Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Round of Applause for Reading Plays

Currently Reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

(Yes, I’m giving Invisible Man another shot as I feel invincible after Moby Dick and I’d really like to finish this book before the end of the year.)

Cliché as it may sound, there’s something magical about seeing a live performance of a play. The lights, the costumes, the makeup, the sets – everything and everyone has been transformed to transport you to another world; to sweep you away from whatever is occurring in your life and suck you into the fictitious world of the actors. The scene is set, the lights dim, the curtain rises…

… and you’re sitting in your comfy chair at  home, snuggled in your bathrobe with a good book to begin?

Even though we’ve all done it – most likely in a Shakespeare unit in school – there’s something slightly incongruous about reading a play. Although there are plays that fall into the genre of “closet dramas” (which are plays that are intended to be read and give little to no consideration of the actual staging of the story), most plays are meant to be performed; they were written to be turned into a production that others could watch rather than read.

For this reason, a play is often enjoyed more when it’s acted out. Case and point: I took my roommate to see the Folger’s production of Romeo and Juliet this past Friday. It was his first time seeing Shakespeare performed live and at the end he asked, “Why don’t they teach Shakespeare this way? It makes so much more sense!”

For my roommate – and I’m sure for many others – seeing a production of a Shakespeare play actually makes the language much more accessible and therefore the story more enjoyable. He was simply astonished that Shakespeare was so often read like a novel when it’s not one; it’s writing that’s meant to be spoken and heard, not read.

So why is it that we consistently read plays? How on earth does this benefit us?

After giving it some thought, I’ve decided that there are several reasons we shouldn’t just stop reading plays entirely.

First, a play can still be considered a work of literature even if it’s a slightly different format from other works. Plays can be just as richly infused with themes, symbols, plot structures, and character developments as novels. Thus reading a play affords one the opportunity to dissect the literary devices used and to deeply analyze the story and characters that watching a play just doesn’t allow for as the action in a production is continuous. The audience can’t take time to ponder a particularly insightful monologue or sort through a confusing exchange of dialogue at a live performance as the actors will move on with the story whether you’re ready to move on or not.

Second, reading a play without seeing any performance of it means you’re working with a blank slate; you won’t have any preconceived notions of how a line should be said or how a character should look. A performance can very much color the way you view a play. This is especially true if a director or actor has decided to highlight certain aspects that you may not have thought were important. Perhaps he believes one theme is the main message of the play, but in reality, it’s just his perception of it. Maybe an actor decides to play to extreme subtext. Now you will be much more likely to only notice that theme or to read that subtext, which may or not be there. In much the same way that a movie version of a book can ruin the way you read that book afterwards – I’m looking at you Harry Potter films – seeing a play can also ruin your opportunity to let your imagination do what it will with the text provided.

Third, and probably the most important, reading a play allows for quality control. Again, a production of a play is subject to so many variables – like the director’s or the actors’ choices – and sometimes those variables don’t just affect the interpretation, they affect the quality. Ever see a production of Guys and Dolls in which Sky Masterson is going through puberty? Ever go to a play and the main actress has an extremely annoying habit of flapping her arms a certain way or maybe she just has a voice that sounds like nails on a chalkboard? Ever see a performance of Jekyll and Hyde in which the title character(s) has a lisp? I have. It’s not pleasant. If a play is a really good play, the text can stand alone. Reading it saves it from a potential mauling and therefore can save your opinion of it.

Don’t get me wrong. I do mostly agree that a play should be seen. I’m just arguing that maybe there’s some logic to the idea of introducing a play as text rather than performance. Perhaps the best option is to do both.

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