Features Q&A and Interviews Published 22 September 2015

Michael Billington: “Why play safe?”

Tim Bano goes below the line with the Guardian critic, and author of new book The 101 Greatest Plays.
Tim Bano

Blame Antonia Fraser. It was the novelist and wife of the late Harold Pinter who persuaded Michael Billington to “raise the stakes” and change the title of his book from 101 Great Plays to The 101 Greatest Plays. The title’s brazen declaration has provoked a bit of a storm (even if the teacup’s pretty tiny), and although Billington is concerned that it looks arrogant, he insists he’s glad of Fraser’s intervention. “It’s a gauntlet thrown down”, he says. “It’s the start of a process.” 

Michael Billington doesn’t really need much introduction, certainly not on a website devoted to theatre criticism. Besides, what else is there to say except that he’s been a critic for 50 years, and at the Guardian for 40 of them? Even just his longevity is a justification of his undertaking, a selective and subjective survey of drama in the western world from ancient tragedy to 2014’s King Charles III

Criticism itself tends to be subjectivity masked by claims to objectivity. In his mentoring session for Theatre Royal Winchester Young Critics (this was on Soundcloud but seems to have disappeared), Andrew Haydon talked about how traditional criticism just masks the phrases that betray subjectivity. It gets rid of “In my opinion” and “I think”, taking those declarations for granted. But, to a reader, the pursuit of concision can be mistaken for a claim to authority. After all, criticism is the interpretation of a piece of art by a few for an audience of many. Several outlets’ style guides discourage the use of first person pronouns in reviews – but Billington’s book is upfront from page one and then repeatedly about the fact that “this is a subjective choice, it’s based on my instinct, it’s based on plays I’ve seen and it’s not definitive.”

When the Guardian published just the list of the plays, there was what Billington calls “a tsunami of abuse” below the line – 303 comments, mostly negative (see below for a selection. I read them so you don’t have to). “I hope that in the book I’ve offered explanations as to why I’ve chosen these, so it’s not a list of ‘bang bang bang’ choices, it’s an attempt to explore drama from different periods and see plays in a wider context. I hope the book is less dogmatic than the list makes it seem.” 

Our conversation begins at the beginning, not only of the book, but of Western drama as we know it. We talk tragedy. His choices have the air of some alt hipster (you know, the ones who insist that OK Computer isn’t actually Radiohead’s best album, and they prefer the Gagging Order Acoustic Recordings because they’re more raw, even though it’s just a way of showing off that they’ve heard of it). So the book starts with The Persians, Helen, Assembly Women. “I knew the obvious thing would be to start the book with the Oresteia, then go on to Oedipus, then choose the Bacchae as my third choice. That would have been a nice, safe way in. But I thought ‘why play safe?’ So without, I hope, being perverse I was always trying to revise stock opinion.” He makes a strong case for each of them, as he does for most of the plays in the book.

There’s almost a sense that Billington is gleefully courting controversy. Things bubbled up a bit when he wrote a piece for the Guardian introducing the book and explaining some of the reasoning behind his choices. Cue the Twitter backlash. Anger and frustration is an unbeatable spark for creativity, and Billington’s decision to include an imaginary female critic with whom he has discussions at various points in the book provoked this most of all. Within an hour or so there were two parody female Billington Twitter accounts and a lengthy blog post by Andrew Haydon pretending to be the female critic. No one had actually read the book, since it hadn’t been published.

George Hunka seems about right when he says that the female critic is an attempt by Billington to acknowledge his own blind spots. Though the attempt is well meant, the explanation Billington offers in the Guardian article is a bit clumsily phrased. Billington insists that the device was a way of varying the tone of the book. He had written a parodic dialogue discussion of The Importance of Being Earnest, and then a more serious dialogue between him and a fictional female character about The Homecoming later in the book, “whether it is the reflection of a deeply male, not to say misogynist point of view, or whether the play is actually about female empowerment”. His editor said it didn’t make sense to have one comic dialogue and another serious, so he wrote the female character into the Earnest essay, and several others subsequently. 

