Reading plays

Plays, I keep being told, are intended to be seen, not read. Which perturbs me, as I rather enjoy reading plays.

Of course, we can accept that plays were intended to be seen, but where exactly is the evidence that they were not also intended to be read? As far as I know, playwrights are, and were, happy to have their works published. Ibsen, apparently, spent much time preparing his texts for publication. Shaw put various witticisms into what were nominally the stage directions, thus making them available only to the reader, not the viewer. In addition, he wrote long, prefatory essays to all his plays. Would he really have gone to such trouble if he did not expect his plays to be read? And even Shakespeare, I think, intended his plays to be read: a number of his plays were published in good editions within his own lifetime (the “Good Quartos”, as they are known), and it seems very unlikely that these texts could have been published without, at the very least, Shakespeare’s approval.

But even if evidence were to be produced that, on the whole, dramatists did not wish their plays to be read – the question remains: “So what?” Ibsen had written Brand and Peer Gynt specifically to be read rather than to be performed (which is why both plays are far too long for a single evening’s performance); does this make it wrong for us to perform shortened versions of these works on stage? Surely the pragmatic answer is that if it works on stage, then, regardless of what the author may or may not have intended, stage it. And this principle seems to me to work the other way round as well: even if a play intended solely for the stage, if it works when read, then, by all means, read it. Speaking from personal experience, a great many plays can and do work very well when read rather than seen. Of course, one does need a bit of practice: one needs to be able to visualise the setting, and one needs to be able to imagine how the lines are to be delivered. But there’s no obstacle here that a bit of imagination on the reader’s part cannot overcome.

I think the main reason for reading plays is that if one doesn’t, one misses out on some very important and rewarding chunks of literature. Not everyone lives within easy reach of theatres, and, even if one did, playgoing is such an expensive treat these days, not too many could afford to go regularly. Also, there are many plays of the finest quality that are rarely, if ever, performed. And, of course, even if they are performed, there’s no guarantee that the production will be good enough to do justice to the original material. If one’s knowledge of drama were to be restricted only to what one sees in the theatre, then that knowledge is bound to be very restricted.

But most importantly, perhaps, how much of the substance of a difficult play can one take in at a single viewing? There are, after all, many novels and poems and short stories that require repeated readings: plays are not different, I think, in this respect. If a single reading of a difficult Henry James novel, say, is not adequate to take in its many subtleties, then why should a single viewing of a difficult Henrik Ibsen play be considered sufficient?

This seems to me particularly true of what is generally agreed to be the finest body of dramatic work in the English language. Shakespeare’s language is difficult: there is no getting round that. And it is not to denigrate the experience of watching a good performance of a Shakespeare play to say that one really comes to grips with the language when pondered upon  in one’s study at one’s leisure, rather than heard in the theatre at the speed of sound.

I have been fortunate in having seen many fine productions of some very great plays, but even so, I think I can only really get to know a play properly by reading and re-reading. I have, for instance, seen some wonderful performances of Ibsen’s The Master Builder: over the years, I have seen this role played by Brian Cox, Timothy West, Alan Bates, and Patrick Stewart. And yes, all of them shed new light upon this difficult and elusive work. On the other hand, in all these years, I don’t think I have seen a single production of Macbeth in the theatre that I have been entirely happy with. Either way, the only way really to get to grips with works such as Macbeth or The Master Builder is to read them. Good productions will give you good interpretations, and bad productions will give you bad ones – but only when one reads a play for one’s own self does one get the opportunity to put together one’s own interpretation. Indeed, some of the most satisfying interpretations I have experienced have been from performances going on in my own head as I have been reading.

(My recent production of Antony and Cleopatra, by the way, was a cracker – it brought the house down!)

4 responses to this post.

  1. I always – perhaps uncharitably – interpret “Plays are meant to be seen, not read” as “I do not know how to read plays.”

    If a reader is not imagining the setting, the blocking, and the line readings while reading a play, what do they do with a novel? Don’t I have to do the same thing?

    And I could go on. You have so many points in this post that I once thought were common sense and common knowledge. I was wrong! Very valuable to lay them out.


    • I think I have spent the last week writing post about things i keep hearing which annoy me, and “plays are meant to be seen, not read” is certainly amongst them! Glad to see you’re a fan of reading plays as well: I want to write more about plays (and poems) in this blog.


  2. I’m another fan of reading plays. I don’t have the inclination to go to the theatre because it’s time-consuming and expensive, but I love reading plays. There’s also something to be said about them: most being rather short, they can be re-read frequently. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” and one always picks up new details and forges new connections.


    • It’s noticeable that when people list their favourite writers, playwrights (Shakespeare excepted) rarely get mentioned. As you say, they can be read quite quickly, and, hence, can easily be re-read: that means it is easier to get to know plays better than novels, where even a single reading can require a considerable investment of time. I find it very odd!


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