Best European Playwrights | A list of the best European playrights in history

Best European Playwrights

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This article contains a list of the best European playwrights. These playwrights have made some of the most important contributions to theatre not just in Europe, but all over the world. Some of the names on this list may be known to you, while others may be a fresh discovery. But all of these incredible artists will enrich your life with the work they have given us—so take in their words and experience some of the best drama ever written.

As always, any best-of lists on StageMilk are the personal opinions of the team. This list is, by no means, exhaustive. So if you think we’ve made a glaring omission to Best European Playwrights, feel free to write to us and put a new name forward.

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Best European Playwrights

Aeschylus (525 BCE – 456 BCE)

Country of origin: Athens (Ancient Greece)

Notable works: Oresteia (458 BCE), The Persians (472 BCE), The Supplicants (463 BCE)

Aeschylus, an ancient Athenian writer regarded as the ‘father of tragedy’, is one of the most influential playwrights in human history. While the vast majority of his body of work has been lost over the millennia, he is generally credited with the modernisation of form in Ancient Greek theatre—introducing characters and conflict on stage rather than relying on the chorus. His seven plays that remain in circulation today are fascinating studies of human emotion: how characters defy the fates to craft their own destiny, and are ultimately punished for their efforts.

Sophocles (497/496 BCE – 406/405 BCE)

Country of origin: Athens (Ancient Greece)

Notable works: Antigone (441 BCE), Oedipus Rex (429 BCE), Electra (409 BCE)

Sophocles, who lived to an impressive 90+ years, has the fortune of sitting across the timelines of his two great peers and rivals, Aeschylus and Euripides. Much like them, he is credited with employing the kinds of techniques that helped to modernise tragedy. Like Aeschylus, just seven of his 100 or so works are still known to us, but are unparalleled character studies of figures in crisis. Antigone and Oedipus Rex are still commonly studied and performed today.

Euripides (480 BCE – 406 BCE)

Country of origin: Athens (Ancient Greece)

Notable works: Medea (431 BCE), The Trojan Women (415 BCE), Bacchae (405 BCE)

The third and final of our ‘big three’ of classicists on this list (no offence, Aristophanes). Euripides represents an exciting shift in tragedy and drama: he further humanises the characters in his plays, adding mortal, fault-like traits to mythical and even deified beings. This warts-and-all style lends itself to tropes that audiences would later recognise in the forms of romance and comedy. There is something darkly comical about the tragedies that survived through to today; this grants his work a nuanced, modern sensibility in its writing that engages contemporary audiences.

Aristophanes (446 BCE – 386 BCE)

Country of origin: Athens (Ancient Greece)

Notable works: The Clouds (423 BCE), Lysistrata (411 BCE), The Frogs (405 BCE)

It wasn’t all tragedy and brooding back then. Aristophanes was a celebrated dramatist and poet, whose highly politicised works paint an incredible picture of Athenian life at the time of his writing. Many scholars agree his works give perhaps the best insight into that time, and also the power dynamics at play in society that he seemed to rally against. Aristophanes was a public, controversial figure in his lifetime, unafraid to piss off the people in charge. Interestingly, he was also a director of his own work, taking great care to fully craft the worlds of his stories onstage.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

Country of Origin: England

Notable works: Hamlet (1599), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605), Macbeth (1606)

What do we need to say? William Shakespeare is generally regarded as the greatest writer of all time. His work spans multiple genres and forms, the overwhelming majority of which are still regularly performed around the world. While he is praised for his complex characters, solid plotting and detailed worlds, Shakespeare should be recognised best for his incredible use of language and poetry—a talent he continued to develop and hone throughout his career. In addition to his legacy as a writer, Shakespeare was a prominent public figure in his own lifetime as an actor and owner of a theatre company. A enduring version of his theatre, the Globe, is still in operation today.

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Molière (1622 – 1673)

Country of origin: France

Notable works: Tartuffe (1664), The Misanthrope (1666), The Miser (1668)

Born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, Molière (his stage name) was a sensation during his own lifetime—a celebrated actor and writer across multiple media and forms. He is perhaps the best known French writer in history, whose influence can not only be seen in subsequent generations of comedy writers, but on French language and culture itself. Such was his gift for satire, he often attracted denunciation and criticism from such organisations as the Catholic Church and royalty. This, however, failed to affect his widespread popularity that continues, around the world, today.

Carlo Goldoni (1707 – 1793)

Country of origin: Republic of Venice

Notable Works: Griselda (1735), The Servant Of Two Masters (1745), Women’s Gossip (1750 – 1751)

Carlo Goldoni is not a name you might know as well as others on this list. His best known play is The Servant of Two Masters which, in 2011, was adapted by Richard Bean as One Man, Two Guvnors (opening at the National Theatre before touring internationally.) But Goldoni was a hugely influential figure in both comedy and opera, capturing the sentiments of life in his native Venice—where statues in his honour stand today. Eventually, he left the Republic for France, where he sought more enlightened audiences and looser censorship from the Church. And this was only the beginning of his adventures abroad, which culminated in a tragic death following the Revolution. Goldoni was a prolific writer of charming material, and remains one of the best writers many have never heard of.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

Country of origin: Germany

Notable works: Iphigenia in Tauris (1787), Egmont (1788), Faust (Part one 1808, Part two 1832)

One of the masters of the Romantic period, Goethe was a playwright, poet, novelist, scientist, theatre director, critic and politician. Despite his theatre writing credits being modest (compared to some on this list), Goethe’s body of work as a whole should be read and appreciated, so that one can fully understand and appreciate the extent of his genius—and the wide influence he had on fields such as art, philosophy and science. One of his best-known contributions to the arts was via a fervent fan of his, Ludwig van Beethoven; Beethoven put his poetry to music in his legendary 9th Symphony.

