All the many lame excuses for not reading plays, from “Plays are written for the stage” to “I simply don’t have time,” “I don’t read well (I’m not an actor),” “Nobody I know does it,” “I’d rather do a thousand other things,” are posted and debunked in Category: Why Not?
People don’t read plays for many reasons, but the heart of the matter is that we (Americans, in particular) are barely aware that plays exist. A very few see them performed on stage, but the thought of reading them aloud has never crossed our collective mind.
The simple answer is we simply don’t. Nobody we know reads plays. We never have—historically because the effort and expense of finding and obtaining scripts for a dozen readers made it impractical. Book clubs pass one book around. Otherwise, cold-reading plays might be as popular as Bible study. (Everybody has a Bible.)
Now that we all have digital readers, why not?
We read books (most of us). A play is a novel with no narrative, only people talking. It comes to life when it’s read aloud, whether or not by trained actors on stage.
We play parlor games (charades, Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit). A play is a game by its very name.
In a larger sense, however, under all the lame excuses lies the truth that we historically eschew all forms of art—especially Drama—for reasons dating back to Ancient Rome. Posts in Category: Concept/Religion and /History explore the profound effect of theatre on human civilization. Our rugged, independent, self-sufficient, materialistic, lately digital culture has no time or use for intellectual, emotional, or spiritual depth and nuance, fearing they might show us who we are.
because they’ve never done it—nor has anyone they know. Maybe once in a while you see a play on stage, but read? Out loud? It isn’t done.
Theatre and Religion
Underlying all the lame excuses for excluding plays from our post-modern lives is the intense love-hate relationship between most all religions and live theatre dating from the dawn of Western Civilization.
Theatre was born in Athens in 524 BCE, when the lyric poet Thespis stepped out from the dithyrambic chorus worshiping Bacchus (demi-god of wine and women) to speak solo lines and become the world’s first actor. Soon three actors played roles in tragedies and comedies that showed
Twenty-five years later, Greece became a democracy.
Greek theatre flourished throughout the Golden Age, leaving fewer than fifty plays (of thousands) by four of the greatest playwrights ever: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.
Then the Peloponnesian Wars came along, religion became a joke, and theatre descended to the Hellenistic low comedy of Menander, copied by the Romans (Seneca, Plautus, and Terence); then to street players who mocked and ridiculed early Christians until the Fourth Century CE, when the Emperor Theodosius banned the practice of any religion except (Roman) Catholicism, and specifically excommunicated all actors who would not forswear their profession.
So abruptly ends the first nine hundred years of theatre history.
Then came the Dark Ages. No evidence of any play written or performed for the next millennium—with two significant exceptions.
- In the Tenth Century, in France, a choir of monks sang lines as angels and the Marys in the Quem Quaritis (“Whom seek ye?”) Easter trope.
- About the same time, a German nun, Hrosvitha, wrote and staged six plays in the Roman style with Christian themes and morals. A singularity.
Another five hundred years go by before the Italian Renaissance prompts playwrights (Ariosto, Machiavelli) did as the nun had done and paved the way for Shakespeare and Moliere, but in no time religious tropes transformed into stories from the Bible, acted out by priests at stations in the church, and spread throughout all Christendom.
Before that time, the church was in decline. Most people didn’t understand Latin. Church plays revitalized attendance and enthusiasm, which pleased the priests enormously until crowds overflowed into the streets as cycle plays, performed by tradesmen in their native tongue, with secular irony and humor, more popular that was good for them.
Ultimately, their Catholic origins posed a threat to the new Church of England, so Queen Elizabeth banned all religious plays when she assumed the throne—while encouraging the secular works of the University Wits and Shakespeare that epitomized the second Golden Age of Western Civilization.
History repeats itself. The reigns of James and Charles led to civil war and Oliver Cromwell, whose Commonwealth Puritans once again found theatre offensive and proscribed all performances.
Puritans settled New England.
banned , Elizabeth’s successors, James and Charles,
in 1567. I vernacular, , and morality plays, with the Devil emerging from the Hell Mouth as a slapstick comedian, until Elizabeth I banned all religious theatre in attendance Romanesque plays of the Italians Ariosto and Machiavelli Several hundred more would pass before