Michael Billington Book Discussion Success

Michael Billington Book Discussion Success

Last week St Catz alumnus Michael Billington returned to the College to discuss his latest book The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present (Faber, 2015) with English Fellow Dr Kirsten Shepherd-Barr. The event was a fantastic success, with the audience of students, Fellows, and visitors from across the university and city enjoying listening to Michael Billington’s vast experience of drama from his many decades as Guardian theatre critic.  He also shed light on how his experience of studying English at Catz fed directly into his career. Dr Shepherd-Barr questioned Michael Billington on how he chose the plays included in the book, why he made some startling omissions (like King Lear and Waiting for Godot), and what he considers to be the qualities that make a great play. 

Asked how he defines “greatness,” and what his criteria were in choosing the plays for his book, Michael Billington said he particularly values plays that have moral ambivalence—leaving the audience with conflicting emotions that allow you to see both sides of an issue and make you “surrender emotionally to what you doubt rationally.” Billington also values plays that pose questions but don’t give answers, thus leaving the audience to make up their own minds as to what action ought to be taken, given the dilemma posed by the play. Another criterion he mentioned is the ability to inhabit multiple time zones simultaneously:  plays that are rooted in their historical period but speak to us now, that look backward and forward at once, and transcend the generational barrier.  This helps them stand the test of time and lose none of their power. 

Michael Billington picked out several plays from his book and together with Dr Shepherd-Barr, the pair read aloud sequences of dialogue before discussing their significance.