Let me start by immediately acknowledging that this list of the wold’s best playwrights is probably missing a lot of amazing writers who’s works are not translated to English. Translating plays is challenging, and anyone who speaks more than one language can attest that certain metaphors, and other beautiful uses of languages are often lost in translation.
I am aware there should be many more people on this list so if you want to see more amazing playwrights from around the globe please let me know in the comments. Every playwright, that made this list however, has been seen by more than 10 million people, their work has withstood the test of a few decades if not centuries, and they made significant innovations in the theatrical form, while holding up a mirror to society. So, are you ready to find out who are the world’s best playwrights?
Here we go:
5th century B.C., India
Kalidasa is India’s greatest playwright and one of the best representatives of Sanskrit Drama and Sanskrit theatre. Little is known of his personal life and unfortunately only three of his plays have survived. His plays are primarily based on the ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Vedas, and the epic poems the Ramayana, the Mahabharata. His best known play is titled Shakuntala, in which the two main characters, King Dushyanta and the daughter of a sage, Shakuntala, meet in the forest, get estranged and ultimately reunited. The plot line is very complex and the language use is as imaginative and complex as Shakespeares’, which sadly means a lot of it is hard to capture fully in English, reading different translations is advised.
16th century, England
Shakespeare’s plays are translated into more than 100 languages. I know there are readers already screaming that his popularity is solely due to English colonial rule, however most of the countries worldwide that have translations of Shakespeare’s works into their own languages were never under English rule. Shakespeare is a master of plot line and character development, and of course a master of language. He invented many words and sayings we use everyday in English, and is very difficult to translate. Regardless, most countries around the world have several different translations of his wonderful word play. Every day there are at least 100 of Shakespeare’s plays performed around the world. The most commonly performed ones are Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello.
5 century BC, Greece
He wrote about what the word theatre actually means and where it comes from, so the list of the world best playwrights cannot be complete without a playwright who many theorists through centuries used as the example of what the actual difference is between writing a play and other literary styles. Sophocles is most known as the author of Antigone, and Oedipus Rex, although we actually have quite a few more of his plays surviving. His work is based on ancient Greek myths and stories, and offers a tense plot build up, characters facing incredibly difficult decisions and features very challenging language to capture in translation.
21st century, Nigeria
Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka won a Nobel prize for literature, the highest literature award in the world, in 1986. His plays are rooted in Yoruba culture, its legends, tales, and traditions mixed with influences from Western traditions (from classical tragedies to modernist dramas). He writes in English and his best known play is Death and the King’s Horseman, based on a real incident that took place in Nigeria during the colonial era. The horseman of a Yoruba King is prevented from committing ritual suicide by the colonial authorities. Soyinka has also written a preface to this play, explaining what he sees as the greatest misconceptions in understanding it. In particular, he says that the play should not be considered as “clash of cultures.” Based on Soyinka’s own words: “the play demonstrates the need for interaction between African and European cultures.”
20th century, Sweden
Ibsen is the inventor of realism, and pretty much the foundation of how we understand theatrical convention today. He imagined audiences looking on stage like through an invisible wall into someone’s life, observing what they do, just how we watch television or film or theatre today. But that’s not how theatre worked before. The actors used to talk directly to the audience and the show always had room for improvisation (as many anecdotes from Shakespeare’s time prove). Ibsen was obsessed in showing the audience what goes on behind closed doors, behind the facade of politeness. He wrote for the first time about a woman leaving her husband and caused quite a scandal.
21st century, UK
Deeply impacted by the violence of war in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, Sarah Kane looked to portray how we live our mundane daily lives while extreme action of violence happen so close to us. She invented a very unique stye of writing, which continues to capture the imagination of theatres and audiences around the world. She wrote only 7 plays before committing suicide at the age of 28. She is sometimes categorized as one of the In-Yer-Face writers who revitalized theatre in UK in the 1990’s taking it away from it’s naturalist roots. Her plays were extremely controversial, often puzzling reviews but all of them gained rapid recognition and are still produced around the world, securing Sarah Kane a place in theatre history.
Nick Rongjun Yu
21st century, China
One of the most prolific playwrights in China has authored more than 50 plays to date. His plays examine contemporary China, exploring themes such as urbanization, globalization, human relations, urban nouveau riche, and human condition. His work covers a broad range of topics and genres, some plays are more entertaining with well built plot lines and complex characters, and many have Ibsen like quality in examining society and showing it’s uncompromising reflection. Rongjun Yu, also known as Nick Yu, is based in Shanghai, but his plays have massive success all over China. Internationally he is rapidly gaining more and more recognition, and hopefully more of his plays will become accessible in English, French, Spanish or German.
21st century, USA
Adrienne Kennedy is a black American playwright who has been writing non linear plot plays well before it was edgy and cool to do so. Her plays capture the lived experience of black Americans, they are filed with symbolism, striking imagery and powerful language. Kennedy’s characters don’t so much talk to one another—there is no real connection through her dialogue—as hold up a mirror to the forces that are pulling their minds and bodies apart. Like most of the world’s best playwrights, her work is highly controversial and leaves no one indifferent. She is definitely underproduced and well overdue for a Nobel prize in literature. Her most well known play is Funnyhouse of a Negro.
20th century, Romania
Ionesco can be a polarizing playwright, but I feel he deserves a spot among the best because his work lays the foundation for Becket and the disintegration of linear plot and form leading to writers such as Adrienne Kennedy and Sarah Kane. Ionesco’s work is usually labeled as absurdist theatre. In response to the horrors of world war two, Ionesco created pointless worlds in which reason disappears and randomness rules. His disintegration of conventions was foreshadowing the complete transformation of society around the world in the decades after his work was first published.
21st century, USA
This is a controversial entry on the list and some will argue that Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical Hamilton shouldn’t be on this list. To his defence, Hamilton and Miranda’a other work, have all the elements of a great play: excellent plot, character development, and complex use of language. In my opinion Miranda deserves to be on this list because he took a quintessentially American theatre genre like musical theatre and elevated it from its purely commercial nature to a reflection of society, using historical references to convey a story about today, pushing the art form itself forward and displaying an enviable level of craftsmanship.
Sadly, no Canadian playwright has made the list of the worlds top 10 playwrights, but stay tuned for more fun theatre lists such as the most successful Canadian playwrights internationally and the world top theatre directors list.