Putting a Face on Theatre
In the comments section from my last blog post two provocative questions were raised that I think deserve more investigation:
These are two very interesting questions and to give each its proper due, I think a two-part blog post is in order. Yes, that means you’ll have to wait until my next post to hear my thoughts on the second question. However, in the spirit of transparency I’m glad for the extra time as I’ll use it to poll dramaturges to weigh in on the question of whether a “play is literature.” And, just to be transparent again, I intend to reiterate some of my original response that is found in the comments section of my last post here in this post.
But back to that first question.
In my last blog post I wondered if there was a general trend that playwrights tend not to be included in literary readings. And let me be clear, the word “included” shouldn’t suggest they are being “excluded” intentionally.
But then the question arose as to whether plays belong at literary readings. Well, actually the question is something I inferred from one of the comments regarding the practicality of a playwright reading their play at a literary reading. Because after all a play is meant to be performed—all of it—by multiple players [read actors], with staging and light cues, etc.
The commenter made a fair point. That if a playwright performs their play by themselves at a literary event the experience isn’t how the play is meant to be performed/experienced, but I don’t think that should mean excerpts of plays shouldn’t be part of a literary reading.
Well, none of the excerpts read at a literary reading present the work (a book of poems, a novel, a memoir) in its entirety nor are they experienced by the audience in the way they were originally meant to be experienced.
I mean, look at novels. The way novels are meant to be experienced is through reading, right? The reader reads the novel, imagines the narrative as they go along, stops when they want to take a break and resumes when they are ready to do so. Yes, yes, I know we have books on tape/cd/podcast and we can hear an entire novel read to us, but I don’t think there are any easy answers to this question. Meaning I don’t think it’s as black and white as it may first appear. In fact, I think there’s a lot of grey area.
I guess my point is that when the author of a novel stands up and reads an excerpt the purpose isn’t to recreate the original experience of reading the novel (as an individual would read the book on their own). Those writers, in reading aloud [read performing] their excerpts, are stepping outside the experience that their fully realized work, the novel, is meant to be.
Therefore I would posit that the purpose of literary readings isn’t to recreate the fully realized experience of a novel, poem or play. Rather, it is to present listeners [read audience] with a taste of the writer’s story/poetry/play, something to whet their appetite for more. Now, of course you could take a cynical view of it and say it’s merely a PR move to sell books. Yes, literary readings can do that. But I prefer to think the main purpose of literary readings is to celebrate the written word, to shine a light on creativity and imagination. And I definitely don’t see any reason why playwrights shouldn’t be a part of that.
But if I say literary readings are about the “written word,” does that somehow exclude plays because of their performative nature? That’s a question I’ll explore next time when I discuss whether plays are literature, but I will say this: both poems and fiction (novels and short stories) have their origins as performances, as oral traditions. Ever wonder why Homer used iambic pentameter in his poetry? It was so that the person reciting (read performing) could remember the many, many lines of his epic poems. And telling stories around a fire is how communities passed down their histories and folklore for generations upon generations.
In the end, I a playwright am a writer, am I not? As a poet and a novelist are also writers. So yes, I believe playwrights and excerpts of their plays most definitely belong at literary readings.