“Why do it? Why put my head on the chopping-block by writing a book hubristically entitled The 101 Greatest Plays?” Thus starts Michael Billington’s essay, which goes on to explain the imaginary female critic he’s created to discuss his choices with: controversially, they leave out King Lear and only include one play by a living woman. The book’s not out yet, but we have his list in full, and are invited to argue with it by a subtitle that goadingly asks: “the Guardian’s theatre critic has selected what he thinks are the 101 greatest plays ever written, in any western language – so do you agree?”
Well, of course we don’t. We’re not meant to.
Lists are fun, offering a comforting kind of sense of imposing order on chaos that applies just as much if you’re a theatre critic or a fifteen year old simplifying your tangled feelings by rating crushes in felt tip at the back of Geography. But they’re also designed to be swapped and shared, and challenged. They’re intensely personal, with all the flaws and strengths that implies, and can’t be separated from the personal experience, politics and worldview of whoever’s making them. At school I remember mentally totting up and treasuring the rare female names that would pop up in the anonymous, seemingly neutral lists we covered in science or history lessons. I couldn’t decide if there was a conspiracy to keep quiet about famous women, or if women were just less good.
My personal ideal canon would easily correct that early-instilled worry, while displaying a thousand other unconscious biases of my own. Even listing a few favoured plays, I found myself a constantly second-guessing and third-guessing my choices. Too Anglo-centric, too twentieth century, too obvious? Or unreasonably dear to me, for their power to express something about my life that I never see on stage?
When submitting her entry, Exeunt writer Verity Healey contributed that “it cannot be the plays alone, the writing alone, that does it”, pointing to the importance of the directors, creatives and cast that make up productions. “Without that, words remain words on a page and are something else and are experienced and processed differently. I came to theatre very, very late in life, but I wonder if it is because previously, I was exposed to the wrong kinds of plays, or at least, the productions did not challenge my world view or hold me in thrall.”
A list of plays like Billington’s almost seems old-fashioned, thin without the rich texture that’s added by our lived experience of the contemporary theatre culture that stages and discusses them. And so does the bold, seeming objectivity of its title (renounced in its pages). Subjectivity is ever so modish. “I don’t give a shit if this sounds biased”, writes Stewart Pringle, confidently, picking a great play staged at the Old Red Lion, where he is artistic director. Mine are “super-American choices”, explains New York writer Nicole Serratore. And writer and academic Duska Radosavljevic confirmed my hunch that “The best way to respond to Billington’s subjective list is by another subjective list, even if it’s a group one, featuring multiple subjectivities.”
So with all this in mind, what does Exeunt think is great? Sarah Kane, for one. Four entries for four separate plays. Otherwise, it’s an eclectic list, no play chosen twice. But even so, the vast majority are from the last decade, many from the last five years. The gender balance of playwrights is roughly even, slightly more men than women. Most are British, English specifically. (With the exception of Bojana Jankovic’s brilliantly far-reaching choices, which include a play by a 10th century German canonness). They’re all great, but and their greatness has been thrust under our noses through their implicit canonisation by producers, directors, actors, established venues, publishing imprints, reviewers. And to look at a list like this is to interrogate how much each of these factors plays into our subjective choices, and to what extent brilliance can sparkle its way out of obscurity.
Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play – Anne Washburn
– This is theatre coming up to meet popular entertainment. This never happens because people think theatre can’t hack it. It totally can. What theatre’s also better at than it thinks is creating a monstrously ambitious world and showing us only a tiny bit of it.
Leaves of Glass – Philip Ridley
– There is nothing more dramatically terrifying than feeling the catacombs crumbling behind you and walling you up in a story forever. Fate is bullshit – tragic, avoidable decisions are everything.
Phaedra’s Love – Sarah Kane
– Because yes actually, you CAN be the 21st-century’s most influential dramatist and be fucking hilarious. Always have a sense of humour about your work and yourself – it unnerves pretentious people.
A Taste of Honey – Shelagh Delaney
The story that surrounds the creation of Delaney’s play is extraordinary – her letter, her discovery by Joan Littlewood – but not more so than the work itself, which is plain-speaking, tough and fiercely devastating. I watched through tears.
Torch Song Trilogy – Harvey Fierstein
An epic look at the world of a Jewish drag queen in 1970s New York that gives you a peep hole into a club scene that manages to feel intimate, not voyeuristic. And it shows theatre’s power to change perceptions too, through its insight into a gay man’s longing for home and family, then still unrecognised by legislators and society alike.
The Browning Version – Terence Rattigan
Forget the stuffy trappings of the Public School and the whiff of stale Mr Chips, Rattigan’s story of a used-up schoolmaster and a cruelly mauled act of kindness is a simple, acutely drawn and absolutely devastating portrait in miniature.
