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A History of Great Playwrights

From the beginnings of western democracy in ancient Greece, plays have been a part of the human experience, helping us understand ourselves and make sense of the world. This five part series, A History of Great Western Playwrights, hosted by William Ambrose, founder of Ambrose Video Publishing, Inc., focuses on the rich literary tradition of the theater - its plays and playwrights, including such greats as Sophocles, Terence, William Shakespeare, Moliere, Henrik Ibsen, Eugene O\'Neill, Bertolt Brecht, and Tom Stoppard. With their unique perspective of the world around them, these playwrights have added depth and meaning to the world\'s great body of literature.
  • Title ID 85-HGP
  • English, American Literature, English Literature, Shakespeare
  • 5 Programs
  • 9 Supplemental Files
  • 10th Grade through Post Secondary
  • Published by Ambrose Video Publishing Inc./Centre Communications
Included Programs
Supplemental Files

Included Programs

Antiquity to the RenaissanceRunning time is 29 minutes

Program one examines the origins of plays and the earliest playwrights in Ancient Greece to the influences from Greek and Roman theater and the Renaissance writers of the Elizabethan Age.

Chapter List
456 BC - Sophocles and the Greek Playwrights
Greek Theatre, performed at the Theater of Dionysus, showed the tragedies and comedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
191 BC - Titus Maccius Plautus and the Roman Theater
The legacy of Roman playwriting begins during the Roman Republic with Titus Maccius Plautus, who was followed by the comedy writer, Publius Terentius or Terence, known for his play Eunuchus; then much later the first Roman theater, the Theater of Pompey was built by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Pompey the Great, from which the plays of great Roman Empire playwrights, such as Seneca, were performed.
1587 - Christopher Marlowe Writes Tamburlaine the Great
Playwright Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare and wrote fantastic dramas for the Elizabethan theatre, including Tamburlaine the Great and Doctor Faustus.
1594 - Shakespeare Pens Romeo and Juliet
England's first pillar of English Literature is playwright William Shakespeare, affectionately known as the Bard, who was born in Stratford on Avon, and moved to London where he wrote comedies, problem comedies, romance comedies, histories and tragedies, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Macbeth, for the Elizabethan theatre.

The Theater Responds to IndustrializationRunning time is 29 minutes

Program two investigates how playwrights from England, France and Scandinavia, through their plays and the theater, reacted to the tremendous social changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Chapter List
1598 - Ben Jonson Establishes a New Kind of Comedy
Ben Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote the first urban play, Every Man in his Humor, during England's Golden Age when there was a Renaissance of literature under Queen Elizabeth I.
1662 - Moliere's The School for Wives Premieres in Paris
Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin,French Playwright Moli`ere early on became an actor and writer, joining the Bejart family acting troupe, where he was discovered by the 'Sun King', King Louis XIV, who allowed him to use the H^otel du Petit Bourbon to stage his many plays, including The School for Husbands, The School for Wives, The Misanthrope, The Doctor in Spite of Himself, The Miser and The Imaginary Invalid.
1867 - Henrik Ibsen Revitalizes the Theater with Peer Gynt
Norwegian born Scandinavian playwright Henrik Ibsen introduced the drama of the modern mind through his plays, including Peer Gynt, Brand, A Doll's House, The Pillars of Society, Ghosts, An Enemy of the People, Hedda Gabler and When We Dead Awaken.
1888 - August Strindberg, Father of Naturalistic Drama
Swedish born Scandinavian playwright August Strindberg introduced naturalism to the theater in his play Miss Julie, while later writing the allegorical dramas - A Road to Damascus and A Dream Play.
1895 - Oscar Wilde's Masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest
Playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, and later was put in prison because of his homosexual affair with Alfred Douglas, son of John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry.

The Theater Turns InwardRunning time is 29 minutes

Program three shows how European and American playwrights turned to psychology for inspiration for their plays.

Chapter List
1897 - Edmond Rostand Writes Cyrano de Bergerac
French Playwright Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac and Les Romanesques, which was later adapted by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt into the long running musical The Fantasticks .
1904 - Anton Chekhov's Last Play, The Cherry Orchard, Premieres in Moscow
Russian Playwright, Anton Chekhov wrote Ivanov, The Wood Demon, the Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.
1913 - George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion
Playwright and Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw was a member of Britain's famous Fabian Society and wrote many plays and dramas, including Arms and the Man, Candida, Caesar and Cleopatra, Man and Superman, Major Barbara, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Pygmalion, Saint Joan, Widowers' Houses and The Philanderer.
1920 - John Galsworthy's The Skin Game is Performed
Playwright, novelist and Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy was encouraged to write by Joseph Conrad and wrote The Forsyte Chronicles, the plays Skin Game, The Silver Box, Strife, and The Eldest Son.
1920 - Eugene O'Neill Wins First Pulitzer Prize
Eugene O'Neill's plays "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Mourning Becomes Electra," and "The Homecoming", made him a great American playwright.
1923 - Sean O'Casey Begins the Dublin Trilogy
Playwright Sean O'Casey, helped found Dublin's Abbey Theatre and wrote his famous Dublin Trilogy - The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars - three plays about the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Civil War and the 1916 Easter uprising.

