Sunday, May 16, 2010

How to Read a Play: First Thoughts

A friend suggests that I write about How to Read a Play.
There are lots of books on the subject, most with some variation of How to Read a Play in the title. And since I recoil from the notion of a step-by-step how-to schematic approach to a subject like this, I thought I would just post ideas from time to time in the hopes of helping readers find their own ways of thinking about it.

An Initial Idea:
Every story casts How Real Life Happens into a particular story telling form.
In the linear narrative forms (short story, novel), there’s a direct cause-and-effect logic to the words that compose sentences that create paragraphs. One word (If) leads to another (you), which leads to a sentence--If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth--and then on to a paragraph, and so on to building whole passages and chapters, all leading cumulatively to the end of the story--Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody--and ultimately, to a sense of the meaning of it all.

Readers often approach a play text with the same expectations they have when approaching a text of narrative fiction: They expect a logical linear verbal narrative. But that isn’t the storytelling form of plays, even those written for publication. (e.g., Ibsen and Shaw--more about that at another time.)
Stories told in the form of theatre put real people doing real things in recognizable environments in front of an audience. It’s a narrative, but it’s four-dimensional: It’s actually happening in front of you in/over time. And the dialogue part of the text of a play is a record of only the literal words spoken as part of the much more complex vocal/oral component of all that is happening in the story of the play. (Try this: record a charged, dramatic interchange between you and someone else; transcribe from the audio the words spoken; give the transcription to another person and ask them to tell you what's happening--or to enact what they think is happening. It is instructive how unlike the original experience the enactment can be when the reader has only the bare words that were spoken as keys to reconstructing a complex human interaction.)
Essential to reading a play is being able to see and to hear real people doing real things in a real environment in front of you. (“Real” doesn’t necessarily mean “realistic”, another topic for another time.)
Reading a play is not so much like reading a novel or a short story as it is like reading the score of a symphony or an opera and hearing the music while you read. In a play, "the music" is not just the words people speak, but rather also all that is happening beneath/beyond/besides the words. 
The novelist provides all such essential information; the playwright does not. So the reader of plays must.

Readers of plays tend to start by asking: Who are these people? What are they talking about? What do they mean by what they’re saying? How do they feel about this and about one another?
I want to suggest starting with a simpler more fundamental question: What’s happening here? (What's the "music"?)
All the elements of The Text help you to focus on What’s Happening:
*The title of the play
*Brief descriptions (unless it’s Shaw or O’Neill--more about that another time) of the locations and the people who are in those locations 
*The words people say to one another
*Occasional suggestions of how they say these words
*Occasional suggestions about things they do while they say the words
Learn to let all those textual elements guide your reading towards “What’s Happening”.

A caution: As you read a play for the first time, avoid trying to figure things out. Forget the high school and college analysis of literature courses that insist you regard every word as a clue to unlocking the mystery, solving the puzzle, finding the meaning, discovering what the play “is really about” and earning yourself an A+ (one reason I reject the step-by-step approach to How to Read a Play). Just read the play. Read freely. Regard the first reading as similar to reading the blurb of a novel or checking the contents page of a book, the introduction, chapter titles, etc., to get an overall sense of the movement of the book. Read the play without effort. Feel no anxiety about passages that don’t make sense immediately. If you have only a vague idea about what’s happening, that’s okay. Just read on. Let it play upon you. Get a feel for the story. A sense of what’s happening. A feel for the people who are living behind the words they are speaking.
Your main goal: 
  1. What’s happening at the start of the play? What’s the situation?
  2. What does it all get to? What's the situation at the end?
  3. What happens along the way?
What's happening at the start?
A country road. A tree.
Two homeless guys. One sitting on a mound trying to take off his boot. The other comes in.
“Nothing to be done.”

What does it get to?
“Well? Shall we go?” 
“Yes, let’s.” 
They do not move. 

