Choosing my 101 greatest plays – and why I left out King Lear

How do you even begin to pick the world’s 101 greatest plays? The Guardian’s theatre critic explains how he approached this controversial task for his new book – and admits he is already having second thoughts

Why do it? Why put my head on the chopping-block by writing a book hubristically entitled The 101 Greatest Plays? The answers are many and complex.

An idea that I’d been loosely kicking around as a way of making myself sound more interesting at parties suddenly became a reality when enthusiastically endorsed by my editor at Faber. I also wanted to challenge both myself and the reader by pinpointing the highlights of western drama. And, deep down, I was driven by a desire to assert the enduring power of the playwright. I’ve lately taken part in a number of panels that argued the future lies with group creation rather than the solo author. I admit theatre is rapidly changing, but passionate advocates of the devised play assume that democratising the work process automatically leads to work of radical intent. I cherish an obstinate belief in the subversive voice of the individual dramatist.

What is true is that the form of drama has changed over the centuries. If my book does anything, I hope it demolishes the myth there is a golden, immutable recipe for great drama. Alain Robbe-Grillet once said that Hamlet would not be a great play if it were written today: in other words, a digressive five-act verse-drama about a putative revenge killing would seem a quaint throwback if produced by a living writer. Conversely, it is impossible to imagine a Beckett or Pinter emerging in an Edwardian world where audiences demanded crises be conclusively resolved. Great plays are products of their time as well of individual imperatives.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet: ‘It would not be a great play if it was written today’ Photograph: Johan Persson

But, as I wrote the book, I noticed there were certain qualities that recurred in drama from ancient Athens to modern Britain. One was a palpable moral ambivalence: my opening choice was Aeschylus’s The Persians, which even today has scholars arguing over whether it is a patriotic celebration of Athenian victory at the battle of Salamis or a compassionate study of a vanquished enemy. Although we tend to think modern drama has made a bonfire of the categories, I also noticed how tragedy and comedy started to intertwine long before Chekhov and were visibly coming together in the work of Euripides and the Elizabethans.

This may be my personal prejudice but another unifying factor was work that displayed a fierce delight in language. This is tricky territory since roughly half the plays chosen are seen through the prism of translation: amongst the heroes of my book are a whole tribe of living translators including Tony Harrison, Christopher Hampton and Timberlake Wertenbaker. But I would still argue that one ingredient of great drama is a distinctive authorial voice.

The Homecoming by Harold Pinter
The Homecoming: shows Pinter’s distinctive authorial voice. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

It’s there in a work like John Marston’s Jacobean The Malcontent, where the sharp-tongued satirical hero warns the courtiers: “I’ll come amongst you, you goatish-blooded toderers, as gum into taffeta, to fret, to fret.” Turn to Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming 350 years later and you find a similar vitality as the chauvinist ex-butcher, Max, says of his late wife: “Even though it made me sick just to look at her rotten stinking face, she wasn’t such a bad bitch.”

In short, I found common qualities rather than a single, fixed definition of greatness that applies down the ages. But how, people will inevitably ask, did I choose my final 101? I freely admit that I confined myself largely to work from the western canon simply because of my ignorance of Asian drama. At the same time, I tried to provide a wide historical spread starting in Athens in 452 BC and ending in London in 2014 AD. Above all, I chose plays that I had experienced in the theatre and that I knew, in many cases, were susceptible to endless reinterpretation.

My choices are subjective, fallible and arguable; but then so is all criticism. Unlike Robert McCrum in his fascinating choice of the top 100 English-language novels, I also decided to represent certain writers by more than a single play. Even this has already created controversy. I included six Shakespeares, cheekily counting Henry IV Parts One and Two as a single work. I remember a lunch with Greg Doran, shortly after he took over the RSC directorship, and he asked me which Shakespeares I’d settled on. “But you’ve missed out King Lear,” he said in shocked amazement. A few weeks later I was in Stratford-upon-Avon where the head of the Shakespeare Institute, Michael Dobson, greeted me warmly only to say, in similarly horrified tones, “I hear you’ve dropped Lear!”

I could offer a robust defence of my omission: the play touches great heights but is structurally unwieldy, shows a punishment disproportionate to the original sin and contains in Edgar one of Shakespeare’s most unfathomable characters. But this is one of only several attempts I’ve made to revise the accepted canon of great plays: hence I’ve included Racine’s Andromache rather than Phèdre, Strindberg’s The Father rather than Miss Julie, Beckett’s All That Fall rather than Waiting For Godot, Osborne’s The Entertainer rather than Look Back In Anger. This is not perversity on my part: simply a determination to test plays against my theatrical experience.

Kathryn Wilder and Stefanie Martini in Andromache by Jean Racine.
Kathryn Wilder and Stefanie Martini in Andromache by Jean Racine: revising the accepted canon Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In a way, the dead can look after themselves. The real problem comes with the choice of living writers, of whom there are 15 in my book. I should say that I could easily come up with another 15 whom I admire deeply and who hovered on the brink of inclusion. Already I can see a storm brewing in that only one of the living I’ve chosen – Caryl Churchill – is a woman. I can only say in my defence that I felt it would be patronising to start allowing questions of gender and ethnicity to dictate my choice, that I’m already beginning to regret there was no room for Our Country’s Good or Chimerica and that I’ve tried to offset any built-in male bias by including a series of dialogues in which my opinions are challenged by a female critic. To avoid any Dark Lady of the Sonnets-style speculation, I should add that she is invented though not, I hope, unreal.

In the end, the book is inevitably a reflection of my own tastes, experiences and prejudices. But, if it does nothing else, I hope it draws attention to areas of world drama, and individual authors, to whom we still pay scant attention. Readers will discover my love of the plays of the Spanish golden age by Lope de Vega and Calderon, of the astonishing Italian comedies of Carlo Goldoni, of the pioneering American expressionism of Susan Glaspell and Sophie Treadwell. I also hope the book emerges as a celebration of the imaginative power of the individual dramatist- the true starting point of the theatrical process - at a time when his or her authority is under serious threat from the pseudo-democracy and improvised mish-mash of the devised play. The book was written not out of scholarly omniscience or in a spirit of truculent assurance but as a way of initiating a debate. Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve had my say. I hope readers, once they’ve digested the contents, will have theirs.

Guardian Live event

On 30 October, join the audience for our discussion, The Greatest Plays Ever Staged with Michael Billington, Josie Rourke and John Lahr, at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill, London


Michael Billington

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