Even before moving to the U.K, I'd been reading Billington's theatre reviews in The Guardian for years and I was looking forward to his choices and the reasons behind them. As a regular theatre goer for most of my life, and having spent a year cramming for a drama comps for my now abandoned PhD, I thought I was fairly familiar with the canon. So imagine my initial shock when scanning the table of contents, I realized I'd only read/seen just a teeny bit over 50% of the plays on this list. Clearly I'm missing out on some great drama; I've never even heard of Ena Lamont Stewart or Eugene Labiche, and haven't read any plays at all by Carlo Goldoni, Lope de Vega or Heinrich von Kleist (the latter three each showing up twice on Billington's list).
Scanning his choices which are arranged chronologically, I can also see myself having a good debate with him. Love's Labour Lost over Much Ado About Nothing? Really? Design for Living - how could that triumph over Private Lives? Beckett's All That Fall is there but no Waiting for Godot or Endgame? Only one play by Tom Stoppard, even though it's my favourite of his - The Real Thing? No Frank McGuiness or Sarah Kane? Hmmm. I'm intrigued.
In his introduction, Billington writes, "as I drew up my initial list of plays, I had one basic idea in my mind: that the very best plays are rooted in their historical moment and yet have a sustainable afterlife. . . a great play is both an expression of its time and open to multiple reinterpretations." I'd agree with this sentiment and only add that for me, a great play also has to read well on the page, even though I recognize that it can become something completely different and magical when seen on the stage or even while listening to a dramatic recording. I still want to engage my imagination though through the written words.
It will be fun to revisit some old familiars and read something completely new and I'm sure that I'll enjoy Billington's essays on each of the plays on his list, which starts with The Persians by Aeschylus and ends with Mike Bartlett's King Charles III (both new to me). So, now I'm off to round up the Greeks. . .