The joy of reading plays

A few days ago a friend of mine brought up an interesting topic of conversation, namely, the difference between reading plays and watching them live. There is, of course, the obvious fact that plays were written to be performed, so perhaps reading the words on paper is not appreciating them for what they are, not consuming them in their full potential. I remember being constantly told in English lessons in school to always keep in mind how Shakespeare wrote for an audience: after all, Macbeth was not written to be discussed and read in a classroom. So what is there to actually gain from reading plays?

It seemed obvious at first: surely anything is “worth” reading; surely plays are just as worth reading as novels, but some doubt arose from a comparison my friend made to reading the sheets of musical notes to hearing the music being played. This encapsulated precisely the issue of the limitations which arise from consuming art in a medium other than the one it is intended for. Perhaps novels are in a sense more worth the read since they are primarily written to be read. Of course, plays can be read solely for the fact that they are well written pieces of literature, but apart from academic analysis (studying the text as literature) and pure practical reasons (learning lines or as a director) why should we read plays? 

Reading plays does enhance the experience of watching live theatre, much more than reading a novel would enhance the experience of watching its film adaptation. Reading the original scripts draws attention to the director(s)’s and actors’ unique and specific choices, thus adding depth to your own understanding and interpretation of the script, as well as the particular performance you watched. For example, you may find that a striking moment in the live performance was not given any specific stage direction, and was thus born from the mind of the director, not the playwright. It also allows you to engage more critically and analytically with the stage production as you have a deeper knowledge of the source material. Further, having read a play prior to watching it allows for more attentive appreciation of other theatre elements such as set, costume, lighting, sound design, or even casting, which may not have been described in much detail. Reading the script will give you a rich understanding of the dialogue, most likely more so than simply watching it, and with this understanding and knowledge you can enter a theatre and give more focus to the aforementioned elements, and further analyse how successful you personally deem them to be. You can let your senses be fully immersed in the sights and sounds of the performance.

However, I do not think it necessary to have seen or be planning to see a play you read.

It can be practically difficult to watch a particular play you have in mind: location plays an important role; ticket prices can be high; and you would rely on a theatre company to decide to put it on. Unlike films, plays are not made readily available on popular streaming services or shown on TV; if you are dying to watch a performance of, say, Death of a Salesman, you might actually struggle to find a performance available to you. This is where reading plays comes in as a good alternative: you can have the experience of reading any play you want. 

Not exactly the same, of course, but our minds are creative and can fill in the gaps in the same way we would imagine the world of a novel. Arguably, this is easier and more successful with plays since they are often limited in settings and number of characters, not to mention the embedded stage directions which give explicit descriptions of what should be shown. When you read a play, your own interpretation shines through. Play scripts are meant to be performed, let your mind perform the piece for you. 

Plays also offer a shorter, more fast-paced reading experience than (most) novels. I always find myself at the beginning of each term saying that I will actually read lots of books for fun, but then I always find that term can be too hectic to allow for so much recreational reading time. The nice thing about plays are that they can, for the most part, be read in roughly the same amount of time it would take to perform them, meaning that in a few hours you could read a play cover to cover. I think this is ideal for busy term time when you can only dedicate so much time to read simply for fun.

The actual concept and practice of reading classic plays will be familiar to most of us: Shakespeare is required to be on every GCSE syllabus, and many of us will also have studied a 20th century play, An Inspector Calls being a popular choice. I believe this highlights just how culturally, socially, and historically significant drama is and has been for centuries. Thus, experiencing pieces of drama is something that enriches our lives, and reading plays is the most accessible way to do this.

It is also, in a sense, the purest way to experience theatre, as you are reading the words of the playwright. I think this is particularly the case with classic plays, of which there are many new and modern interpretations and re-writes. Although these are often innovative and accessible (and at times more entertaining), I think there is something to be gained from experiencing the play in its first form: as a written script.

To finish I want to give some recommendations of plays that I have enjoyed reading, only one of which I have seen performed live:

  1. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
  2. Machinal, Sophie Treadwell
  3. Translations, Brian Friel
  4. People, Places & Things, Duncan Macmillan

And to throw some Shakespeare into the mix:

  1. Twelfth Night
  2. Romeo and Juliet


Featured Image: Matt Riches on Unsplash

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