150+ essays on literary topics
We are encouraged to believe, wrongly I think, that a play must be seen to be appreciated. To read a play, we are told, is to miss most of what the playwright intended. But that, I believe, is to miss the point.
Plays do not begin on the stage, but in a writer’s imagination, just like a poem or a work of fiction. Plays, poems, works of fiction come to life a second time in the imagination of their readers.
Of course, this is not to say that a play does not come to life each time that it is performed on a stage, just that an imagined performance lets the reader hear the words as the playwright heard them, in their heads.
Playwrights don’t just write the dialogue, they hear it and copy down what they hear. What you hear in your head when you read a play may well be a closer echo of what the playwright heard than what you hear in the theatre.
When Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan playwrights had their plays printed, it was not in the hope that some director would pick them up and put them on, but rather that their plays would go on being read when their short, transitory life in the theatre was ended, as it often was, and still is, by plague or politics.
The Elizabethans were poets too, which is to say that they cared as much as a poet does about language, about the sound of words as well as their meaning. When they wrote a speech, it had to do more than fit the character, it had to be musical too, which is why so many of them are remembered still.
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water.
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium?
But in the harvest of my summer joys
Death’s winter nipp’d the blossoms of my bliss.
The way to read a play is not to read it aloud but to read it as we used to read when we were children, slowly and carefully, hearing the words in our head, only occasionally for the pleasure of the sound whispering them to ourselves, as we might wish to do with those lines of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Kyd.
Later dramatists, though they wrote in prose, took the same pains to make their language rhythmical and tuneful. One doesn’t need to see Waiting for Godot on stage to be able to see and hear in one’s imagination the opening scene.
Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He stops, exhausted, rests, begins again. As before.
ESTRAGON (giving up again). Nothing to be done.
VLADIMIR (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle.
Or, to take an example from another of Beckett’s plays, All That Fall, we hear Mrs Rooney walking down a country road.
How can I go on, I cannot. Oh let me just flop down flat on the road like a big fat jelly out of a bowl and never move again! A great big slop thick with grit and dust and flies, they would have to scoop me up with a shovel.
That play was written for radio, a medium which is often said to have better pictures. It is certainly true that radio leaves more to the imagination than cinema or television, being closer to the ‘wooden O’ of Shakespeare’s theatre.
…can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Cinema and television perform that feat every day, having no need to ask the audience, as Shakespeare did in his prologue to Henry V, to ‘think, when we talk of horses, that you see them, printing their proud hoofs i’th’receiving earth’.
Instead of making itself more like radio, with all the language that it has at its disposal in the plays left behind by generations of playwrights, instead of doing what it does uniquely and best, theatre tries now to emulate cinema and television, with music, lighting and special effects. It is not uncommon nowadays to hear actors speaking Shakespeare’s words with music playing in the background, as it might in a movie with a script that would otherwise not be worth hearing.
The time of plague could have been an opportunity to encourage audiences, while theatres were closed, to read plays for themselves, to practise hearing the words while reading silently and seeing the plays in their imagination. There might still be time.