The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present

Michael Billington
Faber and Faber

The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present

The 101 Greatest Plays is likely to be the must have/must give theatre book of 2015.

In just over 460 pages, Michael Billington has selectively encapsulated the history of the art form in a series of essays, every one of which is a pleasure to read.

In the introduction, he recognises that using the term "The Greatest" is likely to generate significant discussion and possibly dissension and "that makes the book more of a challenge, a provocation and the prelude to a debate in which everyone is free to join".

In addition, The Guardian’s critic accepts that his own taste, which leans toward realistic, morally ambivalent works that both encapsulate their own period and are timeless, flavours the choices.

However, while one could put forward an arguably almost equally valid alternative 101 plays, there is probably nobody currently living who has the knowledge, experience and memory of Michael Billington when it comes to writing a book of this type. 

Even so, he will undoubtedly court controversy by deciding that King Charles III is better than King Lear and the decision to ignore both Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger might raise more than a few eyebrows.

It is better though to concentrate on what is included in this magisterial overview of drama from the classics through to the present. It must have been difficult to get the balance right between ancient and modern but that is an inevitable problem when one is writing from a contemporary perspective.

Each play is represented by an essay of around four pages, which will typically set it in context—social, political and that of the playwright—outline the plot, recall significant productions and make pertinent observations about why the work is important enough to get into the top 101.

The book opens with one play each from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, while Plautus alone represents the Romans. Shakespeare and his (near) contemporaries certainly get their fair share of contributions, though it is pleasing to see that Billington recognises theatre from across the globe with the 17th-century French and Spaniards doing well.

Later on, it is Russians, Scandinavians and Americans that tend to share the honours with home-grown writers, the Irish obviously doing well too from Wilde and Shaw through to Conor MacPherson, although Martin McDonagh is a disappointing (and probably disappointed) absentee.

In reading this book, one will inevitably get the feeling that it was literally a labour of love, giving its writer the opportunity to hark back across a long career.

Its value lies not only in its historical and geographical sweep but also the quality of the research and writing.

Repeatedly, the author has clearly relied on far more than his own memory to recreate the essence of plays and descriptions of productions. Not only does he look into the history of the playwrights and their works but also has a good knack of comparing them, often with surprisingly diverse and unlikely works, sometimes from beyond the stage.

For example, Arthur Schnitzler is compared with Molière, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Brecht and Miller, while Sir David Hare finds himself in the company of George Eliot and Bertolt Brecht.

The 101 Greatest Plays will undoubtedly make readers yearn to see productions of many of these works and, one hopes, act as a source for enterprising directors looking to programme future seasons.

If that is the case, it could prove more influential over the next few years than even its author might have imagined when he decided to embark on the project.

Whether that is the case or not, Michael Billington has written a book that is simultaneously important and enjoyable. Who could ask for anything more?

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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