In 1991, Michael Billington estimated he’d published some two million words since joining The Guardian in 1971 as a theater critic. He’s likely written a couple million more for the U.K. paper since, most of them characterized by passion, commitment, moral zeal, and verbal felicity, qualities he says are essential in a reviewer. He’s also recently published State of the Nation: British Theater Since 1945, a masterful history of the intertwining of British theater and politics. On an unseasonably cold day in March, Billington met me at London’s Joe Allen, housed in a brick-lined West End basement, for an agreeably long lunch. Gentlemanly and articulate, with large spectacles and cheeks like a mature cherub, Billington discussed the state of his nation—and ours—in terms of the drama and its critics.
Let’s discuss the special relationship between British and American theater. This year you’ve given us The Seafarer and Rock ‘n’ Roll, and we’ve given you Hairspray. Does this seem entirely equitable? No, it’s not equitable. What it suggests is that we each borrow from each other’s strengths. Because obviously we admire, envy, rather worship American showbiz expertise and the ability to construct musicals out of very little. And what we supply to New York are plays that emerge from the subsidized sector. I know that American attitudes [hold that] subsidy and government support is tantamount to communism or the devil. And yet, where would Broadway be without regular imports from the British subsidized sector? What’s happening is, the British taxpayer is actually keeping Broadway going. So here we have this paradox: America, which supports the capitalist ethos of consumerism, actually depends very heavily on the British ethos to sustain it for dramatic quality. And we depend upon American showbiz. . . .
Since 1980, Britain has made vast leaps and bounds in terms of musical skills, choreographic skills, etc. We don’t need America in quite the same way that we did, but we are still smitten by American expertise, and rightly so. The American musical is one of the great 20th-century creations, America’s gift to the theater. We’ve certainly learned how to do our own anthology musicals, compilation shows. I don’t attend all of them, but I would argue that Mamma Mia! [a British original] is still one of the best I’ve seen of that genre, because it actually has a well-structured libretto and an almost operatic production. It finds a narrative thread on which to string the songs very effectively. So, yes, we have caught up in musical terms.
Lately, you’ve pioneered these television shows like Any Dream Will Do and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? [Precursors to our stateside You’re the One That I Want, the shows were contests to cast the leads in revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Sound of Music.] This is a dangerous phenomenon. Really dangerous. Casting a major musical as a result of a TV vote is open to abuse. Where does it end? Will the Royal Shakespeare Company one day seek to cast Richard III or King Lear by some democratic opinion poll or television show? I deplore the tendency.
Did you read the David Mamet screed that ran in the Voice recently? The one in which he says he’ll no longer write plays like a brain-dead liberal? I did read it. The first obvious thing to say is that David Mamet shows a fatal lack of understanding of his own talent. The idea that he ever wrote like a brain-dead liberal seems to me absolute nonsense. The fascination of David Mamet’s work has always lain in the tension between his fascination with American masculinity and his deep sensitivity, it seems to me, to social and political undercurrents, in the political ambivalence of his work. It raises for me the big question, [discussed] in Britain a lot for the last six months: Where are the right-wing plays? The feeling that the pace is set by the liberal, left-wing consensus in Britain. I don’t think there’s any sort of censorship in Britain of right-wing plays—it’s just that they’re not much in evidence. No one seems to be writing them. If they were, I think they would get a hearing. Also, you could say that what we term “right-wing values” are espoused daily by the musical.
And most romantic comedies. Yes, but especially musicals. They’re the popular art form, and mostly what they’re celebrating is the triumph of individualism over the collective spirit, the uplift by solo achievements, and the idea that the individual can change the world by falling in love. Every time you go and see Cats or Phantom of the Opera, you’re going to see a fundamentally right-wing show.
You’ve also suggested that, while not precisely right-wing, plays like Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll or Alan Bennett’s The History Boys do espouse conservative values. I think that’s true, conservative with a small “c.” The History Boys—which is a wonderful play, and I adore it—in a sense, it’s an elegy about a vanishing culture, it’s a sigh of nostalgia for values that Bennett thinks have disappeared. And Stoppard will openly admit that because he came to England from outside, he feels passionate about preserving and maintaining English [culture].
You’re very confident about these plays, but you’ve freely admitted when you’ve gotten it wrong. You’ve renounced your initial negative reactions to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Sarah Kane’s Blasted. What led you to recant? Subsequent viewings of the plays. It would be dishonest, having got Betrayal grossly wrong the first time around, not to admit when I see it the second or third time that this play is much richer and more complicated than I thought. But I don’t see anything shameful in critics standing up and saying they’ve got things wrong.
No, I think its brave! I don’t think it’s brave—it’s honest. Readers obviously love it, because you’re admitting your fallibility. But it’s the only honest response to works of art. It’s the job of the critic, historically, to get things wrong. The artist is always the pathfinder, pushing the art form in new directions in terms of form and content, which the critic cannot initially understand. We as critics are always going to be panting breathlessly in their wake.
So who is the audience you write for? The artists? The subsidizers? The potential spectators? To be blunt, the truth is, we are employees of journals, newspapers, magazines. So we are paid by them, and we’re writing for those readers. The other reality is that, given the imperatives of time and space, I don’t sit down at night and think about my reader, because I’m writing with 60 minutes to go, if I’m lucky, and 400 words in which to say it all in time for the next morning’s edition.
So you still have overnight reviews! Yes, I do mostly overnights.
In the States, we have overnights very rarely. Yes, I think they’re a uniquely British phenomenon. Every civilized country in the world has abandoned them. It’s an insane way to write reviews. Because Britain has a competitive newspaper market, where The Times and The Guardian and The Observer and The Independent are fighting for the same readers, we’re all doing overnights.
And you’ve been writing these at The Guardian for 37 years now. Do you ever look at the screen with that 60 minutes to go and panic, thinking, “My God, I’ll have nothing to say”? About four times a week! There are nights when you have a strong, clear reaction and a strong, clear idea of what you want to say. There are other nights where you’re seeing a play for the umpteenth time, and that’s when the job is incredibly difficult. Sometimes I’ve really thought: “I have nothing much to say about this play. The honest thing would be to send in a bit of blank screen.”