England has been the birthplace of most of the great English-language theater written throughout history. The emergence of some legendary American playwrights in the 20th century certainly challenged the dominance of England, but the English have had centuries more to build up a catalog of classic theater. Most of the plays in England that are truly famous have something in common: Typically, they come from a playwright with several famous plays.
It is easy to declare William Shakespeare the most famous British playwright, as he is easily the most famous playwright who has ever lived. Shakespeare has a large catalog of tragedy, comedy and history plays, and each category is home to some of the most famous plays ever written. "Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Romeo and Juliet," "Othello" and "Julius Caesar" are all tragedies and performed in theaters around the world every year. Famous comedies include "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Much Ado About Nothing." In the history category, "Richard III" and "Henry V" are very well known.
Wilde and Shaw
Several hundred years after Shakespeare, English theater began to see the works of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Wilde's plays are still popular to this day, and "The Importance of Being Earnest" is both performed and studied extremely frequently. "A Woman of No Importance" and "An Ideal Husband" are among his other famous works. Shaw and Wilde were born within a few years of each other, but Shaw was a much more prolific writer. His most famous plays include "Pygmalion" and "Candida." Shaw's canon is extensive enough, and his plays loved enough, that an entire theater company is devoted to performing his work in Niagara-on-the-Lake in southern Ontario.
The plays of Harold Pinter certainly have an international presence. His writing was so vastly recognized for its importance that he was awarded the Nobel prize in literature in 2005. Pinter is especially known for his style of writing, and things like the "Pinter Pause" have become commonly used theatrical terms. Many of his plays are extremely well known and include "Betrayal," "The Dumb Waiter" and his first play, "The Room." Pinter's name is often linked to movements such as the kitchen-sink drama and the Angry Young Men group of British writers, whose works rejected bourgeois society and focused instead on the plights of the lower middle class. Pinter emerged as part of these movements, but in reality served as more of a bridge between them and other styles such as absurdism, helping lead the way into the modern theatrical age.
Many contemporary English playwrights are producing work recognized for excellence. Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" was a hit in London and New York. Carol Churchill's "Top Girls" is a masterwork of feminism discussion. Peter Schaffer's plays "Equus" and "Amadeus" were both written in the 1970s and spawned years of international productions. "Equus" starred Daniel Radcliffe (of "Harry Potter" fame) during a successful 2007 revival in London's West End, which moved to Broadway the following year.
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