Henrik Ibsen  (1828 – 1906)

Country of origin: Norway

Notable works: A Doll’s House (1879), An Enemy of the People (1882), Hedda Gabler (1891)

Along with Chekhov (below), Henrik Ibsen is one of the founding members of the naturalism and modernism movements in theatre, and is one of the world’s most respected dramatists. His works stripped back the societal facades of conservative European culture, to reveal the moral and personal dilemmas that lurked beneath. Ibsen also turned his attention to matters of politics and societal indifference: his at-the-time incendiary An Enemy of the People indicts the public for their seeming preference to ignore dangerous issues. This same flaw would see Europe engulfed in two world wars in the decades following his death. While born in Norway, Ibsen spent years of his  life in exile (27 years of his life were spent in Italy and Germany), and most of his plays were written in Danish.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Country of origin: Ireland

Notable works: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

Oscar Wilde wasn’t just a playwright, he was a poet, novelist and celebrated public figure—a real celebrity, by our modern standards and understanding of the concept. His plays elevated him to the height of success in 1890s London, as they exhibited his formidable wit and propensity for satire. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, has also passed into popular culture—forming a central plot in modern works such as the television series Penny Dreadful and a celebrated stage adaptation by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2020. Sadly, Wilde’s career was damaged by a highly publicised indecency trial, for which he received a full pardon as late as 2017. Wilde’s popularity remains strong with audiences, as does his influence on subsequent writers and public personalities.

Anton Chekhov (1860 – 1904)

Country of origin: Russian Empire

Notable works: The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1898), The Cherry Orchard (1904)

Anton Chekhov was a middle-class physician from the former Russian Empire. In his spare time, he indulged in a writing hobby … and subsequently helped birth the modernism movement that changed theatre forever. His work is often misattributed as being a bit emo rather melancholy; this was, in fact, his attempt to highlight the sometimes ridiculous nature of the self-important middle classes of the late Russian Empire. Chekhov’s work is humorous, deadpan and always nurturing of even the most self-important and odious characters. His contribution to modern drama is almost unmatchable—his work was beloved by theatre guru Konstantin Stanislavski, who would revolutionise acting/performance theory—and continues to be performed and explored by actors and directors today.

Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1956)

Country of origin: Germany

Notable works: The Threepenny Opera (1924), Life of Galileo (1937) The Resistable Rise of Artuo Ui (1941)

Legendary theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht is perhaps best known as a director, as well as the creator of “epic theatre” and the Verfremdungseffekt (the distancing effect, or theatre of alienation.) However, he first gained recognition as a playwright (starting with The Threepenny Opera co-written with Kurt Weill), and continued to write brilliant, provocative work up until his death. Brecht’s work is idiosyncratic of his own theatre-making practice, and therefore leaves plenty of room for contemporary directors and actors to adapt and reimagine his words.

Frederico García Lorca (1898 – 1936)

Country of origin: Spain

Notable works: Blood Wedding (1932), Yerma (1934), The House of Bernarda Alba (1936)

Frederico García Lorca lived a short, tragic life, during which he produced some of the most beautiful poetry and drama of the early 20th century. Rising to prominence with poetry volumes about his life in Andalusia, García Lorca’s writing was informed by the art movements gripping Europe post WW1: symbolism, futurism and surrealism (he was a noted close friend of Salvador Dalí). Despite his professional success, García Lorca suffered in his personal life due to his homosexuality and his political views—both of which were condemned by the rising right-wing movement in Spain. In 1936, he was murdered by Nationalist forces; his remains have never been recovered.

Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989)

Country of origin: Ireland

Notable Works: Waiting for Godot (1954), Happy Days (1961), Play (1964)

As far as this list of writers goes, few defy a simple explanation quite like Samuel Beckett. A minimalist, a formalist, a modernist and an absurdist, Beckett’s work is best described as … exactly that. His. His toyed with language, form and staging throughout his career: sometimes his work could look quite natural, other times it would appear grotesque and almost like clown-like. In his life (and in death via his tenacious estate), Beckett insisted on faithful adaptations of his work that respected not only his words but his stage directions and design choices. For this reason, every Beckett play feels like it gives a direct link back to the brilliant mind of one of Ireland’s greatest contributions to the arts. In 1969, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Václav Havel (1936 – 2011)

Country of origin: Czech Republic

Notable Works: The Garden Party (1963), Unveiling (1975), Temptation (1985)

To appreciate Václav Havel’s work, you must know the incredible story of his life—which is arguably more fantastic and dramatic than anything he ever wrote. Havel was an outspoken writer and activist who challenged the Communist ruling party of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. His political work frequently saw him surveilled, persecuted and even imprisoned. However, when the regime toppled in 1989, Havel assumed the presidency: first of Czechoslovakia and then of the newly-formed Czech Republic in 1992 after a landslide election victory. Until his death, Havel was a humanist, anti-consumerist and champion of free speech; his plays are incendiary and hilarious and remain as a fitting tribute to the man.

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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