'Waiting for Godot' voted best modern play in English

David Lister
Saturday 17 October 1998 23:02
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THE THREE most important plays of the 20th century in the English language were written by an Irishman and two Americans, according to the results of the largest survey yet to determine the key plays of the last 100 years.

Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot heads the list. Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman is in second place, and Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire is third.

One has to go to fourth place to find a British playwright - John Osborne, with Look Back In Anger. And this work is followed by two American plays.

The National Theatre asked more than 800 playwrights, actors, directors, theatre professionals and arts journalists to nominate 10 English language plays which they considered "significant". When the results were analysed, 188 writers had been nominated for 377 plays. Arthur Miller was the most nominated writer, closely followed by Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.

The results form the basis of NT2000, a project in which the National will present platform readings from 100 plays over the next year or discussions with original cast members and playwrights. The series promises some genuine highlights. Already Joan Plowright, who starred in 1959 in the original production of Arnold Wesker's Roots (which is 45th in the list) has said she will come to the National to talk about the play.

The survey to find the century's most popular plays and playwrights has led to much heated bar-room debate among critics and theatre professionals.

Angus MacKechnie, platforms manager at the National, said yesterday: "The Ameri- cans have shown up very well at the top of the list, and that is a bit of a surprise.

"I was surprised that Loot was nominated above What The Butler Saw as that is the best-crafted of all Joe Orton's plays. But the different opinions have made this such an interesting exercise."

Some theatre directors beg to differ from the National's definitive list. Sam Mendes, artistic director of the Donmar Ware- house puts Beckett at the top of his list - but for Endgame rather than Waiting For Godot. Jenny Topper, artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre has Waiting For Godot in second place with Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests first. Jude Kelly, director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse puts Pinter's The Birthday Party at number one.

Also proving controversial is the decision by the National not to include any musicals, saying the project is about the written word - even though musicals such as Oklahoma, Guys And Dolls and Carousel have been among the National's most popular productions.

That decision has astonished theatre impresarios among them Sir Cameron Mackintosh. "The big musicals have been seen by more people in the 20th century than most plays," he said "So when they use the word 'significant', I would ask significant to whom? Don't the general public count?"

And West End producer Bill Kenwright said: "It's madness. Not only have musicals been significant in the history of the theatre, they have been significant in the history of the National."

THE TOP TEN

1 Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett 2 Death of a Salesman Arthur Miller 3 A Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams 4 Look Back in Anger John Osborne 5 Long Day's Journey into Night Eugene O'Neill 6 The Crucible Arthur Miller 7= Private Lives Noel Coward / Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Tom Stoppard 9= Angels in America Tony Kushner/ The Caretaker Harold Pinter

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