Lists are selective but 'The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present' is a mesmerising study

IN his recent review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Michael Billington writes that he now sees “the point of being wild about Harry”.

But for me the excitement about Harry has been seeing children reading the play.

Because reading plays is not a common activity and it should be.

Billington has been a theatre critic for almost 50 years, seeing around 9,000 plays and reading many more. His choice, he insists, is “subjective” stating, “a great play is both an expression of its time and open to multiple reinterpretations”.

As Billington admits, “a woman critic or one from a black or Asian background would arrive at a wholly different list” and so would an Irish critic. 

Nine Irish playwrights and a total of 10 plays make the cut. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw (twice), Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, Friel and McPherson. 

But where are Boucicault, Synge, Behan, Keane, Murphy, McGuinness, Carr, Barry, and Walsh? Another nine off the top of my head, and I haven’t even started on those born elsewhere, such as McDonagh.

Billington apologises to writers, “whom I profoundly admire but who don’t appear” and hopes that those living “will forgive me”. 

No two lists could be identical and for me, Billington’s choice is sound. 

I have read or seen most of the plays and the remainder are on my reading list. 

Certainly his first choice The Persians by Aeschylus, fits Billington’s criteria of being “still vibrant” in that recent productions colour the play “with our own sense of the horror of war”.

The first Irish play to get a mention is one of my all time top ten, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. 

Billington admires the comedy for its “nose for corruption and eye for injustice”. 

Secondly, he includes another comedy She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith. Billington sees “psychological acuity under the mathematical ingenuity”. 

On the first night in 1773 a critic described the play as “a barrel of gunpowder”. 

I’m so sad that I missed Jamie Lloyd’s 2012 revival in which “Marlow pawed the ground like an impatient stallion while … Kate archly reared her rump in readiness for goodness knows what”.

In his essay on Sheridan’s The School for Scandal Billington regrets a production which I did see, and hated, in 2012. Deborah Warner updated the play to “celebrity culture”. 

He says this mistake teaches us “that a play may simultaneously be topical and timeless”.

It is not surprising that Irish dramas chosen for The 101 Greatest Plays get an enthusiastic response. What is surprising, though, is Billington on Beckett. 

Writing in dialogue, as in many pieces towards the end, Michael talks to ‘Helen’, a young woman critic — an amalgam of several people.

“You must be torn between Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days” says Helen and the reply is, “I’ve chosen none of those.”

Instead Billington chose All That Fall, a radio play, because of its “vivid particularity” rather than “exemplary archetypes”. 

Helen accuses Michael of a “dated penchant for observant realism” but he insists the play contains “all the great Beckett themes given flesh and colour”.

Billington concurs with Helen’s assessment of his preference for realism mentioning “McPherson’s Chekhovian gift for the minute particular” in his piece on The Weir. 

He admires McPherson’s “intuitive understanding of wasted lives” calling the play a “mesmerising study”.

These two words equally apply to Billington’s book which is dedicated to playwrights, defending them against the threat of company-devised work.

The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present

Michael Billington

Faber & Faber, €28.50 (HB);

ebook, €10.50


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