Our New Girl – Nancy Harris
– Pure north-London gothic in a play that blends The Omen, The Hand that Rocked the Cradle and Kramer vs. Kramer into an unlikely but powerful story of the impossible strains of parenthood.
Mugs Arrows – Eddie Elks
I don’t give a shit if this sounds biased (it’s run at the Old Red Lion twice in two years), Eddie Elks’ pub-set story of masculinity splintering against a fence-post is one of the smartest, funniest and most quotable plays in basically forever. Pinter-esque pauses and a pack of Pork Scratchings. Meet you at the oche.
Psychosis 4.48 – Sarah Kane
Because it is unbearably painful, universal, truthful, simple and full of love. But it’s also hateful, complex, full of lies, personalised, obsessed and sometimes trite. In other words, full of contradictions, a no holes barred mirror to our inner selves. The playwright must write as if she is ‘dipt’ in ink. I am sure it has freed many of us to write it as it is.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – August Wilson
Because of that wonderful scene where Loomis finally breaks down- in front of everyone. Then he’s cured of his trauma, or is on the way to being. And it’s the fact he has to break down and have it witnessed by others and in a safe environment, that is the great intelligence of this play. If he had been alone, he might not have found redemption. We learn our stories need to have witnesses, an audience. I think this is one of most compassionate and emotionally intelligent plays I have ever read and witnessed on stage.
A Breakfast of Eels – Robert Holman
Proves that the smallest of interactions and the smallest acts of history can be magnified a 1,000 times on the stage and given meaning. Here, characters actually talk to each other, try to help each other and work out problems. And it’s a good critique on the fickleness of human nature too.
I am the Wind– Jon Fosse (English language version Simon Stephens)
Read and imagine and see. It’s a play full of dramatic existentialism and where there is another one waiting to get out.
Cock– Mike Bartlett
Sexuality, identity and indecision. Cock is a love-story that just so happens to work effortlessly as a subtle critique of capitalism. Bartlett schools us on how to do metaphor on-stage.
Far Away – Caryl Churchill
The late-great Sarah Kane once claimed “you could learn everything about writing plays by reading Edward Bond’s Saved”. She may well have had a point. But, for my money, it’s Churchill’s absurdist political-fable, Far Away, that represents the perfect fusion of formal invention and blistering theatrical storytelling. It’s images sear themselves onto your imagination. The language is volatile. Genius.
Mirrorteeth – Nick Gill
Mirrorteeth isn’t subtle. Heck, it isn’t even the best Nick Gill play. But it’s the theatrical equivalent of being punched in the get and tickled all at the same time. It’s a jet-black, embittered comedy-of-manners that takes in torture, race, class and murder. It’s by turns hilarious and devastating and demonstrates Gill’s mercurial talents as a playwright.
Cloud Nine – Caryl Churchill
This play presents Churchill’s impressive balancing act between the light and the sinister, the political and the personal, at its best. Gender-bending, sexuality exploring and race swapping, it is an advocate for social freedom with a playful approach to casting. it is as funny as it is thoughtful, and as with most of Churchill’s work, only gets richer and more relevant with each indulgence.
Constellations – Nick Payne
An astonishing, beautiful, fragile, compelling contemplation on multiverse theory and the perpetual human fascination with what could have been. A rare example of a heartfelt story balanced with complex scientific thought, with charming, loveable characters to carry it forward.
The Effect – Lucy Prebble
The Effect is intellectually rich with poignant questions that remain a little haunting, long after reading or seeing the play. What is love? How do we define it? Is it simply a combination of chemicals, or something more profound? At the end of the play, the question remains unanswered, and I hope it stays that way.
Revolt. She said. Revolt again – Alice Birch
Alice Birch’s astonishing play is a feminist call to arms for a new generation – the Top Girls of the twenty-first century, with just as much interest in formal experimentation as Caryl Churchill’s landmark text. Complex, angry and as revolutionary in spirit as its name suggests.
Men in the Cities – Chris Goode
A play for one performer that feels epic in its scope is no small feat. Men in the Cities teems with the small details that make up a vast picture: newspaper headlines, voices on the radio, snatches of thought. It all adds up to a furious and devastating portrait of masculinity under late capitalism.
Paphnutius – Hrotsvitha
German theatre kink can be traced to before regietheater. In fact, it goes all the way back to Hrotsvitha, a 10th century canoness and the first known female playwright. Hrotsvitha copied Terence, ostensibly for moralistic purposes, and hid her free-thinking comedic genius within politically correct narratives of fallen women repenting and such. In Paphnutius, she goes after masculine hypocrisies and slut-shaming – as any self-respecting feminist of the Dark Ages would.
