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Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo credit: Michael Lamont

The 10 Most Famous Irish Plays

Until you’ve seen a play by an Irish playwright, you aren’t allowed to say you hate the theater.

Maybe Ireland’s sparse population sparks imagination. Maybe its frequent drizzle encourages daydreaming. Maybe its rural heritage allows for hours of uninterrupted thought. Whatever it is, Irish playwrights consistently succeed in probing the human psyche to write some of theater’s most extraordinary works.

While many contemporary writers are abandoning the theater for television, Conor McPherson has stayed the course. In doing so, he’s created the decade’s most revelatory plays. But even more impressively, in an age where CGI is pretty much the only way to make people oooo and ahhhh anymore, he’s weaving magic that makes the hair on your arms stand up into a medium a lot of people left for dead. It’s no wonder Ben Brantley called him, “Quite possibly the finest playwright of his generation.”

In honor of the West Coast premiere of McPherson’s latest play, The Night Alive, at the Geffen, we decided to take a look at the 10 most famous Irish plays of all time.

The Playboy of the Western World
John Millington Synge
You know a play is powerful when it incites riots. In 1907, John Millington Synge’s play stirred Irish Nationalists who found the subject matter not just morally offensive, but offensive to Ireland as well. The story centers around Christy Mahon, a young man who enters Flaherty’s tavern claiming he killed his father. At first, the locals vicariously lap up his story, and a barmaid, Pegeen Mike, falls for him. The theme of patricide caused uproar, as did the “dishonor” done to Irish women by showing some in their undergarments.

Dancing at Lughnasa
Brian Friel
A bittersweet look at life right as hopes begin to dim — if Irish playwrights haven’t nailed that, no one has. In Brian Friel’s memory play, the narrator remembers the summer of 1936 and the events that took place in the five Mundy sisters’ cottage. Their brother Jack, suffering from malaria, has recently returned home from being a missionary in Uganda — and we watch as the fabric of their close home life starts to unravel.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde
With biting wit and sharply funny dialogue, Oscar Wilde skewered Victorian England in this popular farce. Yet its reach extends far beyond one time period. The play is still produced with regularity, and still is just as successful as it was in 1895.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Eugene O’Neill
One of the greatest plays by any playwright, Irish or not. And yes, Eugene O’Neill is American, but his Pulitzer Prize-winning play centers around a single day in the life of the Tyrone family, which closely mirrors his own very Irish family. Semi-autobiographical, it deals with the dysfunction that warps a family as a result of addiction. Epic in scope and almost universally relatable, it’s a stunning dissection of families.

Enda Walsh
One of Ireland’s most interesting and compelling contemporary playwrights (see his jaw-dropping play The Walworth Farce). After John Carney’s film Once appeared on many film critics’ year-end “best” lists, it was adapted for the stage and Enda Walsh wrote the book. To no one’s surprise, it won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Book.

Samuel Beckett
The sort of play that will be studied until the end of time, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is considered one of the Theatre of the Absurd’s most important works. And it will be performed until the end of time — it’s set after an apocalyptic disaster.

She Stoops to Conquer
Oliver Goldsmith
Although Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy was first performed in 1773, it’s studied in lit and theater classes and is still often performed. Like Wilde, Goldsmith sets his comedy in the upper class and then allows the battle between manners and human nature provide the conflict.

George Bernard Shaw
Perhaps the most popular on the list, if only due to the (very) romanticized musical adaptation, My Fair Lady. Shaw, however, had a different plan for the play. Though many audiences hoped for a happy ending between Eliza Doolittle (note the last name) and Professor Henry Higgins, Shaw fought for his staunchly feminist last scene.

Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett
One of the most influential plays of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a deceptively simple absurdist play in which quite literally nothing happens. The plot: Vladimir and Estragon sit and wait on Godot, who never appears. That’s it. Because the play is so uncluttered with explanation from Beckett himself, it’s been subject to every sort of interpretation — religious, political, social, philosophical. But Beckett himself summed the play up best when describing his directorial approach in 1975, “It is a game, everything is a game … It is a game in order to survive.” Or was he talking about human existence?

The Weir
Conor McPherson
Conor McPherson’s first play premiered in 1997 and effectively crowned McPherson as the new playwright to watch. A delicately wrought play that is deeply moving, The Weir morphs from telling ghost stories into telling stories about the ghosts that haunt us in real life. A lovely work that shimmers with magic — just like The Night Alive.

The Night Alive’s preview week begins February 3 and the show runs through March 15. Please click here to purchase tickets.

This post has been edited to reflect that Enda Walsh wrote the book, not the screenplay, for Once.

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