Theater archives

The History Plays


In 1849, at the Astor Place Theater, riots broke out after an English actor, William Macready, attempted to play the lead in Macbeth. I long to have seen that production. Was Macready so terrible? Was theater ever of such consequence? (I’d prefer to have avoided the riot, though, which left more than 100 dead or wounded.)

Ah, for a theatrical time machine, to catch the important shows one missed! On the occasion of the 52nd Annual Obie Awards, we asked a host of Off-Broadway luminaries to tell us which production from all of theater history they most wish they could have been there to see.

Jeff Jones, curator, the Little Theater

What:The Bacchae, 406 B.C.

Why: I read somewhere that at the premiere, the chorus entered speaking in a meter of 5 over 8, and this was considered so terrifying that pregnant women in the audience gave birth. I would love to verify that. And of course Athens is lovely, despite the smog.

Young Jean Lee, writer-director-performer, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven

What: The Law of Remains, by Reza Abdoh, 1992

Why: Because after [my boyfriend] saw it, he went outside, sat on the curb, and cried his eyes out. I don’t think any show has ever affected me like that.

Elizabeth Marvel, actor, Dark Matters

What: A Moon for the Misbegotten, starring Colleen Dewhurst, 1973

Why: She is my stage heroine, my ultimate icon of stage performers, the quintessential American goddess. . . . To me, she had that great gift of being completely theatrical and totally true at the same time.

Richard Foreman, director, Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead!

What: Impressions of Africa, by Raymond Roussel, 1912

Why: Audiences screamed and hooted in derision, but Marcel Duchamp is on record as saying it “showed him the way” in his own art, and remembering that has given me great courage to continue, down through the years.

The Playboy of the Western World

illustration: Danny Hellman

Alex Timbers, director, Gutenberg! The Musical!

What: Indians, by Arthur Kopit, on Broadway, 1969

Why: The production sounds insane in terms of the enormous scale, the self-eviscerating politics, and the cutting-edge use of meta-theatrics. I view Indians as the proud/sad father to Pippin, Godspell, and everything else that went wrong in the ’70s.

Lynn Nottage, playwright, Intimate Apparel

What: In Dahomey, premiere, 1903

Why: It was the first full-length African- American musical on a major Broadway stage, and it starred the great performers Bert Williams, George Walker, and Aida Overton Walker. I often fantasize about being in the opening-night audience at the New York Theatre. There must have been a genuine mixture of danger and excitement in the air.

Robert Kaplowitz, sound designer, The Thugs

What: The Playboy of the Western World, second night at the Abbey Theatre, 1907

Why: The audience was so passionate, they showed up planning to riot.

Alvin Epstein, actor, King Lear

What: King Lear, starring Edmund Kean, 1820

Why: The acknowledged greatest challenge for the English-speaking actor is Lear. Kean’s was judged “sublime.” A contemporary account of Kean’s Lear says, “His warmest bursts of passion never removed him beyond the weakness of age; his violence was that of the spirit, not of the frame; it had words and looks of fire.”

Lear deBessonet, director, transFigures

What: Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets, opening night, 1935

Why: Not for the aesthetic, but for the audience. I would like to feel that kind of fervor in the air of an American theater, to experience the swell of theater at its most immediate, rebellious, and empowering.

Yehuda Duenyas, director, Purity

What: The Cocoanuts, by the Marx Brothers, on Broadway, 1925

Why: The performing chemistry of the Marx Brothers has always been an inspiration to me. These were seasoned vaudeville performers. I imagine what they were doing felt so alive, so connected ? —and probably fuuuunny.

Lisa D’Amour, playwright, Stanley (2006)

What: The Government Inspector, by Gogol, directed by Meyerhold, 1926

Why: This was when Meyerhold was obsessed with creating an antirealistic “independent reality” for the stage. Intense physicality, aggressive set design. Productions from this time get compared to Brueghel or Dalí paintings, in terms of their fluidity and refusal to stay within the bounds of “real” time and space.

The Bedbug

illustration: Danny Hellman

David Cale, writer-actor, Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky

What: Tongues and Savage/Love, by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard, at the Public Theater, 1980

Why: Joseph Chaikin led me to the path I was supposed to be on, firstly with his Tourists and Refugees No. 2, and then with his book The Presence of the Actor. And Sam Shepard has inspired me from the beginning.

Erin Courtney, playwright, Alice the Magnet

What: Bad Penny, by Mac Wellman, directed by Jim Simpson in Central Park, 1989

Why: Mac is the best at turning the familiar strange. If only I could have seen his incantatory devils shouting from rocks, boats, and bridges.

Michael Friedman, composer, God’s Ear

What: La Finta Matrigna, by the Comédie-Italienne, 1697

Why: After they were banished from the French stage, they began to perform on the fairgrounds of St. Germain. Suppressed dialogue held up on placards, pantomime, songs instead of speeches. Political comedy at its most vital and amazing.

The Tragical History of You-Know-Who

illustration: Danny Hellman

Michael Cumpsty, actor, Richard II

What: Hamlet, the first production, 1600

Why: The most discussed play in history; why not?

Pavol Liska and Kelly Cooper, writers-directors, No Dice

What: The Secret of Rented Island, by Jack Smith, 1976

Why: Jack Smith was an underground film and theater maker who has famously inspired everyone from Foreman to Wilson to Andy Warhol. This was his version of Ibsen’s Ghosts ?—with Jack Smith as Oswald, and the rest of the characters played by various props.

Tanya Barfield, playwright, Blue Door

What: A Raisin in the Sun, Broadway, 1959

Why: The play was ahead of its time, the first play by an African-American woman to run on Broadway. It’s a play about both despair and hope. I think Mrs. Younger’s “When do you think is the time to love somebody the most . . . ” is one of the greatest monologues of American drama ever written.

Kip Fagan, director, Nelson

What: The Bedbug, by Mayakovsky, directed by Meyerhold, with music by Shostakovich, 1929

Why: It was the last great production of the Soviet period—a year later Mayakovsky killed himself, and in short order Shostakovich’s music was officially denounced and Meyerhold was executed by Stalin.

Julia Cho, playwright, Durango

What: Angels in America, Broadway, 1993

Why: I was in college at the time and a friend invited me to come with her to see it. It would have entailed a five-hour bus trip there and back and finding some kind of housing. I turned it down. I didn’t realize then how ephemeral theater is, and that a world premiere truly is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It still fills me with regret.

Hal Brooks, director, No Child

What: Hedda Gabler, directed by Ivo van Hove at New York Theatre Workshop, 2004

Why: I cannot tell you how often I have heard people exclaim about how great it was—how amazing Liz Marvel was or how disgusting the V-8 moment was. A defining moment of Off-Broadway theater, of how life can be breathed into the classics. Where was I?