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A frequent theatregoer celebrates the experience of reading scripts
I'm pretty sure we were all assigned Hamlet, Macbeth, or Romeo and Juliet back in high school. A few of us read them; others picked up the CliffsNotes. (At the risk of giving away my age, this was a time before Wikipedia recaps.) But aside from Shakespeare in the classroom and the just published anomaly Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, how much play reading goes on in the world?
Not much, I bet. Especially if you eliminate actors searching for monologues or learning their parts. Even theatre lovers may excuse themselves from this pastime, claiming a play isn't fully realized until it's up on stage. Yet how many half-baked productions of great shows have we all suffered through? Let's face it: A script is rarely as fully realized as it is in your imagination, which has no bad actors, bad designers, or bad directors.
It was actually Gertrude Stein who truly opened my mind to the notion of drama as literature. By which I mean something to be read and not necessarily seen. In her early, curiously named anthology Geography and Plays, her shortest one-act, A Curtain Raiser, is a mere 30 words -- a third of them numbers! What does it mean, this strange word salad with no listed characters and no proposed setting? Stein asked, "Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?" So does it have to mean something to enjoy it? You certainly don't need to visualize it. And I did enjoy it in a weird sort of way.
Stein is, I suppose, the Cubist poet of the theatre. But her Curtain Raiser is not the only play to challenge convention in terms of characters, settings, and the like. Look at Richard Foreman's Lava or Adrienne Kennedy's Sun. Never heard of them? That's probably because no one's producing either at a theatre near you. Having read them, I'd add, that's too bad. As poetical works, they're fascinating. And who would dispute the literary value of canonical poets who have wielded their pens for the stage, such as Ted Hughes with his astonishing adaptation of Seneca's Oedipus and Shelley's equally ornate tragedy The Cenci -- neither of which seems to get revived ever. Yet both strike me as genius on the page. But I'm not interested in arguing simply for A Poets' Theatre. I've found reading well-made, oft-mounted plays just as rewarding, and not just because they seem easier to produce or envision.
Plays often move faster than novels, and pack in more action than short stories while offering greater breadth within fewer pages. Plays are often quotable -- which is great for your Twitter feed -- and they speak their ideas through dialogue, which is how we tend to communicate the deeply conceptual naturally. (Even Plato knew that with his Dialogues.) And because plays tend to be so much shorter than books, becoming familiar with a dramatist's oeuvre can take a hell of a lot less time. You can read Sophocles' Three Theban Plays much more quickly than Homer's Iliad. I recently devoured Annie Baker's The Vermont Plays in a fraction of the time it would've taken me to get through just one of Faulkner's novels set in Yoknapatawpha County. Don't get me wrong. I like Faulkner. I love Homer. But there's something pleasurable about exploring a writer's sensibility across multiple works in quick succession.
On one recent occasion, my play reading brought with it an unusual mystery. I'm not talking about Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists, Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, or Lynn Nottage's Ruined -- all of which qualify as page-turners. I'm referring to Jane Martin, the pseudonymous Pulitzer Prize nominee, whose work has been seen off and on at the Actors Theatre of Louisville since the early '80s. No one knows who Ms. Martin is or if she's even a she, so while reading "her" Collected Plays Volume II, I found myself asking, who is this mysterious writer really? Is it even one person? And if not one, how many? As the Bard himself says, "The play's the thing." So for now, I'll just keep on reading.
Drew Pisarra's theatre experiences range from ventriloquist (Singularly Grotesque) to librettist (The World Is Round), choreographer (Ladies' Voices) to master of ceremonies (White Wines). Follow him on Twitter at @mistermysterio. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Photo: the author's bookshelf.