The Grand Tour: The Theatre

Martin Robinson is a leading educationalist and author, having most recently published Trivium 21c in 2013 and Trivium in Practice in 2016. Prior to this he spent twenty years in various teaching positions in schools across London. Here he writes the first part of a new series called The Grand Tour, in which he will discuss the cultural landmarks that young people would benefit from having experienced by the time they leave secondary school. This piece focuses on theatre.

For Dr. Johnson a person who had not been to Italy would always: “be conscious of an inferiority…” The Grand Tour was for young aristocratic gentlemen to complete their education. This completion would include architecture, art, music, culture as well as food drink and wilder pursuits, shall we say, wine, women and fighting? The tradition has metamorphosed into the ‘Gap Year’, in which many young people back pack their way around the world or try to get to grips with the world of work, sometimes both. For many it is a coming of age ritual, yet it is still something that is limited to those with time, money, and the wherewithal to travel. There are other ways to explore. One way is to think of an approach to cultural experiences that doesn’t involve travelling across vast swathes of the globe accompanied by a Jeeves or a Passepartout. Known these days as a ‘bucket list’, or a hundred things you must do/see/read etc. before you die these itineraries of the soul are an interesting distraction to the day to day drudgery of getting by.

For a teenager, distracted by social or anti-social life and the educative demands of her school a list of things she should know or experience is an interesting quandary. What paintings should she know about and see, what pieces of music should she hear and understand, what food should she cook and savour? This Grand Tour of the Mind and Soul is the purpose of this little series of lists. If a teenager were to know of the following lists and explore them in detail she would be well on the way to ridding herself of any conscious inferiority in matters cultural, though she would not attain the heights of superiority and nor should she, she would be well placed to join in a conversation and know enough to realise how little she knows.

In his book, ‘The Infinity of Lists’, Umberto Eco points out that in his search for lists the exciting experience is not was is included but “all those things that had to be left out.” He goes on to say that his book “cannot but end with an etcetera.” This is what we do here, these will not be lists that includes the most important things, they can’t be, for they leave the most important things out. The most important lists are the ones that someone compiles for themselves in a lifetime, for these are the lists that inform our lives. What we do have here is a starting point, a conversation, maybe an argument, but we, nevertheless, have a list, a list which might point a way to some roads less traveled on a Grand Tour of the Mind or even to roads worn down by many feet from ancient times to the present day but all these roads lead to the etc.

Today I offer a list of plays that a teenager should know. My list is aimed at those aged 16-19, plays that might inspire, open up discussion as to what it is to be human, specifically a young adult in a world that is opening up to them. Although I am limiting myself to the Western tradition from an English perspective the list is unashamedly followed by an etcetera, this etcetera should be filled by those from different perspectives and plays yet be written as well as those yet to be seen. There are many themes that unite these plays and many of these themes speak to the young but also to those of an older vintage.

  • Antigone by Sophocles To choose one of the Theban plays is difficult, however, it was the fact that Antigone speaks to teenage sensibilities about great conflicts of age, and rights and responsibilities that made me choose it. This play opens up the difficulty of certainty and reminds us all that the human condition is nothing if not complex.
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare Not the best Shakespeare play by any means but I like its humour, its scope and, oddly for a play set in Athens, its Englishness. Teenagers should know what its like to put on the head of an Ass and to wake up the next day wondering about their dream. It is funny about love and its confusions and is also delightfully theatrical.
  • The Seagull by Anton Chekhov Superbly tragic and funny, again a story that appeals to teenagers and tells us so much more about the tragic love of absurdly human characters than Romeo and Juliet can ever hope to.
  • Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht Important and political play about who should ‘own’ the land it also deals with some ideas around the law that were introduced in Antigone. From Grusha to Azdak we become aware of the unfairness and the absurdity of life and are made to wonder what we would do if responsibility were to suddenly fall into our laps.
  • Blood Wedding by Federico Garcia Lorca A play of two halves, one ‘naturalistic’, the other ‘surreal’ this play sees poetry and tragedy come together to demand of us an engagement with the Iberian idea of duende: a primal, passionate and creative force. Blood Wedding examines whether we should follow our head or our heart.
  • Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin, with a libretto written by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin From accusations of Uncle Tomism to some great contributions to the Great American Song Book, this play is, in fact, not a play but an opera however I include it here for its place in theatrical history, the way it opens up the popular form of the musical and its troubled history addresses issues that still resonate.
  • Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett A bleak, humorous look at our lives in an age where God might not rescue us. Still strikingly modern yet universal, this play challenges, confuses and delights in equal measure.
  • Oh What a Lovely War by Theatre Workshop It maybe dated and not a ‘great play’, but this approach to theatre making still packs a punch. I think the songs should be remembered and although some will argue with the Lions led by Donkey’s thesis, this play opens out discussions around war and peace, women’s suffrage, class and the idea of what a working class theatre might look like. It is no co-incidence that Brecht wanted Joan Littlewood to stage his plays.
  • Blasted by Sarah Kane Maybe, for some, unwatchable and maybe a play a parent wouldn’t want a teenager to see, this ‘in yer face’ play brings together the nastiest bits of Lear, Beckett, Greek tragedy, and mixes it with mindless violence and unexplained war. Tremendous, resonant, and nightmarish.
  • Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth Another play that a parent might baulk at, in which our green and unpleasant land is surprisingly hopeful, a companion play to Midsummer Night’s Dream, yet far darker, and far more unsettling.

Teens should also have an experience of many years of attending bawdy Pantomimes in a local theatre.


The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.