Top Ten Tragedies

Top Ten Tragedies

Have you ever noticed how some plays are such a downer? Even some plays that are supposed to be comedies, such as Anton Chekov's masterpieces, are dour and cynical and downright depressing. Of course, the theater -- like life -- isn't all about comedy and happy endings. To be reflective of human nature, playwrights often delve into the tears-soaked corners of their souls, producing literary works that are timeless tragedies that evoke both terror and pity, just how Aristotle likes it!

Here is a list of theater's most hauntingly sad plays:

#10 - 'Night Mother

There are many plays that explore the topic of suicide, but few are as direct and, dare I say, as persuasive as Marsha Norman's play, 'night Mother. During the course of a single evening, an adult daughter has a sincere conversation with her mother, clearly explaining how she plans to take her own life before dawn.

The daughter's miserable life has been plagued with tragedy and mental illness. However, now that she has made her decision, she has gained clarity. No matter how her mother argues and begs, the daughter will not change her mind. New York theater critic John Simon praise the playwright stating that Marsha Norman "conveys the simultaneous monstrousness and ordinariness of this event: that Jessie both solicitously provides for her mother's future and abandons her, coolly matter-of-fact about what strikes most of us as the ultimate irrational act." As with many sad, tragic and controversial plays, 'Night Mother ends with much to contemplate and discuss.

#9 - Romeo and Juliet

Millions of people think of Shakespeare's classic Romeo and Juliet as the ultimate love story. Romantics view the two star-crossed lovers as the quintessential young couple, forgoing the wishes of their parents, throwing caution to the proverbial wind and settling for nothing less than true love, even if it comes at the cost of death. However, there's a more cynical way of looking at this story: Two hormone-driven teenagers kill themselves because of the stubborn hatred of ignorant adults.

The tragedy may be overrated and overdone, but consider the ending of the play: Juliet lies asleep but Romeo believes that she is dead so he prepares to drink poison in order to join her. The situation remains one of the most devastating examples of dramatic irony in the history of the stage.

#8 - Oedipus the King

Also known as Oedipus Rex, this tragedy is the most famous work of Sophocles, a Greek playwright who lived over two thousand years ago. In case you have never heard the plot of this famous myth, you may want to skip to the next play on the list.

Spoiler Alert: Oedipus discovers that years ago he murdered his biological father and unknowingly married his biological mother. The circumstances are grotesque, but the real tragedy stems from the bloody reactions of the characters as each participant learns the unbearable truth. The citizens are filled with shock and pity. Jocasta hangs herself. And Oedipus uses the pins from her dress to gauge out his eyes. Well, we all cope in different ways I guess.

Creon, Jocasta's brother, takes over the throne. Oedipus will wander around Greece as a wretched example of man's folly. (And I assume Zeus and his fellow Olympians enjoy a mean-spirited chuckle.) Read the complete plot summary of Oedipus the King.

#7 - Death of a Salesman

Playwright Arthur Miller doesn't just kill off his protagonist, Willy Loman, by the end of the play. He also does his best to euthanize the American Dream. The aging salesman once believed that charisma, obedience, and persistence would lead to prosperity. Now that his sanity is wearing thin, and his son's have failed to live up to his expectations, Loman determines that he is worth more dead than alive.

In my review of the play, I explain how this drama may not be my favorite of Miller's work, but the play clearly accomplishes its goal: To make us understand the painfulness of mediocrity. And we learn a valuable, common sense lesson: Things don't always go the way we want them to go.

#6 - Wit:

There is a lot of humorous, heartwarming dialogue to be found in Margaret Edson's Wit. Yet, despite the play's many life affirming moments, Wit is filled with clinical studies, chemotherapy, and long stretches of painful, introspective loneliness. It's the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a hard-as-nails English professor. Her callousness is most evident during the play's flashbacks. While she narrates directly to the audience, Dr. Bearing recalls several encounters with her former students. As the pupils struggle with the material, often embarrassed by their intellectual inadequacy, Dr. Bearing responds by saying intimidating and insulting them. Yet, as Dr. Bearing revisits her past, she realizes she should have offered more "human kindness" to her students. Kindness is something Dr. Bearing will come to desperately crave as the play continues.

If you have already experienced Wit then you know you will never look at John Donne's poetry the same way. The main character uses the cryptic sonnets to keep her intellect sharp, but by the end of the play she learns that academic excellence is no match for human compassion, and perhaps a bedtime story.

Continue reading the Top Ten List of the World's Saddest Plays.