Blog: Michael Billington

The theatre critic reveals the thinking behind his book The 101 Greatest Plays ahead of an appearance at the Bollington Arts Centre later this month

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I suppose I was asking for trouble in writing a book called The 101 Greatest Plays. It makes me sound like some infuriating know-all who has read everything and has worked out an infallible formula for great drama.

I swear, however, that I wrote the book to try and discover for myself what made a great play. Having previously written a book called State of the Nation, about post-war British drama and society, I was also anxious to widen my perspective. It’s up to others to say whether or not I have succeeded, but I had great fun writing the book and have had almost as much arguing with those who disagree with my choices.

I start the book by discussing Aeschylus’s The Persians and end it with an essay on Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, written some two-and-a-half thousand years later. What they have in common is moral ambivalence.

“Words like “comedy” and “tragedy” have their uses, but the best plays often combine the two.”

There is still a lively debate over whether Aeschylus’s play is a celebration of the Athenian victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis or a moving reminder that the vanquished share a common humanity with the victors.

Mike Bartlett’s play is equally open to interpretation: it can be seen as a satirical attack on a future king who exceeds his constitutional powers, or a neo-Shakespearean tragedy about the burdensome solitude of monarchy.

So that is one thing I discovered in writing the book: most of the finest plays leave room for argument and debate. Even supposedly polemical writers are much more equivocal than we think.

Shaw is often dismissed as a windbag who tells an audience what to think: in reality, his genius was for giving equal weight to opposing points of view, as you see in two such masterpieces as Pygmalion and Saint Joan (both of which are in my book).

Brecht is also often thought of as a hectoring Marxist, when he actually leaves it to the audience to make its own moral judgment: in The Life of Galileo, for instance, you can see the hero as an adventurous scientist who defied the religious orthodoxy of his time, or as a coward who surrendered his principles under the threat of torture. He may even, of course, be both.

I won’t list all the qualities that make for great drama: I hope some of you will be able to come to the talk I’m giving in Bollington on 30 September to find out more. But I will just mention one other factor, which is the ability of great drama to elude easy definition.

Words like “comedy” and “tragedy” have their uses, but the best plays often combine the two. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which I never tire of, ends in multiple marriages, but at the end, Malvolio’s cry of “I’ll have revenge on the whole pack of you” lingers in the air.

Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is one of the finest plays ever written but when the hero tries to shoot the Professor at the end of Act 3, we are always torn between laughter and tears.

Samuel Beckett, whose great radio play All That Fall I have included in my book, also forever leaves us unsure whether we should lament humanity’s sad fate or admire its capacity for endurance.

A book like this is bound to provoke argument, since no two people would ever come up with the same list of favoured plays. All I’ve tried to do is justify my choices with as much passion as I can muster.

I also constantly refer back to memorable productions of the chosen plays based on a lifetime of theatregoing. You’re free to attack my choices – indeed, that was part of my aim in writing the book. And, if you would like to come along and have a go at Billington in Bollington, you would be more than welcome.

The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present is published by Faber & Faber, £18.99. Michael Billington will appear in conversation with David Ward at the Bollington Arts Centre on 30 September.

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