Now that most theaters have been shut down due to the plague, i.e. COVID-19 or the coronavirus, everyone is wondering how to keep theater alive without doing a live show. This is something I have given a lot of thought on as I don’t get to see a lot of live theater. I have read many, many plays but I’ve only seen a small fraction of them performed. I consider seeing a production of a play I’ve read to be the icing on the cake, a treat. But often you have to be satisfied with just the cake.
I think I have a genuine appreciation of dramatic writing. I enjoy reading plays. Published play are usually a good bet. They are always intelligible because only a play which has been produced will ever be published. This means you are never going to read an excessively literary play that is incomprehensible as it would never have been produced. I enjoy absurdist plays and weird fantasy plays but a play which defies all understanding would never have a chance. This rules out a lot of academic exercises and literary gibberish. A full length play has a running time of two hours which means you can also read the script in about two hours. Most plays can be read in a day. But the best thing about plays is that they are written to either entertain you or to move you. A play is the only form of writing that can change my mood. No novel or poem has ever moved me to tears or caused me to laugh out loud.
Since I am not an actor or a performer there is little chance I will ever be involved in theater except maybe as a playwright. Therefore it is necessary to ponder what I get out of theater and how I might get it without being directly involved in theater. This has led me to consider what is essential in the art form. By essential I mean what essential human needs does it serve. I think part of the value of theater is that it allows us to reflect upon life. Most people just follow a routine without giving much thought to the meaning of it all. They refuse to reflect upon the course their life has taken and they don’t explore how they feel about it. This amounts to a neglect of the soul, the deeper self. The unexamined life keeps the deeper feelings hidden and makes your deeper self a stranger to you. I’ve always admired how a great play brings things out in the open and gives the soul a voice. Finally, what always needed to said is said even if it is painful or embarrassing. For a deep, thoughtful person the theater can be a breath of fresh air, a revelation, an affirmation of what is known but never spoken.
I also enjoy wit and the theater has attracted the world’s greatest wits. If tragedy gives us the depths of our being, comedy gives us its wit. Part of the fame of Shakespeare lies in his witty dialogue. As you read his plays or see his plays performed you will notice that the one thing he dares to brag about through his characters is his sharp wit. Even Hamlet, that great tragedy which is so revered for its profound character, is full of wit. Perhaps the greatest wit of modern times was Dorothy Parker and although she mostly wrote poems, she also reviewed plays and even wrote a few. Dorothy Parker was also a very bitter person and had many dark thoughts but this just gave a cutting edge to her wit. Sometimes a witty remark is great way to reveal a bitter truth without being too confrontational.
It is possible to enjoy the workings of a great wit or the profundities of a deep soul without seeing an actual performance. It is true that seeing facial expressions and hearing the voice can bring a lot to the experience. But you can still enjoy witty repartee on the page and the consideration of profound thoughts in writing. You would be missing out on a great deal if you confined yourself to live performance. Even a wealthy man living a life of leisure can only spend so many nights at the theater and he is at the mercy of what the theater company chooses to put on. But the reader is free to follow his own tastes and can consume a vast quantity of dramatic writing. Remember, since you can read a play in just one day it is possible to read thirty-one plays in a month or three hundred and sixty five in a year.
How much pleasure you can take in reading a play depends on how good your imagination is. I generally don’t imagine the scene in any great detail and I might not even imagine the play as it would appear on a stage. But many published plays include production stills, dramatic photos taken during the performance, so you can get some sense of the stage production. A play is mostly dialogue so you have to picture the interaction of people. There will often be very little description of the scene or setting. While reading dialogue it is often easy to imagine how the characters would express themselves. After years of watching television and movies I can easily imagine how professional actors would play any scene. But this isn’t necessarily how a stage actor would play a scene so seeing a play can often be surprising. Stage acting often appears more mannered or exaggerated than the subtle and intimate acting we are used to on the screen.
So having identified what I value in theater, is it possible to have that without going to the theater. Absolutely! The human condition can be examined by reading novels. You can explore the deeper self by studying psychology. And best of all, you can just read various forms of dramatic writing. Let’s not forget that screenplays are a form of dramatic writing and films are a sort of dramatic performance.
I don’t much care for abstract art. I feel that art should be related back to what is essential and vital in the human condition. We should try to find the meaning of life in our art. I detest “show business” in the sense that it devolves to just showing off, a vain exercise in winning applause with shallow displays of virtuosity. This is just more of the surface pleasantries that keeps our real feelings hidden and unexplored. Art should be what gives life its depth.