Michael Billington among the greats
By MICHAEL CAINES
Michael Billington drops a name at the outset of The 101 Greatest Plays: it was Antonia Fraser who suggested he adopt the superlative for his title, to "raise the stakes". Billington's book challenges readers to disagree – not just with his choices, but with the reasons behind his choices – and will perhaps inspire some to compile their own lists. . . .
Nobody has or could ever see everything. The Guardian's veteran theatre critic, however, has managed to see about 9,000 plays over the past half-century; and many of them he has written about with exemplary acuity, although, given the widely diminishing space for in-depth reviewing across the media, notably on television and in certain broadsheets, it is not certain that many will be able to follow his example in the future.
That critical experience provides the book with its USP – its Unique Stalls Perspective. How, after all, is a play to impress the professional playgoers? Can they be excited by the same play in a second production, once the novelty has worn off? Re-viewing, like rereading, is a good test for work and critic alike.
For Billington, moral ambivalence emerge as one common quality; as does the seeming presence of a unique authorial voice (which is especially difficult to judge, he admits, when it comes to translated works). He approves of plays that seem to absorb the past while setting their sights on the (theatrical) future. There is also the basic test of asking if a play works in different contexts, in different theatres, at different times.
Hence his provocative but not gimmicky selection from Shakespeare (Love's Labour's Lost but not King Lear) and Samuel Beckett's All That Fall rather than anything more obvious. Lear seems too much of a mess to him (whereas he rates highly the structural ingenuity of, say, Noël Coward's Design for Living or The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard) and contains "a punishment disproportionate to the original sin" (which some would say is precisely a sign of its greatness, of its refusing to yield to our intense desire for poetic justice). And he frankly admits that Beckett's general vision of life as "an irremediable hell" is not to his taste, preferring the "localised richness" and "vivid particularity" of this radio play. (He's right to point out that All That Fall has been staged, but omits that Beckett thought that was a bad idea, and usually refused permission.)
Hence also Billington's preference for plays that he's seen work not just once or twice in the theatre but several times, often to new effect each time. "I've measured out my life in Uncle Vanyas", he writes, beginning with Laurence Olivier's Chichester Festival Theatre production of 1962. The critic himself doesn't seem to have changed much at all over the years, seeming almost to distrust theatricality sometimes: he disliked the "self-advertising" National Theatre revival of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, for example, with its "virtuosic set", much as he feels that the current Barbican production of Hamlet privileges its "visual conceits" over "textual investigation".
Indeed, the whole exercise is a homage to the "subversive voice of the individual dramatist" – it is dedicated to "the playwrights, living and dead" – and a riposte to the emerging notion that "democratising the work process" in devising a play "automatically leads to work of radical intent". Who exactly holds to that notion about devising, down to the word "automatically", is never made explicit.
With authorial subversiveness to the fore, 101 Greatest Plays pays tribute to subversive work written under oppressive regimes or against impossible circumstances. Greatness may be reserved for 101 plays, but the brief biographies here of so many exceptional dramatists open the doors to further exploration. (The contents page, incidentally, tries to get in on the act, by getting its page numbers out of sync; the reader interested in Peter Pan is decisively sent to Waste by Harley Granville Barker instead. It's not the volume's only sign of scrappy production.) For Billington, biographical and historical context matters: "our" knowledge that Federico García Lorca completed House of Bernarda Alba two months before Francoists executed him, in 1936, "informs our vision of the play". Not that such considerations outweigh all others, otherwise George Farquhar's last play, The Beaux' Stratagem, could perhaps have trumped its predecessor, The Recruiting Officer.
As that last choice suggests, predictable choices outnumber surprises here – but they are only predictable because of the consensus, and the consequently rich performance history, that has emerged around them. (For a less reverent alternative view of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, to take one example, see Diane Purkiss's recent TLS review of The Penguin Book of Witches.)
It is more interesting, I think, to see Billington championing Assembly-Women by Aristophanes, Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway, and Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep, which I missed when it came to the National five years ago and is one of only three post-war plays by women included here. (More happily, Congreve's Love for Love, which here wins out over The Way of the World, is to be staged by the RSC this autumn.)
Finally, from the cheap seats, it caught my eye that Billington makes room for five plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries: Edward II by Christopher Marlowe; The Malcontent by John Marston; A Mad World, My Masters by Thomas Middleton; The Alchemist by Ben Jonson; and The White Devil by John Webster. How does that strike you? I confess to finding Middleton's comedy tiresome next to the tragedies, and imagine that scholars in that field could argue for a hundred different plays, on their own terms.
All right, not quite finally. Here are the four twenty-first-century plays Billington includes: The Goat by Edward Albee; The History Boys by Alan Bennett; Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth; and King Charles III by Mike Bartlett. Could these four stand the test of time as well as, say, Uncle Vanya?