plays aren’t books

This is getting a bit far afield from early modern books, but since I posted on the subject recently and since it is near and dear to my non-book research interests, here goes…

Today’s featured New York Times contribution to idiocy comes not from the Style section (although see the blather on Plan B careers for matter for someone else’s blog) but from the front page. There, just beneath the fold, you can read a piece by Dwight Garner on “Submitting to a Play’s Spell, Without the Stage.” The premise is that, on the eve of the Tonys, Garner is going to read the playbooks for the four nominees for best play. And so he does.

Why would he do this? Because he hadn’t seen any of the productions and he hadn’t read a play in a while. And what does he discover? Lo and behold, they’re not bad plays!

Reading this small pile of plays turned out to be a joy. If none are blinding classics destined to be heavily revived 10 or 50 years hence, the best are as sharp and thrilling and concentrated as first-rate short stories. Even the weaker ones are jangly and distinctive, and I’m not sorry to have made their acquaintance. They linger in the memory the way novels often do not. 

The best ones are as good as short stories! They could be even better than novels! Aargh! There’s something about the book form that has thrown this whole thing askew–reading a book, regardless of genre, invokes a set of reading conventions that, without examination, shifts immediately to prose, and not poetry or drama.

But, oh, it gets even better. Here’s my favorite part, just two paragraphs later:

Theater is a social and collaborative art form, and a playwright’s work is no doubt most fully realized on the stage. But to encounter plays on paper is to encounter them in their platonic form. You’re glued to the playwright’s words, not sitting in Row K jostling for an armrest while gawking at, say, Jane Fonda (who stars in “33 Variations”), wondering if all her years of aerobics paid off. While reading, you can submit more perfectly to the author’s spell and, what’s more, you are your own casting director. 

Where even to begin with this? How about the fact that although the collaborative process of theatre is the means by which plays come to life, the ideal form of a play is in the platonic union between playwright’s words and reader’s armchair? Then there’s the weird digression about Jane Fonda’s body–can a woman in her 70s possibly still be attractive?–and the horribly present bodies of other viewers.

I’ll stick to the book/reading thing, since that’s closer to my blog’s subject, and will list my objections to this rather than throw up my hands in disgust:

Objection #1: Garner assumes that the imagined performance he creates in his head is an equivalent for watching the play in a theatrical performance. But given that plays are created always through a collaborative process–between playwrights, actors, directors, audience, scenographers, just to name the obvious agents–an encounter that bypasses that process does not result in a play, but something akin to closet drama.

Preface to Objection #2: Garner is particularly interested in playbooks, not playscripts, for this piece. He starts off by noting that people used to read playbooks more regularly than they do now, and that published books of plays are readily available through Amazon and other sources. One of the reasons that published plays sold well was that not everyone could get to New York to see the latest hot thing, but that there was a cultural imperative to be familiar with it. A trip to your local bookseller, and there you go! Edward Albee, even in East Lansing.

Objection #2: Given Garner’s interest in playbooks, not playscripts, it seems particularly foolish to imagine that those books give you access to the playwright’s words without all that collaborative claptrap. What it gives you access to is a whole different set of collaborative claptrap–an encounter between playwright, print conventions, and often the stage manager’s and scenographer’s early staging. There’s nothing transparent about the relationship between text and form. Ever. And I know you all know that.

There is something interesting to be said about the experience of reading plays rather than watching them, especially when it comes to contemporary plays, and not those that we’ve been taught to think of as “classics.” And I certainly don’t want to argue against reading contemporary drama, for fun or for edification. But this piece–on the front page!–simplified both the theatrical experience and the print one.

Thanks for indulging me on this. My next post will be completely about early modern books, I promise, and I’ll try to work in a nice picture or two. So stay tuned! And enjoy the Tonys!

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