People don’t read plays for many reasons, but the heart of the matter is that we—Americans, in particular—are barely aware that they exist. Now and then a very few of us see them performed on stage, but the thought of reading them aloud is nowhere on our collective radar.
For eons—until the Industrial Revolution—most people simply couldn’t read. Then Dickens came along and people read novels to their families and friends, in their homes, by gas or candlelight—but plays remained popular on stage.
Until the movies swept them under the rug.
No one ever thought of reading plays.
Time and Money. Play scripts were rarely published and not widely distributed; finding one copy wasn’t easy. Buying them for a number of readers was costly. People read novels, went to the movies.
The Digital Age
Now all that’s changed. Thousands of plays are published on the internet, and we all have smartphones. For the first time in human history, people can read plays on the spur of the moment, for free.
So why not?
The reasons fall under two headings: Lame Excuses (compared to all the other things we do) and Root Causes (our cultural heritage). All are tackled and debunked in the other four pages under Why Read Plays?
The simple answer is we simply don’t. We never have—the thought has never entered our minds. It’s a forgivable ignorance, almost an innocence. Nobody we know reads plays. “Plays are written for the stage,” and since most of us never go to the theatre, we’re virtually unaware of their literary existence.
The litany begins with Time. So many hours in a day, so many other things we have to—or prefer—to do instead. Essentially, we eat, drink, sleep, bathe, go to work, pay bills, keep house and garden, chauffeur the kids, shop for basic needs, got to the doctor, make love, visit relatives and friends. How much time is left?
So how do we spend spare time?
- We read books (most of us).
A play is a novel with no narrative, only people talking. It comes to life when read aloud, whether or not by trained actors on stage.
- We play other games.
From parlor games and puzzles to outdoor sports. A play is a game by definition. Life itself’s an improv.
- We watch TV, listen to music, follow the news, browse the internet, chat with Facebook friends, gallery crawl, barhop, volunteer…
- We lie around on the couch all day, depressed and lonely
So why don’t we, every now and then, once in a while, read a play?
- “Plays are written for the Stage.”
A play on stage is Spectacle, the last of Aristotle’s elements of drama—what we see and hear performed. It’s what turns drama into theatre. But Plot and Character, Language, Melody, and Thought are all in the words—dramatic literature! We speak the words and the characters come to life; we see the setting in our minds.
- “I’m not an actor.”
Yes you are, but that’s another chapter.
Most of us are reticent to read aloud, afraid of sounding foolish. Some of us don’t read so well. It doesn’t matter. There’s no one there but us. The more we do it, the better we get, the more we get out of it. It’s good for the brain.
- “Reading a play is dry and boring, like a study group.” (It’s not.)
So much for our lame excuses. Now let’s cut to the truth.
Deep beneath the surface truth of innocence and fear is the disgraceful fact that we—Americans especially—historically eschew and stigmatize all creative (non-pop) art—especially Drama—for reasons dating back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Subconsciously, we harbor a deep, ingrained suspicion that plays are
bygone and irrelevant,
highbrow and elitist,
show-off, sissy, nerdy, gay, a stupid waste of time—
seditious, sacrilegious, libertine, degenerate, and
Ring a bell?
These irrational attitudes have enshrined a virtually universal boycott of the wholly human art and left us culturally unaware of plays as dramatic literature. Indeed, we take a philistine pride in averting (even scorning) it—never knowing what it is. Our rugged, independent, Puritan, 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.
To understand the origins of these attitudes, we must examine the historical forces that created them and the powers that be who perpetuate them.
Theatre has forever been either lovingly embraced (exploited) or savagely reviled by religion and the ruling class. When all three work together, western culture thrives—witness the Golden Age of Greece, Elizabethan England, Neoclassical France, and the Social Realism of the late 19th Century. When they don’t, there’s chaos (the Holy Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation, Hitler, Stalin, Donald Trump).
That history has left us with a cultural disdain of dramatic art, an apathy approaching fear, not only that it’s somehow wicked, but that if we go, we might discover things about ourselves and the world.
These days Big Money is the bugaboo. The Plutocrats fear the powerful magic of the theatre, knowing it has toppled kings, so they perpetuate the stigma, withhold vital funding, and provide (and publicize) innumerable distractions. No political platform includes support for the arts.
Essays on these forces are explored in Cultural Heritage. What follows is a nutshell version.
On one hand, we’re afraid our friends will think we’re all the negative things we’re taught to think about theatre.
On a deeper level, we’re afraid we’ll understand ourselves as individual human beings in a world of billions.
Strange things happen in the theatre. The thins we know as real—the artifice of actors on a stage, costumes, makeup, painted scenery—evaporate, and in their place a new reality emerges in our minds. We’re magically transported to a world created by the playwright (God), whose priests (the actors) spread his word in parables (plays) that entertain and educate the masses.
The magic is subconscious. We find ourselves hypnotically invested in the playwright’s world; we identify with the situation. The thought occurs deep down that the characters are human, just like us, with problems like our own or worse, and questions, doubts, emotions, highs and lows—all magnified and heightened by the dramatist’s understanding of human nature and the actors’ projection of it. We’re entertained by plot, character, and spectacle; we’re deeply moved by language, melody, and thought, and in the end, we come out more in touch with humanity.
We also learn about ourselves as human beings, and that’s scary.
Anyone familiar with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the Unites States will understand why those who would control the hearts and minds (and pocketbooks) of all the rest of us perpetuate the denigrating lame excuses. Theatre brings us all together, shows us we’re the same; the bosses all divide us.
Just follow the money. Look at the hundreds of billions spent promoting spectator sports that divide us into opposing camps—on pop culture fads, technologies, commercial advertising. Look at the trillions spent on war. Compare these to less than one billion dollars allotted to the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, Public Broadcasting, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services combined—all of which our fraudulently elected president would abolish altogether.
Today these powers continue to conspire to keep plays on stage out of common time and mind. They fear its magic power. The ultimate goal of CR/I is to make good theatre available, popular, and affordable.
Maybe people take no interest in our commonality. Individuals we are, defined by all our differences. Maybe we’re afraid to find out we’re like everybody else.
Why Don’t You Read Plays?