I don’t usually take issue with comments waged by Gaëtan Charlebois, our eponymous editor, but this week I couldn’t resist. Last week, in his own weekly editorial, Gaëtan did not lament the lack of production of “the classics” and remarked that he’s satisfied with the idea that these plays can still be read. “Because theatre is also literature,” he wrote. Sorry, Gaëtan, but here I have to object. Theatre is not literature: the mark of a truly great play is that it cannot be read.
As someone who dabbles in both plays and fiction, I’m deeply aware of the great divide between the two genres. With literature – which here I’ll define as any written prose, fiction or non - nothing separates author and audience. The enjoyment of the text is dependent on nothing but availability of the material and one’s ability to read. Further, the author knows this and tailors the writing accordingly. Hemingway, for instance, often structured his dialogue to ensure the audience knew what the characters were doing without the narrative voice having to explain. Other writers rely on descriptive prose, heightened language and other rhetorical styles. But the point is that in the end there is only one voice - the author’s – and one listener – the reader.
If one reads a play and emerges thinking “Well! That was the wonderful!” then that play should never be performed.
Not so in the world of theatre. A play is a blueprint for a production and the author’s voice is only one part of the final product. Plays are like cookbooks: they are simply recipes for other artists to follow (“Take five actors, have them say these lines, add design to taste and enjoy!”). The success of a recipe is dependent on the quality of its ingredients and the same goes for any theatrical production. Depending on the size of the cast, dozens of voices may be interpreting the author’s work. In the theatre, there exists a great gulf between the author and the audience and it’s up to the directors, designers and actors to form the bridge.
If one reads a play and emerges thinking “Well! That was wonderful!” then that play should never be performed. Why would it be? Clearly there’s nothing you can add to it. If I could eat my Grandmother’s recipe for chicken soup, why would I bother making the soup itself? All truly great texts lie in wait for other artists to bring them to life: consider how dull it is to read about a sword fight as opposed to seeing it enacted on the stage. Or what happens when someone brings a loaded gun onto stage and leaves it there. In literature, you would easily forget it’s there. But in the theatre, it would always draw the eye.
I consider reading a play to be a poor substitute to seeing it performed.
If you gave me the choice I’d rather eat my Grandmother’s chicken soup and I’d rather see a play than read it. I don’t always have this choice but I consider reading a play to be a poor substitute to seeing it performed. It’s for this reason that I hate reading Shakespeare. Shakespeare didn’t write to be read – his plays were written to be performed and that’s the only way I’ve ever been able to enjoy his work. Those who treat Shakespeare (or any playwright) as literature are doing them a grave disservice because in doing so, they are freezing the words on the page. A good playwright’s words and characters are always meant to live.
Yes, we run the risk of a text being ill-served by the production. But that is simply the risk all playwrights have to take; if we didn’t want to gamble, we would write novels instead. In a novel, the author has complete control. But playwrights are not as solitary as the lonely novelist; by their very nature, they are storytellers who do not want to tell their stories alone.