On Readability: The Joy Of Reading Plays Part 2
images: Yale University Press / Methuen Drama
Recently I had the first eight pages of a play I’ve been working on read aloud by actors at the Inkwell Theatre’s monthly virtual Playwrights Night. The first chunk of this work features a lot of stage direction up front, including a significant amount of “stage business” (wordless actions performed by actors onstage). I hadn’t had the chance to go through and really fine-tune the text before the live reading, so when the performance kicked off, those watching were treated to, effectively, a single actor reading a short story full of vivid descriptions, metaphors, similes, and various other tools normally reserved for the fiction writer rather than the playwright.
I felt it almost immediately: the audience and even the other cast members began to check out. Just a little bit. Just enough that, while I don’t think anyone else really noticed, I certainly did. (One friend did tell me that they struggled to really listen to and absorb the stage directions, but once the other two actors playing characters began to perform in earnest, she was all-in). I realized I had inadvertently fallen into a trap that numerous other playwrights have found themselves ensnared within over the entire history of drama: I was flexing my own writerly muscles rather than considering the readability of the text.
This isn’t to say the stage directions were unintelligible or that the basic ideas conveyed through the words were convoluted or confusing. It’s just that, by and large, the text was “overwritten,” or “over-baked.” There was too much embellishment, too much “selling” of particular ideas when they were already effectively sold. Take for instance this description of a the furniture occupying the apartment where the play is set:
The furniture—couch, chair, end tables and coffee table, all in shades of black and/or grey—is neither beautiful nor ugly. They are neutral to a degree, possibly purchased from IKEA or another modestly stylish yet affordable manufacturer.
The lone stand-out is the dining table, which is an uneven disc of thick wood that appears to have been sliced directly from a great Redwood, mildly sanded and lacquered, and delivered to the apartment by the very burly lumberjack who carved the piece from its natural habitat. The table would look more at home in a lodge somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Here, it looks like a slab of Americana on display in a contemporary art museum, possibly meant to be perversely mocked and appreciated simultaneously, a celebration of its kitsch value more than its bare-bones functionality as a place to eat hot bowls of chili or play solitaire by firelight.
This might fly in a work of fiction (though again, I feel I’m overselling the idea of this table a bit), but in the context of a play, it’s way too much. While novels and short stories have the room to spread their linguistic wings a bit, scripts almost exclusively thrive in brevity. Note the difference in the text when I tone things down:
The lone stand-out is the brown dining table, which would look more at home in a rustic lodge somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. In the apartment, it looks like a slab of Americana on display in a contemporary art museum.
Rather than an entire bloated paragraph describing this table, we have instead a straightforward acknowledgement of the piece’s incongruity with the rest of the furnishings—i.e., the shorter text achieves the same idea as the longer chunk, which creates a more evocative picture in the mind of the reader, but which, in the end, does nothing for the audience member of a full production, who will literally see that incongruity on stage when they view the rustic lodge table set against the other more modern or “urban” furnishings.
But what about staged readings and, more to the point, reading play scripts as one might read a book? If we’re considering printed plays as literature—and I very much do—and if there are to be elements to a script that audiences will never technically “see,” at least in a conventional sense, then should a playwright practice brevity at all? In other words, should the length of a particular description matter when we’re dealing with printed or published works?
Once upon a time I didn’t think it mattered. In “5 Dramatists as Novelists: The Joy of Reading Plays,” a piece for LitReactor published in 2013 (ten years ago!), I (mostly) agreed with playwright Edward Albee, who argues that while staged performances were fine and well, the superior experience of a play lay in reading one over seeing one, because then you were in direct conversation with the author—a conversation not filtered or watered down by other creative forces, like actors, directors, designers, etc.—and that, moreover, there is no better designer or creative force than the reader’s own imagination. I also extolled the virtues of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which is effectively a rather dense novel disguised as a three and a half hour drama. The author (to call him a playwright in this context would be misleading; Long Day’s Journey, as I previously asserted, is a novel, not a play) spends two pages introducing us to the protagonist James Tyrone, a famous and distinguished actor. Here’s a passage from said introduction:
The stamp of his profession is unmistakably on him. Not that he indulges in any of the deliberate temperamental posturings of the stage star. He is by nature and preference a simple, unpretentious man, whose inclinations are still close to his humble beginnings and his Irish farmer forebears But the actor shows in all his unconscious habits of speech, movement, and gesture. These have the quality of belonging to a studied technique. His voice is remarkably fine, resonant and flexible, and he takes great pride in it.
This lengthy introduction leaves no room for interpretation; what you read on the page is how the dialogue should be delivered (though again, I contend that O’Neill never imagined this behemoth getting produced in the first place). But does a piece of fiction or even a play have to be textually and symbolically fixed in order to be considered “literature”? No, of course not.
Once upon a time I thoroughly enjoyed consuming Long Day’s Journey, but now I find the experience stilted and clunky, the play overall a slog to get through. These days I’d much rather read someone like Lauren Gunderson, whose writing style is about as far removed from O’Neill’s as you can get. Take a look at how she describes her main character in the play I And You:
A girl, seventeen...
She is in comfy clothing, she does not expect company, she is sick but doesn't project that fact.
She doesn't go out.
She is cynical, over it, does not let a stray "feeling" near the surface.
Four succinct lines, which really tell us all we need to know about Caroline—and, if we read between the lines, they tell us even more. Consider the juxtaposition of Caroline’s comfy clothes, her unwillingness to project her sickness, and her cynical viewpoint, the fact she goes out of her way not to feel anything. What this tells me about the character: she is absolutely terrified of her illness, and armors herself with a spiny “over it” shell as a defense mechanism. Rather than spoon-feeding every detail of Caroline’s psyche, Gunderson lays down the evidence of her character’s terror and lets her readers connect the dots. This approach to playwriting not only makes for a more streamlined reading experience, it better fits into Albee’s insistence that plays are meant to be read rather than seen, precisely because the reader must employ their imagination and critical thinking skills in order to truly understand the text.
But of course, Albee is also wrong. Plays are meant to be seen, first and foremost. This is not to say that reading them isn’t important, especially if you want to write them. But I’d argue now that seeing them is just as important, if not more so—even if you’re attending a virtual staged reading over Zoom from the comfort of your own home. And as writers of “dramatic literature,” if you will, we have to ensure that even in those circumstances our audience isn’t bogged down by excessive text that robs them of the chance to imagine and process ideas on their own.
So to everyone who attended my recent play reading, I’m sorry I went a little O’Neill on you. I promise to keep it more Gunderson next time.
Now, let's see how I feel ten years from now...
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