Plays are often categorized by genre, such as drama, comedy, historical drama, to name a few. Modern and contemporary plays, on the other hand, are categorized by the period during which they were written. Modern plays were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contemporary plays were written in recent years, from mid-20th century to the present.
Popular examples of modern playwrights include Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Their plays fall under the category of realism, a movement that sought to bring reality to the stage. This movement began with Russian playwrights, most notably Chekhov, who is famous for four of his plays —The Seagull, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya — written between 1896 and 1904. These plays portray rural life in Russia and examine the relationships among families. Other famous writers followed in this movement include Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright who wrote plays in the latter half of the 19th century, and George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright who lived in London during most of his career.
Realism was also popular among early contemporary writers, such as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Although not all of Miller's plays took place in America — for example, "Incident at Vichy" — most of his writing has to do with life in America and the struggle associated with the American Dream. Williams' plays mainly examine life in the American south.
There is significantly more racial diversity among contemporary playwrights compared to modern playwrights. August Wilson, a popular American playwright, is famous for The Pittsburgh Cycle, or Century Cycle, of ten plays set in different decades of the 20th century to provide a wider scope for the African-American experience.
Many contemporary playwrights are women. These include Rebecca Gilman, Paula Vogel, Theresa Rebeck, Zinnie Harris, Sarah Ruhl and Naomi Iizuka, to name a few. They do not strictly write about topics relating to women and the female experience, and their styles are varied, although most of these writers do not stick to realism.
The postmodern period overlaps the time frame of modern and contemporary drama, but it is characterized by unrealistic plays and the avant-garde. Bertolt Brecht's theory of theater strayed from realism. He believed that a play is a representation of reality, rather than reality itself, and it should make the audience aware that they are watching something that is inherently not real. Another postmodern playwright, Samuel Beckett, was famous for unrealistic plays, including "Waiting for Godot."