The Theater Responds to ModernismRunning time is 29 minutes

Program four depicts how playwrights, through their plays, examined the impact of two World Wars and the Great Depression as the epicenter of the theater and playwriting shifted to the United States. At the same time the musical would become a major part of the theater.

Chapter List
1928 - Brecht's The Threepenny Opera is Performed
German Playwright Bertolt Brecht was a leader of the German Expressionist Movement, and incorporated the ideas of Epic Theater and gestus into his plays, such as Drums in the Night, The Little Mahogany and The Threepenny Opera, which he wrote with composer Kurt Weill, and which introduces the characters Macheath, also known as Mackie Messer and Mack the Knife, and Polly Peachum.
1937 - Thornton Wilder Writes Our Town
American playwright Thornton Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for Our Town, which employed a metatheatrical style.
1948 - Tennessee Williams Wins His First Pulitzer Prize for A Streetcar Named Desire
After Tennessee Williams wrote "A Street Car Named Desire" he became the greatest American playwright, and then followed it up with "The Glass Menagerie" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
1949 - Arthur Miller Produces Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible" made him a leading American playwright, while his character, Willie Loman, became one of the best known characters in American literature.
1949 - The Musical Comes of Age
The musical began with Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas such as HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado; then at the beginning of the 20th Century, Flo Zigfeld created America's The Zigfeld Follies, which was followed in 1943 with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals Oklahoma and in 1949 South Pacific, which introduced the memorable characters of Nellie Forbush and Emile DeBeque. Afterwards musical

The Great Resurgence of the TheaterRunning time is 28 minutes

Program five examines how playwrights dealt with the psychological and social changes of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries through such ideas as the theater of the absurd.

Chapter List
1953 - Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot Premieres
Playwright and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett became a writer after a chance meeting with James Joyce and went on to produce such masterpieces of drama as Waiting for Godot, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Murphy and the short story Stirrings Still.
1954 - Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow Premieres in Dublin
Brendan Behan wrote The Quare Fellow, the Hostage and Borstal Boy, however his literary career was cut short because of his alcoholism.
1959 - Eugene Ionesco's 'Theater of the Absurd'
Romanian playwright, Eugene Ionesco pioneered the Theater of the Absurd with his plays The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros, which introduced the character of B'erenger.
1962 - Edward Franklin Albee Writes Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
American playwright, Edward Albee, brought the Theater of the Absurd idea to the American stage with his plays The Zoo Story, The Sandbox, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which introduced the characters George and Martha.
1987 - August Wilson Wins a Pulitzer and a Tony for Fences
American and Black playwright August Wilson opened the Black Horizon Theater with Robb Penny in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he wrote and presented his Pulitzer and Tony Award winning Pittsburgh Cycle, including Fences.
2005 - Harold Pinter Wins the Nobel Prize
Playwright Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for dramatic works such as The Homecoming.
2008 - The New Wave in Theater
A new wave of playwrights and their work includes: Sam Shepard and Buried Child, David Mamet and Glengarry Glen Ross, Neil Simon and Biloxi Blues from his Eugene Trilogy, David Hwang and M. Butterfly, Tony Kushner and Angels in America: The Millennium Approaches, Tom Stoppard and The Coast of Utopia, and lastly, Tracy Letts and August: Osage County

Supplemental Files

A History of Great Playwrights - Educator's Guide
A History of Great Playwrights - Important Plays
A History of Great Playwrights - Timeline
MARC Records for HGP
MARC records for the series A History of Great Playwrights
Transcription for Antiquity to the Renaissance
Transcription for The Theater Responds to Industrialization
Transcription for The Theater Turns Inward
Transcription for The Theater Responds to Modernism
Transcription for The Great Resurgence of the Theater


"According to this 5-part program, hosted by Bill Ambrose, plays have been part of the human experience since ancient Greece, and playwrights, actors, and audiences continue to appreciate the rich literary traditions of theater. The 30-minute, chronologically arranged titles chronicle the history of playwrights. Ambrose offers an overview of historical events and key players of each respective era. The first title, Antiquity to the Renaissance, visits the remains of the earliest outdoor theater in Greece. An interviewed scholar explains the difference between tragedy and comedy, and voice-over narration introduces the works of Sophocles and Euripides. Information is also provided about Roman playwrights Plautus and Seneca, who adapted early Greek plays, adding complex characters and special effects. The program concludes with a survey of Christopher Marlowe's and William Shakespeare's works. Location footage, period artwork, and excerpted performance clips add variety. The chronological flow and historical perspectives allow viewers to understand the effect of social changes on theater and the ways playwrights built on the works of their predecessors."