The Best Plays For New Theatergoers

The Essential Plays That Everyone Must See

If you haven't seen a live play since high school theater, you may be wondering where to begin. Which plays are essential to a well-rounded theater experience? Many of the plays that have captivated reviewers and audiences for years (or centuries) and are continually produced on large and small stages today. Explore an introduction to theater that covers everything from an accessible Shakespeare show and some laugh-out-loud stage antics to thought-provoking classics like "Death of a Salesman." These ten plays are essential for the newcomer to check out as a perfect basic primer to the great variety of plays available.

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"A Midsummer Night's Dream" by William Shakespeare

The fairies Oberon, Titania, and Puck onstage with Bottom, who has donkey ears

Rune Hellestad - Corbis / Getty Images

No such list would be complete without at least one Shakespearean play. Sure, "Hamlet" is more profound and "Macbeth" is more intense, but "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the perfect introduction for those new to Will's world.

One might think that Shakespeare's words are too challenging for a theatrical newcomer. Even if you don't understand the Elizabethan dialogue, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is still a wondrous sight to behold. This fantasy-themed play of fairies and mixed-up lovers conveys a fun and especially easy-to-understand storyline. The sets and costumes tend to be the most imaginative of the Bard's productions.

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"Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller

Surrounded by his family, Willy Loman points out into the audience in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2015 production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"

Robbie Jack/Getty Images

Arthur Miller's play is a vital addition to American theater. It is worthy of viewing if only to witness an actor taking on one of the most challenging and rewarding characters in the history of the stage: Willy Loman. As the play's doomed protagonist, Loman is pathetic yet captivating.

For some, this play is a bit overrated and heavy-handed. Some may even feel that the messages delivered in the play's final act are a bit too blatant. Still, as an audience, we cannot look away from this struggling, desperate soul. And we cannot help but wonder how similar he is to ourselves.

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"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde

Characters are scandalized by a kiss in Oscar Wilde's "The Importance Of Being Earnest," directed by Lucy Bailey at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London

Robbie Jack / Getty Images

A striking contrast to the heaviness of modern drama, this witty play by Oscar Wilde has been delighting audiences for over a century. Playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw felt that Wilde's work exhibited literary genius but lacked social value. Yet, if one values satire, "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a delectable farce that pokes fun at Victorian England's upper-class society.

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"Antigone" by Sophocles

A stylized Macunaim production of "Antigone" by Sophocles features tuxedos and a masked Greek chorus

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You should definitely see at least one Greek tragedy before you die. It makes your life seem a lot more cheerful.

Sophocles' most popular and shocking play is "Oedipus Rex." You know, the one where King Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. It's hard not to feel that old Oeddy got a raw deal and that the Gods punished him for an unintentional mistake.

"Antigone," on the other hand, is more about our own choices and their consequences, and not so much about the wrath of mythological powers. Also, unlike many Greek plays, the central figure is a powerful, defiant female.

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"A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry

The marquee outside the Broadway premiere of "A Raisin in the Sun" at the Barrymore Theatre features Denzel Washington as its headliner

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Lorraine Hansberry's life was regrettably brief as she passed in her mid-30s. But during her career as a playwright, she crafted an American classic: "A Raisin in the Sun."

This powerful family drama is filled with richly developed characters that make you laugh one moment, then gasp or cringe the next. When the right cast is assembled (as it was for the original 1959 Broadway cast), the audience is in for an engrossing night of brilliant acting and raw, eloquent dialogue.

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"A Doll's House" by Henrik Ibsen

Nora discusses her feelings with Susannah onstage in Ibsen's "A Doll's House," directed by Carrie Cracknell at London's Young Vic


Robbie Jack / Getty Images

"A Doll's House" remains the most frequently studied Henrik Ibsen play, and with good reason. Although the play is well over a century old, the characters are still fascinating, the plot is still briskly paced, and the themes are still ripe for analysis.

High school and college students are likely to read the play at least once in their academic careers. Fellow playwright Shaw felt that Ibsen was the true genius of the theater (as opposed to that Shakespeare guy!). It's a great read, of course, but nothing compares to seeing Ibsen's play live, especially if the director has cast an incredible actress in the role of Nora Helmer.

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"Our Town" by Thorton Wilder

The cross looms large across the stage in a 2011 community theater production of "Our Town" in Paris, TX

Robbie Gunn / Amy Claxton / Flickr / CC BY 2.0


Thorton Wilder's examination of life and death in the fictional village of Grover's Corner gets down to the bare bones of theater. There are no sets and no backdrops, only a few props, and when it comes right down to it, there is very little plot development.

The Stage Manager serves as the narrator; he controls the progression of scenes. Yet, with all its simplicity and small-town charm, the final act is one of the more hauntingly philosophical moments found in American theater.

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"Noises Off" by Michael Frayn

Characters surround a red couch in Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," directed by Lindsay Posner at London's Novello Theatre in London

Robbie Jack / Getty Images

This comedy about second-rate actors in a dysfunctional stage show is wonderfully silly. You may laugh as hard and as long as ever in your entire life while seeing "Noises Off" for the first time. Not only does it induce bursts of hilarity, the play also provides hysterical insights to the behind-the-scenes world of wannabe thespians, demented directors and stressed-out stagehands.

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"Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett

Estragon and Vladimir stare around existentially in Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" directed by Andrew Upton at the Barbican in Sydney

Robbie Jack / Getty Images

Some plays are meant to be confounding. This tale of seemingly pointless waiting is something every theater-goer should experience at least once. Highly praised by critics and scholars, Samuel Beckett's absurdist tragicomedy will most likely leave you scratching your head in bewilderment. But that's exactly the point!

There is virtually no storyline (with the exception of two men waiting for someone who never arrives). The dialogue is vague. The characters are underdeveloped. However, a talented director can take this sparse show and fill the stage with silliness and symbolism, mayhem and meaning. Quite often, the excitement isn't so much found in the script; it is reflecting the way the cast and crew interpret Beckett's words

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"The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson

Anne Sullivan works with Helen Keller in a scene from the play "The Miracle Worker"

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Other playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neil may have created more intellectually stimulating material than William Gibson's biographic play of Hellen Keller and her instructor Anne Sullivan. However, few plays contain such raw, heartfelt intensity. 

With the right cast, the two main roles generate inspiring performances: one little girl struggles to stay in silent darkness, while one loving teacher shows her the meaning of language and love. As a testament to the play's truthful power, "The Miracle Worker" is performed every summer at Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller.

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Bradford, Wade. "The Best Plays For New Theatergoers." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, February 16). The Best Plays For New Theatergoers. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "The Best Plays For New Theatergoers." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 31, 2023).