“I remember reading a biography of Dickens by Peter Ackroyd, it’s a huge 900 page book, and I remember two thirds of the way through he suddenly engages in discussions and debates and varies the tone. He was attacked at the time, but I’ve always thought it was a masterstroke.” Similarly, Billington was following advice from Peter Brook that “‘every play needs a lift four fifths of the way through’. In the same way a book needs this too, a change of tone at some point.” The device is also an homage to two famous Kenneth Tynan reviews – one of Rattigan’s Separate Tables in 1954, which introduced the famous Aunt Edna character, and the other of a Beckett double bill in 1958 – which were in dialogue form.I teach American students and I say that reviews do not have to be 1,000 words of expository prose – they can be in dialogue form” – maybe we should get Billington to write for Exeunt – “and my god these students take the hint. They turn in mini plays in which they argue with themselves. So that was the main motive behind the mythical Helena, really, to vary the form.” 

But there are two points here: one is the use of the debate device within the choices Billington had already made – insignificant and innocuous. The other much more serious point is the lack of female writers in his selection in the first place – six in total, one living. “A pathetically small number”, Billington admits. The most thoughtful and well considered response to Billington’s article was from Anna Himali on Twitter:

Billington puts this in terms of ‘going with his instinct’, and of course that instinct is born of his experience, and that experience born of the times and places in which he has lived. The UK, and the theatre of the UK, has been dominated by a patriarchy that presents itself a default, rather than an unjust construct. No one can help being the product of a still deeply racist and sexist society, but to progress there need to be people who will not only question themselves, but question everything and everyone around them. 

It’s easy, not to say tempting, to defer blame and to seek absolution in the structures beyond our control: “my first defence would be the historical one. You have to wait until the 17th century in England.” Even well into the twentieth century, playwriting was a male-dominated arena. “When I started writing for the Guardian 40 years ago there was one play by a woman in London: The Mousetrap. Since then, there has been an explosion of writing by women.” 

Michael Billington Photo:Daniel Farmer

Michael Billington Photo:Daniel Farmer

The one living female playwright is Caryl Churchill, whom Billington chose “because I think she is the inspiration, the role model, the best living woman playwright, one of the best living playwrights. So she had to go in. You could make a case for Sarah Kane, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Rona Munro, Liz Lochhead. You could make cases for all of them. I could make the cases. But in the end I thought I’d just go with my instinct rather than trying to be fair or representative.” It’s this decision that I’d disagree with more than the mythical critic. Quotas are necessary, for the moment at least. I think it’s my individual responsibility as a white, middle-class man always to check my privilege, just as it is everyone’s individual responsibility constantly to look for ways that they can make society fairer. I’m worried that I frequently fall short of that responsibility – and probably have in this article.

The platform and perceived authority that Billington has as one of the most well known theatre critics in the country, combined with the book’s self-professed attempt, however tongue-in-cheek, to revise the ‘canon’ do come with attendant responsibility. With great power, etc. But talking to Billington – kind, modest – it really seems as if he is unconvinced that he has that level of influence. And it’s difficult to get a sense of perspective inside the echo chambers we inhabit: if Rattigan’s Aunt Edna reads this book, will she accept the subjectivity of the book, or will she be swayed by Billington’s knowledge and experience, the well crafted arguments of each essay, the Faber stamp of approval and reach the conclusion that, yes, there is only one truly great living female playwright? 

The book is a piece of criticism writ large: 101 reviews, each encompassing several productions of the chosen plays in the last fifty years. And just as there are many more female playwrights than there were when Billington began his career, criticism too, having been so (white, Oxbridge, middle-class) male-dominated for so long, seems to be growing and changing – in its form as well as its diversity. Lyn Gardner is the obvious example, whose dominance and influence in theatre seems to be dismantling the traditional first string/second string setup that newspapers used to have. Sarah Hemming at the FT writes with consistent and reliable insight. Exeunt’s very own Natasha Tripney, joint lead critic for The Stage alongside Mark Shenton, is also playing a remarkable role in reinventing traditional critical hierarchies, in opening up the range of work that gets reviewed by The Stage, by directing attention towards theatre makers who may have been overlooked in the past, nurturing young talent and encouraging innovation in the forms that criticism can take. Just a few weeks ago, parliamentary sketch writer Ann Treneman was made chief critic at The Times (although it’s less than two years since they sacked Libby Purves – Billington thinks “critics should be given some security of tenure. And to change your critic, as the Times has done now, every two years is unfair to the critic and the readers. I’m not saying people should go on as long as I have, but I think critics need to bed in.”). Hell, even West End Wilma is an increasingly noticeable and notable presence. But I hope this sense of hope is not misplaced. It’s still the case that many of the top (read ‘paid’) jobs are held by men. 

