The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present, by Michael Billington

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Reviewed by Harriet

As the longest-serving British theatre critic, a biographer, and a teacher and lecturer at several world-class universities, Michael Billington has some claim to being able to select the 101 greatest plays ever written. Or has he? He writes in his introduction that he has seen about 9000 plays in his lifetime, but he’s very willing to admit that his title sounds ‘a bit arrogant’. Certainly he’s come in for some criticism for his choices – many people have been outraged that he’s omitted King Lear, and Waiting for Godot, for example. Here’s what he has to say about it all:

As I drew up my initial list of plays, I had one basic idea in my mind: that the very best plays are rooted in their historical moment and yet have a sustainable afterlife …. I realised I was instinctively drawn to plays which display moral ambivalence, are rooted in close observation, blend the tragic and the comic and exude the life and energy that Baudelaire thought were the preconditions of any work of art.

Fair enough. I can’t help agreeing, though quite how you arrive at a satisfactory explanation of exactly how one play exudes that life and energy and another one doesn’t might be hard to pin down. But there’s no point in wasting time on debating the wisdom or otherwise of his decisions. 101 plays is plenty to be going on with, and anyone who reads this book from cover to cover will certainly come away with a pretty good idea of the sweep and development of Western drama as well as as sense of Billington himself.

For this is a very personal book. Each short chapter includes an account of when Billington saw the play and what his response to it was in addition to an assessment of its qualities and strengths. So we find him on the Brecon Beacons watching a production of Aeschylus’ The Persians, as a ‘slightly unhappy, self-absorbed twenty-two-year-old’ seeing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at Chichester Festival Theatre, in a ‘dingly dell’ at Stratford on Avon watching Marlowe’s Edward II, enjoying a German operatic version of Dürrenmat’s The Visit at Glyndebourne. But of course the great majority of what he writes about are plays seen in production at the National Theatre, The Royal Shakespeare Company, The Royal Court and elsewhere. And having seen many landmark productions, he is able to illustrate his essays with comments on the presentation, the directing, and the acting.

There are far too many plays here for me to cover them all in a short review. But to give you an idea of Billington’s judgments, here’s a fairly random selection. He chooses two plays by Shakespeare, Love’s Labours Lost and Henry IV Parts One and Two (which is actually two plays, but we’ll let him off that one). Love’s Labours Lost is admired for the fact that:

it’s palpably the product of a Warwickshire countryman who realises that sophisticated wordplay and academic fame are subject to the implacable rhythm of the seasons and the stark fact of death.

As for Henry IV, he admires ‘its narrative pulse, its cognitive power, its political resonance, its novelistic characterisation, its melifluous verse’. Are we sorry, after all this, that he hasn’t included the much better known and conventionally admired King Lear? I wasn’t.

Moving through the centuries, he admires Aphra Behn for her ‘imaginative capacity to embrace a multiplicity of viewpoints’, and sees Congreve’s satirical observation as ‘not just an aesthetic pleasure but also a moral instrument’. Strindberg’s The Father is preferred to the more popular Miss Julie for its greater ‘shattering dramatic power’, and Pirandello’s late play Henry IV because it expresses its author’s realisation ‘ that we are all sentenced to solitude inside our own skins’.

As you can see, Billington’s choices are rarely the expected ones, though he admits to a preference for the naturalistic rather than the experimental. He prefers Osborne’s The Entertainer to his perhaps more famous Look Back in Anger (‘it’s both a better play and offers a more resonant metaphor’), and Edward Bond’s Bingo over his more frequently revived Saved. There are however a handful of more conventional choices, including The Importance of Being Earnest and Caryl Churchill’s classic Top Girls, written in 1982 but, he argues, still valid today for its suggestion that ‘true feminism is impossible without socialism and a restructuring of society’ as well as for her experimentation and inventiveness. He chooses to end the book with Mike Bartlett’s recent King Charles III, a ‘richly intriguing play’ raising important questions about Britain and its future.

Choosing contemporary plays is always going to be more challenging than picking ones from the past. Will we be able to look back and say that great plays were written in the early 21st century? Billington’s conclusion argues:

that great plays are still within our compass and that the art of drama is still alive and well…..the solo-authored play now has to contend with democratically devised work, the rising power of the director, an anti-verbal culture, not to mention the multiple choices and escalating distractions afforded by a hi-tech society. Yet, happily, people persist in writing plays and audiences still crave the excitement of encountering a strongly subjective, vivacously expressed vision of the world. Only a defeatist would argue that the bright day is done and we are for the dark.

I’m genuinely delighted to have had a chance to read and review this book. You might quibble with some of Billington’s selections, and I wasn’t particularly keen on his occasional use of a discussion between himself and a ‘fictional’ young woman critic on the merits of a some of the plays. But it’s a highly readable, highly intelligent and, I’d hope, enduringly important book.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and a long time ago used to read plays for a living.

Michael Billington, The 101 Greatest Plays fron Antiquity to the Present (Guardian Books and Faber & Faber: London, 2015). 9781783350308, 464pp., hardback.

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