Why It’s A Good Idea To Read Plays

The Arts

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When I was at school we were made to read Jacobean plays cold from text; it was horrible and made no sense to my teenage ears. It took a long time to understand why text reading was a good thing, but once I understood I started doing it for fun, and I still do it now on a regular basis.

In 1830 Samuel French founded French’s Theatre Bookshop in Southampton Street, Covent Garden. It was the only place where you could find the scripts of every West End play currently running. Prices were reasonable, and the editions had matching grey covers. They were especially printed for French’s, who managed the performing copyright of plays. When property rose in value, the huge old shop was let go and the company moved to Fitzrovia. It’s still there, and is still full of young actors sitting about reading plays. There are now branches all over the world.

I’ve been going there all my life to buy editions. Reading plays instead of watching them changes one’s perception of them; in the theatre you’re so aware of the staging and the space that you don’t always draw out the full power of the words. In the stage production of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ there are speeches that take the breath away, but I’ve nearly missed them in the productions I’ve seen.

In plays there’s not usually a lot of action; plays the antithesis of novels because the action is inside the characters’ heads. The plot is often a dilemma on which to peg the character’s personality – how will s/he react to a situation? The story lies behind the words. And conversation is not dialogue, so you can have people speak non-naturalistically. They can be poets and stop everything to deliver a speech, in the same way that a song might appear in a serious musical – as a need to express something that can’t be expressed in normal dialogue.

I recently saw Beaumont’s ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’ and was staggered that a four century-old speech about being young in London could feel as though it was written today. That’s why it’s wonderful to catch up with plays on the page. You can enjoy them at a more leisurely pace. Oddly, one of the few writers who doesn’t work well on the page is Alan Ayckbourn, whose prose is workmanlike but whose staging is innovative.

However, the scripts that especially bring out hidden pleasures include those of Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Charles Wood, who often wrote in a form of dense poetry that sought to capture the sounds of the past. Caryl Churchill’s experimental plays are often stunning but are sometimes too outre even for me, so it’s a pleasure to analyse them in paperback form. It’s also a reasonably inexpensive way to discover playwrights whose work you’ve missed – I’m particularly interested in Martin McDonagh and Anthony Neilson at the moment. Peter Nichols, Peter Barnes (whose ‘The Ruling Class’ is being revived for the first time in 40 years with James McAvoy), Alan Bennett and Jez Butterworth all read well, and it’s a pleasure rediscovering Tennessee Williams, Joe Orton, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon and the wonderful Kaufman & Hart on the page. That’s without even starting on the classics.

For a lighter but very useful read, there’s French’s box-set of the complete plays of Agatha Christie, which save you ploughing through her quotidien prose and allow you to see the shape of her plots more clearly. Reading scripts is like drinking shots – a concentrated form of intoxication, but you have to practice reading them first – playscripts require that you bring your own imagination to bear on what you read much more than in novels. However, once you get the habit is very hard to break. Many editions are available on Kindle, too.

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3 comments on “Why It’s A Good Idea To Read Plays”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Stunned by the amount you read and write.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    (Another column to take to my non computer owning friend.) In high school the drama and senior Eng. Lit. classes came in to town to see “She Stoops to Conquer”. For several of the students it was the first play they’d ever seen. We were warned we had to leave at 9:30 whether the performance was over or not because we had to catch the last ferry. One of the non-academic, cool sorts had to be dragged physically out of the theatre because he “just had to see a bit more.” Funny how watching can make a difference, but that is part of the learning process I guess. A few years later I was one of the “accompanying adults” taking a similar group to see Romeo & Juliet. The kids were awed by the fact that local on-camera television people were in the row ahead and then the play started and they discovered that “this play is dirty!” Add gestures to text and the meaaning becomes more than clear.

  3. Agatha Hamilton says:

    So glad you wrote this. I absolutely agree. Usually have a Shakespeare, Webster or Marlowe on the go. And recently re- read ‘Arcadia’ – you can appreciate the brilliance even more when you see it on the page. I think Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Norman Conquests’ reads well. There’s a speech of Norman’s at breakfast, that I can still see Tom Courtney doing.
    And Peter Barnes! Remember ‘Red Noses’? There’s a line in that goes very roughly like ‘Will all those who are dying, get into their shrouds and shuffle off to the cemetery, but slowly, so as not to start a panic.’
    Agree too, about Agatha Christie. Saw a play of hers a couple of years ago which posed real philosophical questions about murder. Here the murder was justified and benefitted everyone, it was also so exciting that you forgot to breathe.

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