The Belgrade Trilogy – Biljana Srbljanovic
Turning 20 this year, Srbljanovic’s first play unravels the alienation of the immigrant experience through stories of brain-drained Serbs who wound up in Prague, LA and Sidney only to find their nagging aspirations clash with constant rejections. Available in translation from your local bookshop, The Belgrade Trilogy is perfectly poised to dissect the lives of us swarming immigrants – let any interested theatres know.
Lorenzaccio – Alfred de Musset
Taking place in 16th century Florence, Lorenzaccio follows a discouraged and disgruntled Lorenzino de’ Medici on his quest to kill the city’s tyrant – a man who is not only corrupt to the bones, but also enjoys serial rape in his free time. Turns out no one in the city has any interest in prolonging the revolution past the act of tyrant-killing. Political apathy and eyes-wide-shut mentality: it appears they’ve been around for centuries.
Offending the Audience – Peter Handke
A play written in 1966 to which we owe much of postdramatic theatre as well as some of Tim Crouch’s work.
The Castle – Howard Barker
The play and playwright who deeply influenced Sarah Kane (and many a university drama student of the 1980s and 1990s in the UK and beyond).
Blasted – Sarah Kane
The most humane representation of the war in Bosnia.
Attempts on Her Life – Martin Crimp
A play which reinvented the notion of dramatic character for the 21st century.
Oh What a Lovely War – Theatre Workshop
A play which reinvented the notion of theatre authroship as
belonging not to a single playwright but to a group of people.
The Piano Lesson – August Wilson
Epic family drama about how slavery has scarred African-American families in America and yet a beautiful and sad look at how families keep moving in the face of the unthinkable. It is a play that shows how slavery is still haunting 20th century America.
The Flick – Annie Baker
Never has something so small felt so epic. Giving a large stage over to the tiniest of feelings, dreams, and large swaths of silence, this funny and sad play about three workers at a dying local movie house seems to magically make small moments of human interaction the most important things in life.
Angels in America – Tony Kushner
One of the first plays I saw when I moved to New York and it kind of ruined me for life–to think there was a time Broadway was putting smart, new, and adventurous ideas on stage. With humor and intellectual richness, it connected politics, religion. sexuality, and love in ways I had never considered. And the only time I ever staged-doored in my life was to get Tony Kushner to sign my playbill.
The Ridiculous Darkness – Wolfram Lotz
Topical without trying to be current and playfully aware of Europe’s festering wounds of colonialism in Western European culture Wolfram Lotz’ new play is a deliciously rich reworking of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! With its constant references to anuses and throats the piece pulls focus on the dark crevasses of Western privilege in both art and warfare. And it’s funny, too.
The Maids – Jean Genet
This psycho-surrealistic exploration of two sisters both working as maids is based on a real-life 1933 murder. The sisters fantasise about killing their ‘Madame’ – a young, rich and beautiful woman, whose airs, graces and cruelties exhaust and infuriate them. They spend much of the piece playing either their Madame or their sister, in a theatrical feedback loop of ritual and obsession.
Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off – Liz Lochhead
An undisputed modern classic in Scotland, a play of historical investigation and self-definition. The half-sister queens Elizabeth I and Mary I an ideal setting for a play about Scottish identity: ‘twa queens on the one island’. The play dissolves into the schoolyard chant of its title, pulling history through living bones and threatening it on the future.
The Light Burns Blue – Silva Semerciyan
One of the Tonic Theatre Platform plays published this year, inspired by the story of the Cottingley Fairies and devised by the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, this is proper underside of history stuff. A girl remembered as a childish hoaxer is refigured as a young female artist – a big bold grown-up play suitable for all ages.
Crave – Sarah Kane
It amazes me that people can dismiss Sarah Kane’s work as being shock factor alone, when her theme is always love: expressed brutally and savagely (and sometimes cannibalistically), sure, but when is love not all of those things? For me, Crave is one of the greatest dramatic expressions of love as both a fracturing and a unifying force. Originally intended to be performed in the dark, it is a highly sensory, lyrical, aural experience, that offers glimpses of narratives and then snatches them away again. It gives a beautiful profession of love to a self-professed paedophile, seems to take place in a crumbling city landscape that could be London, could be Manchester, could be Troy for all we know, and shakes in a handful of T S Eliot lines to boot. Looking at the fragments, it shouldn’t make sense, but the whole they make is extraordinary.
Exeunt’s full list of great plays will be published in 2071, and will rival the Kuthodaw Pagoda for size and heft. For now, you can read more about Michael Billington’s rationale here.