The Top 10 Tragic Plays (Part 1)

Sad Plays and Tragic Tear-Jerkers

Have you ever noticed that many plays are such downers? Even some plays that are supposed to be comedies, such as Anton Chekov's masterpieces, are dour, cynical, and downright depressing. Of course, theater—like life—isn't all about comedy and happy endings. To be truly reflective of human nature, playwrights often delve into the tears-soaked corners of their souls, producing literary works that are timeless tragedies that evoke both terror and pity—just how Aristotle likes it!

Here is part one of our countdown of theater's most hauntingly sad plays:

#10: ''night, Mother'

There are many plays that explore the topic of suicide, but few are as direct as Marsha Norman's play, "'night, Mother." During the course of a single evening, an adult daughter has a sincere conversation with her mother, clearly explaining how she plans to take her own life before dawn.

The daughter's miserable life has been plagued with tragedy and mental illness. However, now that she has made her decision, she has gained clarity. No matter how her mother argues and begs, the daughter will not change her mind.

New York theater critic John Simon praises the playwright, stating that Marsha Norman "conveys the simultaneous monstrousness and ordinariness of this event: that Jessie both solicitously provides for her mother's future and abandons her, coolly matter-of-fact about what strikes most of us as the ultimate irrational act."

As with many sad, tragic, and controversial plays, "'night, Mother" ends with much to contemplate and discuss.

#9: 'Romeo and Juliet'

Millions of people think of Shakespeare's classic "Romeo and Juliet" as the ultimate love story. Romantics view the two star-crossed lovers as the quintessential young couple, forgoing the wishes of their parents, throwing caution to the proverbial wind, and settling for nothing less than true love, even if it comes at the cost of death. However, there's a more cynical way of looking at this story: Two hormone-driven teenagers kill themselves because of the stubborn hatred of ignorant adults.

The tragic play may be overrated and overdone, but consider the ending of the play: Juliet lies asleep but Romeo believes that she is dead, so he prepares to drink poison in order to join her. The situation remains one of the most devastating examples of dramatic irony in the history of the stage.

#8: 'Oedipus the King'

Also known as "Oedipus Rex," this tragedy is the most famous work of Sophocles, a Greek playwright who lived over 2,000 years ago. Spoiler alert: In case you have never heard the plot of this famous myth, you may want to skip to the next play on this list.

Oedipus discovers that years ago, he murdered his biological father and unknowingly married his biological mother. The circumstances are grotesque, but the real tragedy stems from the bloody reactions of the characters as each participant learns the unbearable truth. The citizens are filled with shock and pity. Jocasta—the mother-wife—hangs herself. And Oedipus uses the pins from her dress to gauge out his eyes.

Creon, Jocasta's brother, takes over the throne, and Oedipus goes on to wander around Greece as a wretched example of man's folly. Read the complete plot summary of "Oedipus the King."

#7: 'Death of a Salesman'

Playwright Arthur Miller doesn't just kill off his protagonist, Willy Loman, by the end of this sad play. He also does his best to euthanize the American Dream. The aging salesman once believed that charisma, obedience, and persistence would lead to prosperity. Now that his sanity is wearing thin and his sons have failed to live up to expectations, Loman determines that he is worth more dead than alive.

In my review of the play, I explain that the sad play clearly accomplishes its goal: to make us understand the painfulness of mediocrity. And we learn a valuable, common-sense lesson: Things don't always go the way we want them to go.

#6: 'Wit'

There is a lot of humorous, heartwarming dialogue to be found in Margaret Edson's "Wit." Yet, despite the play's many life-affirming moments, "Wit" is filled with clinical studies, chemotherapy, and long stretches of painful, introspective loneliness.

This tragic play is the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a hard-as-nails English professor. Her callousness is most evident during the play's flashbacks—while she narrates directly to the audience, Dr. Bearing recalls several encounters with her former students. As the pupils struggle with the material, often embarrassed by their intellectual inadequacy, Dr. Bearing responds by intimidating and insulting them. As Dr. Bearing revisits her past, she realizes she should have offered more "human kindness" to her students. Kindness is something Dr. Bearing will come to desperately crave as the play continues.

If you are already familiar with "Wit," you know you will never look at John Donne's poetry the same way. The main character uses his cryptic sonnets to keep her intellect sharp, but by the end of the play, she learns that academic excellence is no match for human compassion.

Continue reading our list of the top 10 sad plays.

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Bradford, Wade. "The Top 10 Tragic Plays (Part 1)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, February 16). The Top 10 Tragic Plays (Part 1). Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "The Top 10 Tragic Plays (Part 1)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).