The origins of theater as we know it today date back all the way to ancient Greece, where the art form flourished from around 700 BCE onward. The word “theater” itself comes from the Greek theatron, meaning “a place of seeing.” The ancients, too, gave us the common dramatic genres of comedy and tragedy, as well as many technical theatrical terms, stock characters, and plot devices.
Theater naturally developed over the centuries and, in the Western world at least, reached a peak with one man: William Shakespeare. No playwright has had a greater influence than the Elizabethan bard, whose 39 plays and 154 sonnets were — and remain — so popular that they literally helped shape the English language.
From Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” and beyond, here are some iconic lines from the famous works of playwrights past and present.
To be, or not to be: that is the question.
— William Shakespeare
If any line from any play is as famous as this one from Hamlet, then it too would come from William Shakespeare, the world’s preeminent playwright and author of such timeless classics as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth.
Tomorrow when I wake or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot?
— Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett’s first and most famous play, Waiting for Godot, explores both the meaning and meaninglessness of life. With all its existential absurdities, the play became a landmark in modern literature.
You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between.
— Arthur Miller
In Act III of Arthur Miller’s iconic play The Crucible, Judge Danforth explains the black-and-white thinking of the authorities and the narrow-minded mentality that made the Salem witch trials such a bloody and unjust affair.
I’m in mourning for my life.
— Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull was a famous failure on its opening night, with an audience so hostile that one of the main actresses lost her voice through sheer fear. But the first of Chekhov’s four major plays went on to become a defining moment in both Russian and, later, global theater.
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
— Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was one of the most popular playwrights in London in the early 1890s, known for his rapier wit and flamboyant dress. His most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is a farcical comedy that pulls no punches when it comes to criticizing social conventions.
I don't want realism. I want magic!
— Tennessee Williams
’Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most critically acclaimed plays of the 20th century (and later an award-winning movie starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando). In it, the fading former Southern belle Blanche DuBois frequently displays her preference for fantasy and lies over the harsher truths of life.
I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me I'm not fit to sell anything else. I wish you'd left me where you found me.
— George Bernard Shaw
Pygmalion is George Bernard Shaw's most popular play. It tells the story of the Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, who is taught how to become part of London’s high society. A critical success following its premiere in 1913, it became even more popular after it was adapted into a stage musical (and later film, starring Audrey Hepburn) called My Fair Lady.
I'll not submit any more — I'll not submit — I'll not submit.
— Sophie Treadwell
Playwright and journalist Sophie Treadwell took on institutionalized misogyny in Machinal, which opened on Broadway in 1928. Combining feminism and expressionism, the play follows a young woman’s refusal to submit to a mechanized, dehumanized society. Machinal has featured in numerous lists of the best plays of the last 100 years.
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?
— Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1938 metadrama Our Town. The meta elements include the play being set in the actual theater where it is being performed; the use of very few props; and the main character being the stage manager of the theater, who addresses the audience directly.
There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.
— Lorraine Hansberry
In recent years, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway in 1959 (the first by a Black female playwright), has been listed among the best plays ever written. Sadly, Hansberry died at the age of 34, cutting short a literary career of enormous potential. The line above is spoken by the character of "Mama," and would initially have been delivered to an almost entirely white audience.
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