Tragedies and Tearjerkers - Top Ten Saddest Plays

(Part Two)

The following list is a continuation of the Top Ten Saddest Plays Ever Written. You can read the entries #10 through #6 by checking out the beginning of the list.

#5 - Medea

Here's how Ancient History expert N. S. Gill describes the basic plot of Euripides' Greek tragedy: "Medea is a witch. Jason knows this, as do Creon and Glauce, but Medea seemed appeased, so when she presents a wedding gift to Glauce of a dress and crown, Glauce accepts them. The theme is familiar from the death of Hercules. When Glauce puts on the robe it burns her flesh. Unlike Hercules, she dies. Creon dies, too, trying to help his daughter. So far the motives and reactions seem understandable, but then Medea does the unspeakable."

In the gruesome tragedy Medea, the title character, murders her own children. However, before she can be punished, Helio's sun chariot swoops down and she flies off into the sky. So in a sense, the playwright creates a double tragedy. The audience witnesses a tragic act, and subsequently witnesses the escape of the perpetrator. The murderer does not get her comeuppance, thereby infuriating the audience all the more.

#4 - The Laramie Project

The most tragic aspect of this play is that it is based upon a true story. The Laramie Project is a documentary-styled play that analyzes the death of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who was brutally murdered because of his sexual identity. The play was created by playwright/director Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project.

The theater group traveled from New York to the town of Laramie, Wyoming - just four weeks after the death of Shepard. Once there, they interviewed dozens of townspeople, collecting a wide array of different perspectives. The dialogue and monologues which comprise The Laramie Project are taken from interviews, news reports, courtroom transcripts, and journal entries. Kaufmann and his team of activists turned their journey into a theatrical experiment that is as innovative as it is heart wrenching. Learn more about this play.

#3 - Long Day's Journey into Night

Unlike the other dramas mentioned on the list, no character dies during the course of the play. Yet, the family in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night is in a state of constant mourning, lamenting lost happiness as they reflect upon how their lives could have been.

We can tell within the first few exchanges of Act One, this family has grown accustomed to harsh criticism as default form of communication. Disappointment runs deep, and although the father spends a great deal of time and energy complaining about his sons' failures, at times the young men are their own harshest critics. Read more about Eugene O'Neill's dramatic masterpiece.

#2 - King Lear

Every line of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare's tale of an abused old king is so depressing and brutal that theater producers in the Victorian Age would allow substantial changes to the play's ending in order to give audiences something slightly more upbeat.

Throughout this classic drama, the audience wants to simultaneously slap and embrace King Lear. You want to smack him because he is too stubborn to acknowledge the ones who truly love him. And you want to hug him because he is so misguided and so easily fooled, he allows the evil characters to take advantage of him then abandon him to the storm. Why does it rank so high on my list of tragedies? Perhaps it's simply because I am a father, and I can't imagine my daughters sending me out into the cold. (Fingers crossed they are kind to me in my old age!)

#1 - Bent

This play by Martin Sherman may not be as widely read as the other tragedies previously mentioned, but because of its intense, realistic depiction of concentration camps, execution, anti-Semitism, and homophobia it deserves the highest place among the saddest plays in dramatic literature.

Martin Sherman's play is set in mid 1930s Germany, and centers around Max, a young gay man who is sent to a concentration camp. He pretends to be Jewish believing that he won't be persecuted as much as the homosexuals in the camp. Max undergoes extreme hardship and witnesses obscene horrors. And yet amid the abject cruelty he is still able to meet someone kind, a fellow prisoner with whom he falls in love. In spite all the barrage of hatred, torture, and indignity, the main characters are still able to mentally transcend their nightmarish surroundings -- at least for as long as they are together.