A National Disgrace

It’s bad enough that only one American in twelve sees a single play a year. Much worse by far is our overwhelming ignorance of dramatic literature.

Nearly everyone reads books in prose; poetry is rarely read, but omnipresent in our ears in music. The third form of creative writing—dramatic literature—is virtually ignored. Fewer that one in a thousand of us ever reads a play.

One big reason is that very few are ever even published. Walk into any bookstore and compare the tiny Drama shelf with the rows and rows of Poetry and Prose.The following is an excerpt from No More Drama?, an article by Jillian Goodman in The Slate Book Review, June 1, 2012.

“. . . Every year, scores of plays are published in book form. Most come from specialized publishers like Samuel French or Playscripts, whose target audiences are mostly theater companies planning to produce the works. But a handful of important modern plays are published each year by academic and trade presses, and they’re intended for … whom? People, somewhere, who just enjoy reading drama. And the number of people for whom that is true is pitifully small: according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of print sales nationwide, the three Tony nominees for best play currently available—Clybourne Park, Other Desert Cities, and Venus in Fur, all in stores six months or more—have sold a total of 7,400 copies.

” But many times, plays as books are all we have to go on . . .

Stage plays run a week or so (some few for years), play to the one in twelve, and close, never to be seen or heard again. Some small few survive to be revived (some fewer still ad nauseum); most languish in obscurity in the Samuel French catalog.

Note that of more than a million books published annually in America (April 14, 2010 Bowker Report), only “scores” of them are plays, a “handful” for “. . . whom?” Although this article considers only three Tony nominees, 7,400 readers is barely one in 5,000 Americans. Even radically adjusted to reflect the vast repertoire of published scripts since Aeschylus, one can reasonably assume that fewer than one in a thousand of us has read a play since high school Shakespeare.

Plays Tell Tales

A cold read is no substitute for good theatre well performed (see The Wholly Human Art), but plays are  more than actors on a stage—they’re literary art. They’re novels with no narrative—just as rich in plot and character, just as meaningful, enlightening, moving (funny, sad, romantic, suspenseful, thrilling), their language prose (or poetry). What makes a play that the story unfolds exclusively in conversational dialogue. People talking to each other. Hmm.

We read novels by ourselves, to ourselves, in solitary silence. Plays are written to be spoken in concert.

Publishers don’t print plays because nobody reads them. As our movement grows, we hope demand for scripts (and good live theatre) will flood the market.





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