Do you remember your favorite English teacher enthusiastically introducing the play-within-a-play concept? Maybe this was in conjunction with a study of Shakespeare. After all, Shakespeare was the master of the play-within-a-play: Think about the eerie performance of The Murder of Gonzago, in Hamlet, or the wild adaptation of Pyramus and Thisbe, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each time Shakespeare artfully placed a play within his stories, he mirrored elements of the main story, sometimes adding comic relief or foreshadowing in the process.
Now, 450 years later, let’s look at the play-within-a-play idea in a new light. Below is a booklist curated especially for today’s playwrights and theater lovers. In the pages of these books, you will meet characters who are playwrights or actors and encounter stories that revolve around theaters. The books in this list represent a wonderful jumble of genres in hopes that you will reach outside your comfort zone when selecting your next book.
Be sure to report back. Let us know your favorites from this list, and post other ideas as well.
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen. Humble and intelligent Fanny Price grows up with wealthy cousins at Mansfield Park. Except for a friendship with her cousin Edmund, Fanny feels lonely and, at times, like she is the only person in the neighborhood who has retained a jot of common sense.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel. Beginning with a fatal performance of King Lear, and moving back and forth across time, this novel tells the tale of a troupe of musicians and actors who are struggling to survive in postapocalyptic America.
Just One Day series, Gayle Forman. In this successful Young Adult series, Allyson and Willem meet in England during a Guerrilla Will performance of Twelfth Night. Over the course of a year, Allyson and Willem travel the globe searching for each other and for themselves, aided unknowingly by their mutual connect to the works of Shakespeare.
The Laughing Hangman (from the Nicholas Bracewell series), Edward Marston. Set in Elizabethan London, this witty tale follows Nicholas as he defends a feisty playwright and encounters more than his share of mysterious hangings - all while attempting to woo an old flame.
The Goddess of Buttercups & Daisies, Martin Millar. Ancient Greece is a refreshing and creative backdrop for Millar’s clever and laughable novel about everyday life, politics, the drama of the Greek pantheon, and the Athenian theater scene.
Waiting for 2000, Zack Love. Love’s clever Y2K satire pays homage to Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. Readers can’t help chuckling as they escape into the absurd and excessive world of the uber rich - and the disgruntled duo who didn’t make the cut.
The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux. Perhaps you have a fond memory of seeing The Phantom of the Opera in the theater. But, have you ever read the novel? First published as a French serial in 1909, Leroux’s enthralling tale of love, loss, and jealousy is a must read.
Drama, Raina Telgemeier. Young Adult librarians turn to this popular graphic novel when they need a surefire book recommendation. This well-crafted story of middle school theater antics will have you laughing and shaking your head in recognition - and relief that those days are behind you.
Payment in Blood (from the Inspector Lynley series), Elizabeth George. Set in the Scottish Highlands, the second installment of the much-loved Inspector Lynley series focuses on the murder of playwright Joy Sinclair. Readers are simultaneously drawn into the lives of Inspector Lynley and his partner, as well as the exploits of a theater company and a colorful cast of characters and murder suspects.
The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide, Jenna Fischer. Dip your toes into the nonfiction pond with this witty how-to guide for aspiring actors. Most folks know Fischer from her role on The Office, but readers will learn about the years of hard work and rejection that came before. Designed to educate and inspire new actors, this book would be interesting for any fan of the arts. And, if you’ve been wanting to try out an audiobook, you’ll enjoy listening to Fischer read her own work.
By Autumn Hjort, Seattle Playwrights Salon’s Literary Manager