Book review: The 101 Greatest Plays by Michael Billington

Billington all but ignores Scotland. Picture: Contributed
Billington all but ignores Scotland. Picture: Contributed
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WAIT for sparks to fly as old stager loads his theatrical canon, writes Joyce McMillan

The 101 Greatest Plays 
(From Antiquity To The Present)

Michael Billington

Guardian Faber, £18.99

If there’s one thing an industrious theatre critic tends to learn over decades of reviewing, it’s that in this art-form, rules are only ever made to be broken; we no sooner declare naturalism dead, for example, than we see a simple, naturalistic living-room drama that grips us by the throat.

And no critic is more aware of this humbling truth than the legendary Michael Billington, who has now been chief theatre critic of the Guardian for an astonishing 44 years. So when he enters the arena with a book claiming to offer us the 101 greatest plays ever written, with a vigorous explanatory essay on each, he not only delivers a list that embraces almost every kind of scripted drama in the western canon – from ancient Greek tragedy to 20th century absurdism – but also knows full well that he is only offering the first and highly debatable contribution to what will be a continuing conversation.

It’s therefore essential to point out that Billington’s choice has an unsurprising bias towards the English stage, and is almost exclusively focused on the theatre of the western hemisphere. There’s no attempt to include any classic work from the repertoire of Noh theatre or any other eastern tradition; and even within the western canon, it’s clear that a similar list produced by a French or American critic would look very different. As for Scotland, it barely features at all; indeed of all the plays created and produced in Scotland since mediaeval times, only Ena Lamont Stewart’s great 1947 drama Men Should Weep makes the final list.

Nor does the list feature many other women playwrights, although Billington seems to strive to do what he can with what has been an overwhelmingly male profession; of the 101 plays, only half a dozen are written by women. And even within the range of European and American male playwrights, Billington’s choices often seem designed to provoke rowdy debate. His list of six Shakespeare plays includes the wordy and often silly early comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, but excludes King Lear. His choice of Brecht plays excludes both Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle; astonishingly, he includes Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, perhaps the most tedious and reactionary bourgeois adultery play of the whole post-war period, while including nothing by the devastatingly powerful political poet-playwright Howard Barker. And Billington is weak on the kind of drama that is produced in a collective setting; it’s astonishing, given his generally left-leaning sympathies, to see nothing here of either John McGrath or Joan Littlewood, the two great pioneers of radical British theatre in the 20th century.

Billington knows, though, that his choices are only made to be disputed; indeed, he is so well aware of this that around halfway through his list, he invents the fictional figure of a young female online critic with whom he debates the legacy of playwrights like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. It’s not a happy device; but it amplifies Billington’s good, old-fashioned Leavisite conviction that this is all about starting a debate, rather than about mere assertion from a position of authority.

There is an irony, of course, in the fact that a great believer in public discourse like Billington now finds himself, almost unavoidably, addressing a relatively small niche market of long-term theatre enthusiasts – those who, under 21st century conditions, are able and willing to join a debate about a relatively traditional literary and dramatic canon. For all that, though, Billington’s enthusiasm remains undimmed; as does the elegance and vigour of his writing, which – backed by his unparalleled banks of theatrical knowledge and wisdom – makes these essays a joy to read, even while we rage and quibble over Billington’s choices, and set about compiling lists of our own.