The central aim of this blog is to encourage more people to read plays. However, any medium that offers the full text, be it audiobook, filmed version, or traditional print copy – they are all encouraged. Therefore, you may consider “Why Read Plays” as a catch-all that is simply promoting the experience of plays. Luckily, many plays texts are freely available to read online.
Traditional commentators usually offer quite prescriptive advice on plays such as “one must always read plays aloud” or “plays are written solely for performance.” Such rigid advice serves merely to alienate a potential audience. The important thing is to become familiar with the story that a particular play tells and how you access that experience is largely irrelevant. It can certainly be a visit to the theatre, but may legitimately also be an audiobook, an e-book, a film, or a printed version of the text. What is most important is removing any perceived barrier to play texts. Many of us have become so accustomed to reading novels that other story telling mediums like plays are unfortunately often neglected.
You may ask – is it not unusual to sit down and read a play, aren’t plays meant to be acted live on stage and viewed by spectators? That is how it works, correct? Indeed, this is the most common and understandable reaction to the suggestion that one read a play. However, apart from the medium that the work is presented in, namely a work of drama divided into acts and scenes, plays are simply stories.
Just remember that classic and modern plays have provided us with some of the best-known stories and characters of all time. Names like Hamlet, Faustus, Romeo, Oedipus, along with Eliza Doolittle, Blanche Dubois, and Willy Loman each conjures up a specific tale. Plays form an integral part of literature, no less than novels or poetry, and therefore are just as valid as reading material.
The following points cover the main reasons to read plays. The last point tackles some of the negative aspects of reading plays and offers some solutions.
- Short time commitment – It’s not a 700-page novel.
Due to the time restrictions necessary for theatre performances, plays rarely exceed a couple of hours reading time. This means that plays offer short and powerful reading experiences where a full story is presented to the reader in a relatively brief period of time.
- The play is not regularly performed – “oh darling, I’m dying to see it on the stage.”
Not all plays are regularly performed at a theatre near you. In fact, many famous plays are rarely if ever performed and even when they are, tickets may be expensive. In such situations, reading or listening to a play is an excellent substitute and means that you are not denied access to great works of literature (comedy, romance, tragedy, satire etc.). There is also a degree of class snobbery about who goes to the theatre and one may completely avoid this yet still access a play, at home.
- Dialogue – It’s just chat, chat, chat.
Plays are mostly comprised of dialogues and monologues. This is merely a formal way of saying written conversations and speeches. Therefore, we understand the message of a play in much the same way that we understand other people every day, i.e., listening to conversations. An added bonus is that playwrights are normally quite in tune with the sounds and rhythms of language, and this often makes reading plays quite enjoyable.
- Imagination – It’s ok to use it.
Plays differ from novels in several key areas, for example, characters and scenery are given just cursory introductions in dramas. Therefore, in a play, one must rely on the dialogue to understand the characters fully while the scene is largely created through one’s own imagination. In contrast, novels often provide a guiding narratorial voice which affects one’s interpretation and there are often psychological insights into characters such as their thoughts and feelings at certain moments. Plays provide dialogues/monologues and just like in daily life; one must understand the situation based on the information provided. Yes, this means a little more is demanded of the reader but the reader in turn becomes more invested in the story because the play comes to life in their personal imagination.
- Reading – it’s a different, but not inferior way to access plays.
Playwrights craft their words in such a way that these words will eventually support a dramatic scene in a play. However, the playwright must imagine the scene come to life in their own head just as a reader must when reading it. Reading a play will always be a different experience to watching the same play be performed but that is not a value judgement. Reading can offer quite distinctive insights into a work that get lost in a performance and vice versa. The point is that reading is different to, not less than, viewing a performance.
- The downfalls of reading plays – just a few.
Let’s be honest, not every play will spring to life from the page in the way it might on a theatrical stage. One good solution for such plays is to listen to an audiobook version because a fuller atmosphere is often created through the energy and tone of voices. Another option is to search for a filmed performance of the play online.
Sometimes classic plays intimidate a reader because the language seems archaic, for example with writers like William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, or Christopher Marlowe. Time spent on classic plays will certainly reward the reader, but it does take that initial time investment to build familiarity. An audiobook version of classic works is usually not the solution because it may feel like you are being bombarded with English that sounds antique and confusing. Therefore, pick your classics wisely and invest the time in reading slowly.
Generally, modern plays are by far the most accessible works with which to begin. The language is familiar and the themes though not necessarily new may indeed seem more relevant because they are explored in a contemporary setting. Additionally, the act of choosing what you want to read can be quite rewarding because it is a commitment to discover something new and hopefully the play will satisfy your interest.
For each play featured, this blog offers a summary, reasons to read the work, and finally a discussion in the form of an essay. Tips will also be provided on which plays are reader-friendly and which work better on audiobook or another medium. Hopefully, this will prompt readers to try out the occasional play between their normal reading material. Maybe some of you will become hooked on plays! Enjoy.