Top 10 British playwrights of all time
What makes someone an excellent playwright? What is the essential ingredient between a mediocre or average playwright and an unbelievably talented one? The following list of British playwrights oozes true dramatic genius. Each playwright owes his or her success to one essential quality... uniqueness.
Even though the following British playwrights wrote in different time periods, in different genres, for different audiences and to generate different responses to their work, uniqueness is the single factor that groups them all together under the title of top British playwrights. A playwright’s work must be recognisable in an instant and this is what has earned the following British dramatists their place in the UK’s top 10.
10. Noël Coward
Noël Coward was a very popular British playwright and widely known for his incredibly acute wit and flamboyant nature. Not only a playwright of classic drama, Coward also enjoyed producing operettas and light musicals too, Bitter Sweet being one of the most loved and repeatedly performed. Coward enjoyed being onstage just as much as he enjoyed writing for it. In the very early days, at the fresh, young age of 20, he starred in one of his own plays, a bright and delicate comedy entitled, I'll Leave It to You. After a quick run in Manchester, the play opened again in London at the New Theatre (which was renamed The Noël Coward Theatre in 2006).
- What makes someone an excellent playwright?
- A playwright’s work must be recognisable in an instant and this is what has earned the following British dramatists their place in the UK’s top 10.
9. Harold Pinter
Harold Pinter was not just a playwright. Pinter was an avid, highly active actor and director for radio, stage, television and film productions and the projects that he worked on were a combination of his own and others' works. Born and raised in Hackney, East London, he was famous for writing a number of comedies, beautifully referred to as “Comedies of Menace,” including The Hothouse (1958/1980), The Dumb Waiter (1959), The Caretaker (1959), The Room (1957) and The Birthday Party (1957). He was a prominent figure in political activism and well known for his blunt political statements.
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8. Sarah Kane
In 1999, British playwright, Sarah Kane, died in London at the age of 28 after taking an overdose of prescription drugs and then hanging herself by her shoelaces in a bathroom at London's King's College Hospital. Dark? Yes it is and a perfect illustration of her ability to place absolute beauty against abject cruelty or extreme violence in her work as a playwright. Blasted, Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis are three of her most celebrated plays and almost all of her work was influenced by her passion for expressionist theatre and Jacobean tragedy. She was also part of the In-Yer-Face style of theatre which broke away from the conventions of what had been considered “naturalist theatre” during the movements which preceded her work.
- Harold Pinter was not just a playwright.
- Blasted, Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis are three of her most celebrated plays and almost all of her work was influenced by her passion for expressionist theatre and Jacobean tragedy.
7. Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh is the master of improvisation. For over 40 years, this British playwright has been creating plays via a particularly unique form of improvisation and development. Instead of writing a play and then finding actors to perform that play, Mike Leigh is a British playwright who chooses to work with a group of selected actors to help him create from the very beginning. The entire group goes through a process of improvisation whereby the actors are given more and more information about the story and their characters as time goes on in order to nurture as much raw talent and fresh ideas as possible. His most famous works include, The Box Play (1965), Individual Fruit Pies (1968), Abigail's Party (1977), Greek Tragedy (1989).
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6. Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn has won the Olivier, the Tony and the Moliere Awards for his contribution to the British theatre scene over the past 35 years more or less. He has written 76 plays and more than half of these have been played on London’s West End, New York’s Broadway and on many theatre circuits around the world. Some of his most successful and well-known theatrical works include, Standing Room Only, Absent Friends, Confusions, Bedroom Farce, Suburban Strains, Season’s Greetings, Invisible Friends, Things We Do For Love, The Boy Who Fell Into A Book, Virtual Reality and The Life of Riley.
- Mike Leigh is the master of improvisation.
- The entire group goes through a process of improvisation whereby the actors are given more and more information about the story and their characters as time goes on in order to nurture as much raw talent and fresh ideas as possible.
5. Caryl Churchill
Caryl Churchill is one of the few really successful female, British playwrights. She was born in London, but raised in both The Lake District and Montreal, Canada. Her collection of plays focuses primarily on feminist themes and the abuse of power. Top Girls is a particularly interesting play written by Churchill which, via a wide range of absurd and surrealist dramatic techniques, unites the lives of a number of extremely powerful women throughout history (including Joan of Arc) with the lives of regular women who work in a modern day office and encounter modern day issues.
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4. Christopher Marlowe
An important contemporary of William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe might have grown to be even greater than what he was had he not been killed in a pub brawl at the early age of 21, or so they say. Some theatrical historians suspect that Marlowe worked as a government spy at one point and that his work in this area was in some way the cause of his death. Doctor Faustus, a play which tells the tale of a man who wants to have so much power, knowledge and wealth that he sells his soul to the devil, foolishly thinking that at the end of his 24 years of splendour, the time to hand over his soul will not come. Marlowe wrote the play during an era of religious change and doubt in England and therefore the work is very much a product of its time.
- Caryl Churchill is one of the few really successful female, British playwrights.
- Some theatrical historians suspect that Marlowe worked as a government spy at one point and that his work in this area was in some way the cause of his death.
3. Tom Stoppard
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers and The Real Inspector Hound, are three of the most famous and successful plays written by British playwright, Tom Stoppard. Stoppard is also the co-writer of the screenplay for the hugely popular film, Shakespeare in Love, and was knighted for his work in the theatre in 1997. His plays are notoriously complex, highly comedic and require a relatively solid knowledge of other theatrical works in order to fully access their inner meanings and appreciate their intelligent construction. Indeed, Stoppard's plays are not always understood or appreciated. On many occasions his work has been dismissed as simple showmanship.
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Most children living in Britain, by the time they reach the age of 16, will have read at least one of J. B. Priestley’s plays. An Inspector Calls is one of Priestley’s most acclaimed works and it is the one which most UK schools tend to use as part of their English Literature program. Much more than a playwright, Priestley’s career was broad and long. Before his death in 1984, he enjoyed great success as a novelist, playwright, essayist, broadcaster, scriptwriter and social commentator. He worked for the major part of the 20th Century and lived through a number of huge and important changes during that time, which was reflected in the work he produced.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers and The Real Inspector Hound, are three of the most famous and successful plays written by British playwright, Tom Stoppard.
- An Inspector Calls is one of Priestley’s most acclaimed works and it is the one which most UK schools tend to use as part of their English Literature program.
1. William Shakespeare
Perhaps the single most obvious choice for his unrivalled fame in theatrical literature worldwide, William Shakespeare has most definitely earned his right to be featured in the top 10 list of British playwrights. A great deal of mystery and intrigue surrounds the artistic success of Britain’s famous bard, which makes his life and work all the more fascinating. Did he really create the poetic structure known as blank verse, or was this really the creation of his contemporary, Christopher Marlowe? How much of what Shakespeare wrote was lost and then rehashed by a variety of unknown scribes? There are many questions about William Shakespeare left hanging in the clouds and this is possibly why he is so popular with theatre lovers and historic investigators around the world.
Tracey Chandler specializes in travel articles and features for female-interest publications online. She reviews Latin American cinema, creates press releases for an online marketing company and manages her own blog "The Jolly English Pirate." She holds a B.A. in performing arts at Middlesex University.