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

Tracing the evolution of theatre through the ages

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The Independent Culture

No theatre critic in modern times has seen so much, for so long a period or with such undiminished enthusiasm as the Guardian's  Michael Billington.Now with a half -century of reviewing to his credit he takes a fascinating voyage down his vast,well-stocked Theatre  memory-lane, to  offer his choice of the favoured 101 Greatest plays ever  performed. Each is recommended in a  four-page sequence of reminiscence and analysis,  illuminated by impressions of how  different productions of the same plays have come to seem transformed thanks to the fresh perceptions of directors and actors.

  A governing idea, which underlines his choice of the 101, is to trace the thematic and stylistic  lines of evolution and development in an almost entirely European theatre from Aeschylus's The  Persians to Mike Bartlett's Charles 111- both centred on  Royalty in big trouble, thereby incidentally reminding us that some theatrical themes are always with us. He marks down the way in which those ancient battles between fate and free-will , those complex moral choices of the political or personal, from Euripides and Sophocles to Arthur Miller, by way of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Brecht.

When it comes to comedy  he discerns multi-track pathways leading from ancient Greece to the twentieth century. He notes stylistic and thematic continuities that connect Aristophanes and Plautus, for whom he has a nice enthusiasm, with Joe Orton and Ray Cooney's famous farces. Thomas Middleton 's early Jacobean romp in the new City Comedy format  of A Mad World my Master and Moliere's Misanthrope, with the surprise of its less than happy or harmonious ending is involved in this journey. 

Billington does not, however, argue that modern-day comedy or tragedy is rooted in a classical past and never transplanted.  He is happily alert to the multifarious surprises of small and large theatre revolutions. He applauds Buchner's Woyzeck, with its first working class anti-hero, where style undergoes a revolution and scenes come at us in brief outbursts, stabs of energy, as if letter-writing had been embargoed to be replaced by a fusillade of  bad news telegrams. He delights in Brecht's revolutionary notion  of how theatre should play upon an audience's feelings. He  relishes the fresh meticulousness of a varied social realism,  shooting up in the late fourteenth century Mystery Plays, and profusely flowering in a twentieth century where the chains of official censorship were finally loosened and The State of the Nation play acquired a new acuity- Shaw's Mrs Warren's profession rather than his Heartbreak House, which Billington selects, would perhaps have been a sharper choice,.

  The book's title, which smacks of an omniscience that Billington  rightly disclaims, is his one aberration -apart from his wildly excessive use of the word “but”! If he had represented his selection as personal rather than definitive, there would have been fewer on-line splutterings of fury induced by his controversial decisions, to exclude King Lear  Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger, and to include Love's Labours Lost, Beckett's All that Fall and Osborne's The entertainer. Yet these decisions are defended or  advocated in persuasive style. They serve to heighten the  book's valuable sense of provocation.

   Unsurprisingly Billington is reluctant to say there are  precise governing characteristics or criteria, helping to propell plays  into the pantheon of greatness. He is though attracted to those  shimmering with moral ambivalence and equivocation, with drama  whose conflicts are timeless. There is plenty of evidence to remind us that he has done the difficult thing - as an overnight recogniser of major plays that challenge or question the political, social and sexual status quo. His range of enthusiasm has always catholic - from  Coward's Design for Living with its qualified approval of prim bohemianism in prim 1930s England and under-cover/on the sofa bisexuality to Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, that remarkable, reverberating assault upon a world where Over Reaching Males still rule the waves and make them. Lucidly written and argued this is a seriously pleasurable book, founded upon a life spent valuably in theatres.