Looking for something to do before the theater season begins in earnest later this month? Well, go for it — this morning the Guardian published Michael Billington’s list of the “101 greatest plays” ever written. The comments section is open and already filling up; I imagine you’ll want to get your two cents in there.
This is, of course, a mere list — for Billington’s rationale behind these decisions you’ll have to buy his book after it’s published tomorrow, wherein he explains why Samuel Beckett is represented by All that Fall and not by Waiting for Godot or Endgame, among other idiosyncratic selections. But even before the publication of the list, Billington raised a few hackles over it in “Choosing my 101 greatest plays — and why I left out King Lear“ last week. Alarms sounded online over two of Billington’s considerations. “I cherish an obstinate belief in the subversive voice of the individual dramatist,” he writes, defending his preference for the play rather than the devised work (a preference I share, by the way), and kudos to him for so bluntly stating his perspective.
But it’s the second that rankled most. “Already I can see a storm brewing in that only one of the living I’ve chosen — Caryl Churchill — is a woman,” the Guardian‘s chief critic noted, continuing:
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.
For the dialogues themselves, too, readers will have to turn to the book. It was this invented (however “not unreal,” whatever he means by that) female critic that drew opprobrium upon Billington’s head. Andrew Haydon, especially, crafted his opprobrium into the form of a letter from Billington’s imaginary female critic. “She” writes:
Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice list as much as the next woman, and I’m crazy interested to see another one written by a privileged white male. There have been so few, after all. But I do resent being conjured into existence just to be ignored. That does seem a bit much. I could cope, I think, with the experience of my gender being largely immaterial to your experience of the world — although, as you might have noticed, I am gently trying to achieve some level of parity for my own experiences.
Haydon has a few other good points to make in his own way, and for a few days a “Millicent Billington,” presumably Billington’s imaginary female friend, delighted followers on Twitter with a parody of the critic’s prejudices.
But, in the age of The Kilroys, mixing lists with women in drama seems to be a very volatile project. Surely Billington has an Internet connection and saw some of the press coverage of the group (including that of the New York Times), so the Kilroys’ attempt to redress the gender imbalance in the number of plays by women produced at mainstage theaters must not be entirely unfamiliar to him. Which makes his misstep all the more egregious. Billington is welcome to his aesthetic and critical preferences, certainly, and as I said above, I share a few of them. But this clumsy rationalization for his own blind spots just doesn’t fly very well; better, perhaps, if he’d used his deep, broad knowledge and sensitivity to theater and drama to explore this gender imbalance through history and, if he’s going to be idiosyncratic about things anyway, redress that imbalance in his own list. Good to examine those blind spots, of course; bad, though, to start assuming the responses of your antagonist from a position of influence and power. The problem with arguing with yourself is that you always best your opponent, no matter where you end up.