Play as Paradox

Anne Bogart's picture

Chicago theater director Damon Kiely is about to publish a book entitled “How to Read a Play” with Routledge Press and he asked me to write the forward.   Inspired by the title of his book and the thoughtfulness of Damon’s manuscript, I wrote the following:

I love reading and yet I am usually anxious at the prospect of reading a play. I tend to put off opening a script for as long as I can because it requires such different tools from me than reading a novel, a poem, an essay or a biography. Plays are not intended to be read in solitude and plays ask for an inordinate investment of my patience and imagination.  Essentially a novel, a poem, an essay or a biography embodies the words contained within its covers and is brought to life by the reader’s imagination, but a play, also within its covers, ultimately exists to point at something else and it requires a team of diverse talents to animate it successfully.  A novel exists for its own sake.  A play requires a creative team to animate it in time and space. In plays, the exposition and actions are mostly expressed through dialogue and I must translate the dialogue, while reading, into mental images which include physical actions that reflect character and relationships, atmosphere, gestures, groupings, shadows, light, color, shapes, movement, facial expressions, noise and silences, sound effects and much more. I must imagine the voices including timbre, tone, timing and inflections.  I am required to imagine a four dimensionality that is only alluded to on the page. Consequently, I find plays exceedingly difficult to read alone.

And yet, as a theater director I must regularly sit in a quiet place and read new and old plays.  I read because I love the work of a particular playwright and I am eager to have access to new worlds they have imagined. I read because I love the theater and believe in its transformative power and this is often how I find my next project.  I regularly depend upon others to point me in the direction of new plays to read.  I depend upon my colleagues and upon the field at large to keep me in touch with fresh innovations and ideas.

By its nature the subject of the theater is social systems; how people and communities do or do not get along.  A play generally begins when something in the community goes array. The drama results from a group’s shared search for restored equilibrium from a state of social instability. Oedipus kills his father and sleeps with his mother, causing havoc in the house of Atreus.  Romeo and Juliet bear the brunt of their respective family’s feuds.  Linda Loman tries desperately to hold her husband and disintegrating family together.  Hamm, Clove, Nag and Nell try to go on living together in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic, de-populated world. From a state of imbalance, a group of individuals attempt to re-establish stability.

On the surface all great plays tell simple stories but are, simultaneously, complex and multi-dimensional. This paradox is key to an audience’s enjoyment of theater. I read a play not to understand it but to stand under it, to stand in its shade.  In reading it to myself I hope to gain access to the play’s inherent mystery. In the best case the mystery is gradually unleashed throughout the course of reading the play. I look for plays that can work this magic.

Playwright Charles L. Mee Jr. proposes that what distinguishes Shakespeare from lesser playwrights is that the reader’s journey in Shakespeare is away from rather than towards understanding. With many plays the trajectory is the opposite of what Mee suggests; the reader begins with the sense that each character is strange and unknowable and by the end has gained a familiarity with them.  In contrast, at the beginning of a Shakespeare play, the characters feel familiar and knowable to the reader and by the end they have become complex and unknowable. In this spirit, I read a play hoping to be increasingly disoriented and intrigued.  I want the process of reading the play to trigger associations and provoke ever more questions rather than ever more answers. 

The physicist Werner Heisenberg suggested that what artists and scientists share in common is one hand that firmly grasps the particular while the other reaches towards the unknown.  In practical terms, perhaps this suggests that a successful artist must be able to do nothing less than join the temporal (one hand closed upon the particular) with the eternal (one hand reaching towards the ineffable).  This is particularly tricky in the domain of theater because the playwright must attempt to accomplish this feat via dialogue.  Perhaps in the theater the plotline and characters are the temporal and the personal associations and feelings unleashed by the play in its audience is the eternal. 

As a solitary reader of a play, I must first find my own place in it. Where do I fit in and then where will the audience locate itself in relation to the production?  I must figure this out because the audience’s placement, both literally and figuratively, matters a great deal in performance. The task of the director, the actors and the designers is to translate the words on the page into actions in time and space. This is a vast and multifaceted undertaking.  In performance, plays operate like music.  A play communicates not only through plotline and dialogue, but also through the musicality of sound, light, action, gesture and tempi.  The actors choose actions and interactions in relation to the words and attempt to remain acutely present within the rush of the time set aside for the occasion.  Finally the audience is dropped into the middle of this complex situation already underway where the fictional social system of the drama and the real social system of the actors meet.  The audience, like me as the initial reader, must be able to find their own place in the event.

Damon Kiely has written a book that is readable and helpful to everyone faced with the very particular challenges of reading plays. Clearly driven by his own curiosity, Kiely examines how talented theater professionals throughout history have found success and true gratification in reading scripts.