The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 4, No. 4

Why Read Plays?

by Edward Albee

The question is so absurd that we need not only answer it but find out why it's being asked as well. Most simply put: plays--the good ones, at any rate, the only ones that matter--are literature, and while they are accessible to most people through performance, they are complete experiences without it.
      Adjunctively, I was talking to a young conductor the other year whose orchestra was shortly to give the world premiere performance of a piece by a young composer whose work I admired. "Oh, I can't wait to hear it!" I said, and the conductor replied, "Well, why don't you? Why don't you read it?" And he offered to give me the orchestral score--to read and thereby hear. Alas, I do not read music. Music is a language, but it is foreign to me and I cannot translate. If I did know how to read music, however, I would be able to hear the piece before it was performed--moreover, in a performance uncolored, uninterpreted by the whims of performance. This is an extreme case, perhaps, for few nonmusicians can read music well enough to hear a score, but it raises provocative issues, including some parallelisms. Succinctly, anyone who knows how to read a play can see and hear a performance of it exactly as the playwright saw and heard it as he wrote it down, without the "help" of actors and director.
      Knowing how to read a play--learning how to read one--is not a complex or daunting matter. When you read a novel and the novelist describes a sunset to you, you do not merely read the words; you "see" what the words describe, and when the novelist puts down conversation, you silently "hear" what you read . . . automatically, without thinking about it. Why, then, should it be assumed that a play text presents problems far more difficult for the reader? Beyond the peculiar typesetting particular to a play, the procedures are the same; the acrobatics the mind performs are identical; the results need be no different. I was reading plays--Shakespeare, Chekhov--long before I began writing them; indeed, long before I saw my first serious play in performance. Was seeing these plays in performance a different experience than seeing them through reading them? Of course. Was it a more complete, more fulfilling experience? No, I don't think so.
      Naturally, the more I have seen and read plays over the years, the more adept I have become at translating the text into performance as I read. Still, I am convinced that the following is true: no performance can make a great play any better than it is, and most performances are inadequate either in that the minds at work are just not up to the task no matter how sincerely they try, or the stagers are aggressively interested in "interpretation" or "concept" with the result that our experience of the play, as an audience, is limited, is only partial.
      Further--and not oddly--performance can make a minor (or terrible) play seem a lot better than it is. Performance can also, of course, make a bad play seem even worse than it is. God help us all! When I am a judge of a playwriting contest I insist that I and the other judges read the plays in the contest even (especially!) if we have seen a performance. And how often my insistence results in the following: either "Wow! That play's a lot better than the performance I saw!" or "Wow! The director sure made that play seem a lot better than it is!"
      The problem is further compounded by the kind of theater we have today for the most part--a director's theater, where interpretation, rethinking, cutting, pasting, and even the rewriting of the author's text, often without the author's permission, are considered acceptable behavior. While we playwrights are delighted that our craft and art allows us double access to people interested in theater--through both text and performance--we become upset when that becomes a double-edged sword. I am convinced that in proper performance all should vanish--acting, direction, design, even writing--and we should be left with the author's intention uncluttered. The killer is the assumption that interpretation is on a level with creation.
      I'm not suggesting you should not see plays. There are a lot of swell productions, but keep in mind that production is an opinion, an interpretation, and unless you know the play on the page, the interpretation you're getting is secondhand and may differ significantly from the author's intentions. Of course, your reading of a play is also an opinion, an interpretation, but there are fewer hands (and minds) in the way of your engagement with the author.