Why Read a Play?

Why read a play? Isn’t play-reading the rarefied and esoteric domain of theatre practitioners and academics, or, at its least rarefied, a mere curricula item in high school and college English courses? Why read a play as opposed to fiction and poetry? What can a play offer to the silent, solitary reader?

Let’s compare drama to its more popular literary cousins, poetry and fiction. Drama, like fiction, is based on characters and narrative, but its expressive mode is more similar to that of lyric poetry: concrete, specific, instinctual, in the moment. Drama, in this sense, is a composite of poetry and fiction, and a highly compact one at that; worth mentioning, in this age of truncated attention spans, is that plays, unlike (most) novels or (most) books of poetry, can easily be read in one sitting (Shakespeare, period drama and dense modern playwrights like Eugene O’Neill being notable exceptions). In short, and somewhat cynically, (good) drama gives you complex characters and narrative sweep in a package reasonably conducive to our habitually time-pressed age.

So why, then, do more people not read drama? Perhaps because of that well-nigh sacred maxim, “plays are meant to be seen.” To which we can reply, yes, but reading them animates the most perfect, makeshift, manipulable theatre of them all: that of the mind. The mind’s theatre is ours, and we its director.

Play-reading necessitates acts of embodying and vivifying, much like what a composer does when reading a score; it requires practice, but, unlike score-reading, no special training. Simply put, it is an exercise in what one might call creative reading, the reading of what Roland Barthes would call “writerly texts,” in which the reader becomes the site of the production of meaning. With such texts, the author becomes as much a creator as the author. As a play is almost always completely external (that is, composed mostly of dialogue and action) and subtext is almost always completely implicit, the making of meaning rests heavily with the reader. A play, therefore, is the most writerly text there is.

So that’s what dramatic literature can offer you, arguably more than any other genre (or at least as much as esoteric modern poetry): creative reading. And, more often than not, all in the space of one night.

Recommended Reading

For those new to reading plays, always a good place to begin is the infinitely readable Tennessee Williams. I would recommend that one start with one of his lesser-known works so that one’s mind isn’t diluted with memories of a previous production or film adaptation–try Summer and Smoke or Camino Real. But if one really wants to delve into the realm of creative reading, I’d suggest the shorter, uber-stylized plays of Samuel Beckett (as he himself said of his own work, “I produce an object. What people make of it is not my concern.”) or the spare, unadorned, metatheatrical plays of Daniel MacIvor (i.e. This Is A Play, In On It).

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