Who Is the Greatest Living Playwright?

We ask theater writers to name their pick

By Alexis Soloski

published: November 02, 2011

“Be not afraid of greatness,” Shakespeare encouraged us. Easy for him to say! But when it comes to the theater, how do we determine greatness today? And which writers deserve that accolade? In search of answers, we polled a slew of the Voice’s favorite dramatists and asked them to name their greatest living contemporary. They were invited to choose American or foreign, renowned or obscure. Here are their responses

John Guare
No question: Edward Albee.

Adam Bock
Caryl Churchill—for fierceness, bounding imagination, color, and a vision of the large world!

Julia Cho
I would say Caryl Churchill. Her work is challenging, rigorous, theatrical and utterly original. There's no one else remotely like her and because of that, she's invaluable.

Richard Foreman
I don't mean to be locked into the role of esoteric specialist, but…Agustina Bessa-Luis, Portuguese novelist, screenwriter, and dramatist. I had a translation done for me several years ago of her play on Kierkegaard. Was going to do it with Willem Dafoe but it was too "cerebral" for any U.S. theater. Her style is both aphoristic and dense. Also: the great Austrian Peter Handke. As Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek said, "Handke's the one who deserved it." His later plays drenched one in language that coils and squeezes the heart.

Quiara Alegria Hudes
Wole Soyinka. His plays have their own cosmology—an entire universe within one piece of writing. And they're urgent and primal and sophisticated while turning traditional notions of sophistication on their head. Death and the King's Horseman is one of those plays I aspire to—I'll always be chasing after it, grappling with it, trying to reach half as high.

David Henry Hwang
This is a very difficult one, but I guess I'll vote for Tom Stoppard. I think he has maintained a high level of innovation and craft, and continues to challenge himself to this day. Over the course of his career, he has written several works that stand a good chance of passing the test of time.

Heidi Schreck
Isn't Maria Irene Fornes up there at the top of the list?! To her goes my vote.

Erin Courtney
Mac Wellman is my favorite living playwright, because each play he writes is a fantastic surprise that makes me laugh and sometimes cry, even when I have no idea why I am laughing or crying. Wellman continually makes the impossible seem quite doable: He creates theater that cannot be fully understood but can be fully felt.

Sheila Callaghan
Caryl Churchill: She is innovative, relevant, poetic, theatrical, and massively committed to the form. I feel most connected to theater as a calling when I see her work done well, in accordance with its own irreverent and essential nature.

Eduardo Machado
Edward Albee. Since the first time, at 17, when I read The Zoo Story until today at 58, he has kept me on my toes, daring me to think outside the box or prisons we keep ourselves. In Zoo Story he made me see that God "was a woman who cried behind her locked doors." Later on he proved to me that love can happen between any living things, including a man and a goat.

Lisa D’Amour
After spending a few minutes contemplating the genius of Mac Wellman, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and Caryl Churchill, I've decided to go out on a limb and say Erik Ehn. In pretty much every waking moment, Erik is working to evaluate and redefine what it means to be a playwright.

Rinne Groff
Tony Kushner: For taking on the most interesting, pertinent topics. For writing with the most humor and gravitas, and combining the two with the most grace. And also as a supporter of other playwrights and a believer in the theater.

Sibyl Kempson
Mac Wellman: He reminds us that our minds don't have to work in the same linear, rationalistic, obvious way all the time. He's not afraid to push a play off a cliff, and he instigates us to do the same. He is a creator of problems that challenge the notions of cause and effect that we cling to, which are ultimately irrelevant and impotent in the face of the truth. I think he is doing the most for humanity.

Mac Wellman
I'd have to say Len Jenkin (with Peter Handke a close second). Jenkin's plays are deeper, darker, and simply better written than almost anyone else's. He is never the pompous moralist, and he never ever takes what happens at face value. Handke is remarkable as the most inventive of theater formalists, and a political thinker of incredible depth and persistence.

Paula Vogel
Caryl Churchill: A brilliant, brave, boundary breaking writer and theatrical explorer.

Brooke Berman
Tony Kushner: He's working on a grand scale, tackling large "issues" without writing didactic "issue plays." Both content and structure are equally exciting. His language is alight. He's writing extraordinary, deeply funny, human drama that illuminates how we live today, what our choices have been, what they could be if we gave it some thought. He has great compassion for the characters he writes. Even the ones he disagrees with!

Jordan Harrison
Stephen Sondheim. For his formal innovation, rigor, ranginess, and overall artistic bravery.

Austin Pendleton
I guess I'd say Tony Kushner. Because his reach is vast, his passionate curiosity about the world we live in now (and how earlier times have affected the world we live in now) is positively contagious in his plays, his language does about anything I can imagine theatrical language doing, his vision is capable of the tragic, and he is a whole lot of fun.

Steve Cosson
I think “greatest” is only appropriate for such things that have decisive winners: greatest heavyweight champion, etc. The living writer I appreciate the most is Caryl Churchill for her mastery of language, her ever-curious imagination, and her passion for real-world politics.

David Greenspan
Because of my admiration for the accomplishments of my playwriting colleagues and the work I have thus far received from them, I would have to say that the playwright who affords me my next acting opportunity is without question the world's greatest living playwright. It must be understood, however, that that designation will be transferred successively to the playwrights who offer me subsequent engagements.