My ten best lists   


Copernique Marshall  


This column originally appeared in the 11th of March 2013 edition of Le Castor™.

Let me tell you a joke :

There was this obscure and not too gifted theater company who, one day, decided, to produce The Diary of Ann Frank. - A disaster waiting to happen. - They used a bad scenario, hired an obviously blind decorator, a deaf musician and an incompetent director. The cast was dreadful particularly the girl who played Ann Frank who kept forgetting and mumbling her lines. So, on the opening night, at the beginning of the third act, when Gestapo agents showed up, and asked where Ann was, the audience immediately got up and shouted loudly : "She's in the attic !"

So goes theater : good play + bad actors = bad play,  bad play + good actors = bad play. Now add bad play + bad actors and think of a bad director, improper lightning, dreadful sets, etc.

This has lead me over the years to think that the odds of seeing more than ten, say twenty in one's lifetime is rather poor...

I don't go to the theater that much. I do, occasionally, but treat what I see (and hear) the same way I read a book : I want to know how, Oedipus RexJulius Caesar or even Les plaideurs are being played nowadays.

My great-grand-father saw Mounet-Sully and Sarah Bernhardt (pronounced "Bernart" with a "t" at the end, like she did). My grand father saw Ethal Merman and William Gazton in Cole Porter's Anything Goes on Broadway. My own father saw Louis Jouvet and Edwige Feuillère. - All legendary actors. - I pride myself for having seen no less than Vincent Price on stage playing the role of Oscar Wilde ; an extraordinary performance, totally opposite to what he did in movies. So, in a way, I understand why people living in New York, London or Paris are or were willing to pay through the nose to see the likes of Brando or Olivier, and, at the moment, Scarlett Johansson who, I understand, is making a killing right now, but 350$ per seat to see Pacino ?

Woody Allen once said that he had vivid memories of sceneries he imagined when he listened to sketches played radio but had difficulties remembering those he had seen on television. Well, that's about it for me : the plays I imagined reading are very clear, the ones I saw on stage remain vague. That's another problem for theater.

Anyway, enough of this and let's go on with the ten plays I would suggest for anyone who never saw anything live.

In alphabetical order, as usual, but by authors, not titles :

  • This is going to surprise a lot of people but my first author is Paul Claudel and the play I would like everybody to see is his "Le soulier de satin". It's an unbelievable 11 (that's eleven !) hours long and was shown, I believe, only once in its entirety (over a two day period), I saw a shortened version (five fours), in Montréal, with Albert Millaire and Monique Miller, when I was seven. - T'was the first time I had been in a theater and, believe me, I was impressed. - Unfortunately "Le soulier de satin" is rarely staged because of its extreme length and its challenging production requirements. It's a love story practically mystical involving dozens of characters some divine, some comic which covers the better part of twenty years. Manuel de Oliveira made it into a movie that last nearly seven hours. - A play to be read. It is weighty, inspiring, and exquisitely beautiful. - A quotation ? Yes : "Marriage is not love but consent." - You can read various summaries and essays about it by typing its title in Google. Check the Internet Movie Datadabase.

  • My second play has more to do with Louis Jouvet than its author, Jean Giraudoux. It is called "Ondine" and is another love story, this time involving a knight and a water nymph. Giraudoux based his text on the 1811 novella "Undine" by the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (sic) who sort of picked it up from a medieval legend. Now, as strange as it may sound, it is very romantic and certainly not for children. Jouvet who created the role of the knight recorded an excerpt for the Adès Label (RTF) with Dominique Blanchar as Ondine. 

  • My third play may sound modern - it is - compared to anything that makes sense, however nonsensical it might be, it is very interesting. It is called "La cantatrice chauve", was written in 1950 by Eugène Ionesco, and has since 1957 been played non-stop, at Le Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris (over 17,000 times !). A must-see. 

  • My fourth doesn't get played often. It is "The Price" written by Arthur Miller in the mid-sixties. Is it good ? Nothing to write home about - if you have never seen an Arthur Milller play, better see "Death of a Salesman" - but it has to be seen (not only read but seen) - not read : seen - for one of its character, Gregory Solomon, a witty Russian-Jewish antique dealer, nearly ninety years old.

  • Fifth is one of the best comedies written in French. - By Molière, of course : "Les femmes savantes" (1672). A wonderful satire on academic pretention. - Oh, to hear Trissotin read his famous sonnet:

    (sur sa fièvre)

    Votre prudence est endormie,
    De traiter magnifiquement,
    Et de loger superbement
    Votre plus cruelle ennemie.

    Faites-la sortir, quoi qu’on dit,
    De votre riche appartement,
    Où cette ingrate insolemment
    Attaque votre belle vie.

    Quoi, sans respecter votre rang,
    Elle se prend à votre sang,
    Et nuit et jour vous fait outrage ?

    Si vous la conduisez aux bains,
    Sans la marchander davantage,
    Noyez-la de vos propres mains.

  • Six is without any doubt the greatest play ever written by Jean Racine : "Phèdre". In 1677. A tragic love story between a mother and her step son. - Again, nothing to write home about but where you find verses like the following :
  • Tout m'afflige et me nuit, et conspire à me nuire.
    (All afflicts and injures me, and conspires to my injury)

    Ariane, ma sœur, de quel amour blessée,
    Vous mourûtes aux bords où vous fûtes laissée.
    Ariane, my sister, wounded by what love,
    You died on the shores where you were abandoned)

    Le jour n’est pas plus pur que le fond de mon coeur
    (The day is not purer than my heart)

    And I won't even attempt to translate this :

    La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.

  • At seven and eight, you'll find in my little black book two plays by the dramatrist's dramatrist. Should be on top of any list. His name is William Shakespeare and, of the 38 plays he wrote (16 comedies, 10 historical dramas and 12 tragedies), one could name ten, twenty, thirty, all of which are masterpieces. So ok, I'm suppose to name one. I'll name my two favorites : King Lear which I once saw in Paris and in French and Henry IV. And, what the hell, I'll, add another another one : Richard III
  • At number nine is a man who lived 400 years before Christ (497/496 to 406/405). No one knows exactly how many plays he wrote but the seven that survived are still part of every important theatre companys' repertoire. His name ? Sophocles. - If ever "Antigone" is played in your town, beg, borrow, steal but go and see it. - A tragedy ? - One of the most important ever written and, at times, an enigma wrapped in a riddle shrouded in mystery.
  • Finally, we come to one of the most talented playwright of all times : Oscar Wilde whose "The Important of Being Earnest" has been called the most brilliant play ever written. It is. Trust me. Just like "The dead" (James Joyce) has been called the most brilliant short story ever written. - Oh do try to get the 1951 Anthony Asquit's filmed version with Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison and the unbelievable Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell :

    First two lines :

    Algernon : Did you hear what I was playing, Lane ?

    Lane (his man servant) : I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.

    And who can forget this, said by Lady Brcknell who just heard that Earnest, who want to marry her daughter, was "found" in a train station when he was young `:

    You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter - a girl brought up with the utmost care- to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel...

Good reading,


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