What happens along the way?
If you read easefully, some passages are clear, some less so, but you’ll see/hear two old tramps doing stuff on a country road while they wait for Godot to come. In each act, two other men come by for a while and spend time with them.
So: What happens?
En Attendant Godot (While Waiting for Godot), the tramps do some stripped-down versions of things we all do: They eat, they sleep (fitfully), they reminisce, they complain and argue, they fuss over their clothes, they socialize with others, they do exercises, they piss, they wonder about religion, about tomorrow. They pass the time while they wait for the big payoff to come, at which time they expect they’ll be happy and fulfilled.
Once you've got the story sketched out, exploring individual passages in finer detail becomes easier and more easily rewarding.

Let’s try another one:

Three Sisters
(The title is always a good place to start.)
What happens?
Act One:
On the fifth of May, people gather in the main public room of the Prozorov house to celebrate the youngest sister Irina’s name day. (Lucky for us, the first speech is also one of those “here are a few things you should know” speeches.) As guests arrive, we get to see a little of what they are like and what their relationships with one another are. Finally, one of the guests, Natasha, gets Andrei, the brother of the family, to propose to her.
Act Two:
One evening the following winter, people gather in the main public room of the house for a pre-Lenten celebration. The new mother Natasha gets her husband Andrei to tell them all to leave before the celebration even begins. The act ends with Natasha blind-siding Irina with the news that Irina must give up her bedroom for Natasha’s new baby. Irina will have to share her sister Olga’s room.
Act Three:
People gather long after midnight in Irina’s and Olga’s shared bedroom as a fire destroys part of the town. Natasha initiates an abusive confrontation with Olga and then threatens her with constant such confrontations unless Olga moves downstairs to the floor where the renters live. 
Both Irina and Andrei have what-has-my-life-come-to meltdowns.
Act Four:
People gather in a chilly autumn morning outside the house as the soldiers leave town. None of the sisters lives in the house anymore. Natasha is inside with her lover and daughter while outside husband Andrei pushes their son in a baby carriage. Everyone gathers here because the soldiers will be passing through on their way out of town. Irina’s fianc√© is killed in a duel and in the end the three sisters cling to one another as the military band plays in the distance.

So: What happens?
Townie Natasha marries into the family and takes over the house.
In the meantime people fall in and out of love; they have affairs; they gamble and drink and complain and argue; they long for a time and place where they might be happy and fulfilled. 

Are you intrigued?
If yes, read it again. This time perhaps follow more closely the story arc of each of the characters. Bring the knowledge of what you now know happens throughout the play right to the beginning:

The middle sister Masha is sitting/half-resting on a divan dressed in black with her hat on her lap. She’s reading a book. She’s bored and angry. She doesn’t plan to stay long. She came early just to get away from her dry pedant of a husband.
Olga, the oldest, dressed in the blue uniform of a teacher, stands, perhaps paces, as she writes in her students’ notebooks. In charge of the party, she’s trying to get caught up on school work before everyone arrives. She is aware of Masha's mood and of Masha's unhappiness in her marriage.
Irina stands lost in thought and dressed in white. On the threshold of adulthood, she can’t wait to start life, to start working, to meet a magnificent man, to marry.
And so on. 
As each new person comes in, note the effect it has on all the others. Act One becomes “Here are a few things you need to know about the people of this house and their relationships with others”. The play story kicks into full gear when Andrei proposes to Natasha.

You work toward as detailed an understanding of each sequence of a play as I describe in the posting on the nunnery scene of Hamlet; but first you read for story, for understanding of the thrust of what happens throughout the course of the whole play. It's an outgrowth of Aristotle's dictum: the most important part of a play is its plot.
I love getting a new play and bursting my way through it just to see what I will understand of the story, how much I'm aware of what happens, what's clear to me, what's vague, and what I will have to do some real work on in order to understand. 

Readers have difficulties with plays, I think, because they put all their attention on the dialogue. Instead of focusing on what people are saying, focus on what they are doing and on what is happening to them.
The great cellist Pablo Casals once told a student, You’re playing the notes when you should be playing the music. Apply his idea to play reading: Read the text not for the dialogue, not for the logic and emotion of the conversations, but rather for what’s happening to the people. 
Read the notes so they can help you hear the music.
Read to experience the drama.
Everything else will come after.

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