And gender balance within the current crop of critics sits parallel to another big problem: the slow wane of paid opportunities for arts critics. I’m 25 now, the age Billington was when he started, and I ask him if he has much optimism about the future of young critics today. “It’s always been difficult to get into the business, that goes without saying, but there was a kind of recognised ladder of progress.” After starting at The Times, writing anonymously and for little pay, he was taken on by the Guardian and worked his way up. “I scratched a living for quite a time in my twenties, but I always did so in the hope that there was a full time job coming up.” The full time jobs aren’t really there anymore, or at least there are fewer of them. Instead, bloggers and alternative critics are either doing it for love and tickets, or finding creative ways of getting brass in pocket. Megan Vaughan seems to have been among the first to give Patreon a go, a website that’s like JustGiving but for artists instead of charities. People can choose to become patrons to individuals, paying a monthly sum to support their work. If it works, it could be a fascinating model for arts funding that could really encourage innovation and quality in criticism – who would fund a critic unless they’re doing something really special, as Vaughan often does? 

Billington “didn’t set out to be a critic in the hope of financial reward” but even the guinea he got per review “was an acknowledgment that this was a job that needed some payment rather than just getting the tickets. And I find it sad that critics now have to find some other means of support.” His book is, among other things, a quiet justification of the necessity of arts criticism. The transience of theatre means that productions and plays can pass so fleetingly through the cultural memory, and though performances are increasingly recorded, theatre criticism is still a large part of a show’s afterlife – as opposed to film and music, for which the artefact itself can endure in one unchanging and repeatable form. Billington’s longevity has allowed a huge range of productions to be brought back into living through his writing, filtered through his experience and his memory, and concentrated into this book.

The introduction makes the case for single-authored, text-based plays, but the essays are not just about playtexts and the way the words read on a page. The performances Billington has seen of each play feed inexorably into the choices he has made in the book. It’s a tribute to actors, directors and theatre buildings as well – that’s what makes it theatre. “My choices are dictated by the productions I’ve seen and my experiences in the theatre.” Written twenty years ago or ten years hence the choices and the explanations would be different. Written by anybody else, they would be vastly different. But The 101 Greatest Plays, provocative title and all, was written in the last couple of years, in London, by a 75 year old man after 50 years of theatre criticism. In that sense, it’s almost an autobiography: whatever the details of one’s private life, from the outside how much more is a critic – the figure sitting in the darkness and casting judgement – than the plays s/he has seen? “I suppose this book is a summation of what I’ve been doing with my life.” 

The 101 Greatest Plays is published by Faber and Faber. You can read the Exeunt team’s list of Some Great Plays here

A selection of comments from the list of the 101 plays on the Guardian website:

equipocronica

Without knowing the drama in the original one is looking at version of it through the veil of the translator; one is, of course, missing the essential of literature, the actual words that the author has chosen, which applies to the French and English versions of Beckett: different words, different plays. My experience of translations has led me to eschew them and only read books in languages that I understand.

SackDacreNOW

This kind of pompous navel-gazing gives theatre a bad name.

Al_Neet

There’s no way 100 plays have ever been written.

I reckon half of these are made up.

And where’s The Full Monty? All those old men dancing cracks me up.

TheFall2007

Godot? not I? the crucible?

EvilEdd —> TheFall2007

The Crucible is at 78.

Bobolink

Why didn’t you just list them in date order; would have been less work?

geronimo55 —> Bobolink

He did.

Hawkeye Pierce

What a pile of fucking pretentious wank.

PJLRiley

101 plays. 5 by women. What a joke.

PapersNotInOrder —> PJLRiley

Didn’t realise there was a quota system for personal taste.

Bardolphe

‘The History Boys’ does not need to appear on this list and is ‘Doctor Who’ populism of the worst kind.

Imaginary Pogue

Your “imaginary female critic interrogating you” on your opinions is really cringeworthy, I have to say. Now, Lyn Gardner needs to do a list.

Dizzydog

It’s simply that you and those who hold your view are wrong.

nutkinsUK

I would’ve included most of Shakespeare and left it at that. He really is the first and last word, the alpha and omega. Everything else is just decoration or variations on his themes.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

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