia as embody it, because of its endlessly dynamic and uncertain structure. As a middle-aged woman struggles to cope with the increasingly rapid and profound mental disintegration of her father, the play itself almost seems to fall apart, just like its protagonists, giving anyone who does not have direct experience of dementia a real sense of how hellish it is. Le Père (The Father) has been filmed both in French and in English, with Anthony Hopkins winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the English-language version, but, like so many great films and TV series, it all began on stage.
This House (2012)
Written by James Graham
James Graham may just be Britain’s, if not the world’s, greatest living dramatist, having conquered both television and theatre, with only film remaining for him to excel in (and the invitations from Hollywood and other major film industries are surely already on the way). This year, his TV crime drama Sherwood began as an investigation of a horrific crossbow killing in a former Nottinghamshire mining village but gradually became a historical re-examination of the 1984 miners’ strike in Britain, which ended the power of both coal and the men who mined it. It was described by The Guardian’s TV critic, Lucy Mangan, as “the cleverest, most compelling show I’ve seen in years.”
However, even that was nothing compared to the accolades bestowed on This House, Graham’s 2012 play about the fractured British Parliament of the second half of the 1970s, in which the absence of a majority-ruling party necessitated apparently endless official and unofficial coalitions (and all the associated backroom power-broking) between politicians of different parties. When the play premiered in 2012, Britain was being ruled by an actual coalition between the right-wing Conservatives and the much smaller and supposedly more left-leaning Liberal Democrats, so it had acute contemporary resonance. But its portrayal of the Machiavellian machinations of politicians, who invariably prize power above principle (if only because power allows them to enact their principles), is timeless.
This House is one of the best plays to read if you want to write a political drama that tackles difficult power dynamics.
Written by Lucy Kirkwood
Chimerica is about the attempt by a news photographer and a Chinese dissident to find arguably the most globally famous but individually unknown (and possibly unknowable) man of the late 20th century – “Tank Man”. He, of course, was the lone hero who personally faced down and at least temporarily halted the advance of some of the Chinese tanks sent in to destroy the pro-democracy protests by students and other activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Chimerica was an enormous success on stage, beginning with its premiere at The Almeida Theatre in London, and in 2019 became a four-part TV drama for Britain’s Channel 4. The term “Chimerica” was coined by a historian, Niall Ferguson, and an economist, Moritz Schularick, to refer to the joint dominance of what they regarded as the two superpowers of the 21st century, China and America. Kirkwood seized upon it because of its similarity to the word “chimera”, meaning something that is hoped for but almost impossible to achieve, or even illusory. Ironically, given the reassertion of Russia as a global power player with its invasion of Ukraine, the term “Chimerica” may itself be a “chimera”. However, the play demonstrates that just as important as the shifting nature of geopolitics is the shifting nature of individual identity, as the pursuit of “Tank Man” becomes ever more difficult, if not impossible.
If you’d like to write something based on real events, this is one of the best plays to read.
Bad Jews (2013)
Written by Joshua Harmon
Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews is a seemingly small-scale family drama that actually takes in much of 20th-century history and its legacy in the 21st century. Two American cousins fight – metaphorically and literally – for possession of a family heirloom, which is financially worthless (or at least not worth fighting over to the extent that the cousins do) but sentimentally priceless. In the process, they try to establish which of them is more deserving of it – in essence, which of them is the Good Jew and which the Bad.
The heirloom is so important because one of the cousins’ ancestors had saved it from the Nazis during the Holocaust, making it one of the few objects from an entire continent to have survived such plunder. Jonathan Freedland’s recent book, The Escape Artist, a biography of Rudolf Vrba, who was one of the few Jews ever to escape from Auschwitz, reminds us that the Nazis effectively industrialized the theft of Jewish wealth just as much as they industrialized the slaughter of Jewish people. However, all of that history is the backdrop to what is often magnificently petty squabbling and name-calling. That includes one of the most memorable rejoinders of 21st-century theatre when one cousin reprimands the other for trying to outdo him when it comes to guilt-tripping by proclaiming: “Don’t Holocaust me!”
Now that you know the best stage plays to read, maybe it’s time to write your own! Find out what professional script readers consider when reading cinematic stage plays.
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Author: Martin Keady