“Playing” the Part

“Playing” the Part

I kicked off this year with my first English class about theatre accompanied by a trip to Bard on the Beach. Naturally, I’m finding myself to be quite immersed in theatre at the moment. This makes sense since almost every English course I’ve taken has incorporated at least one play into its reading list. As English students, we are meant to look at the play as a text and analyze it in its written form. But isn’t it more complicated than that? When I sat in class reading a play, I raised my hand and asked the professor how the audience was meant to know what the names of the characters were (which held important symbolic value) since they were never spoken out loud in the play. Basically, her answer was to not think about it and to just focus on the play as a text. I’m sorry, WHAT? This frustrated and confused me to no end. I mentioned it to friends and fellow English majors, who reassured me that I was right to be upset at this answer.

I understand that, as literature students, we are meant to deal heavily with written texts. The medium of our trade is paper and ink. Plays and scripts often find their way into this medium. They often start on paper, so it makes sense to put them in these categories. Yet, let’s not ignore the fact that they don’t stop there. At the end of the day, plays are performed. They are written as visual pieces. They are first and foremost meant to be seen and heard. If we are required to pay attention to the structure of prose specifically because of the relevance behind the method of presentation of the text, then why is a visual presentation excluded? If I am expected to read and analyze graphic novels, which have a similar visual component as plays, why can I not take into account the audio-visual dimension of plays? Plays are about presentation more than anything. Surely we must consider how much of the text was meant to be read and how much was meant to be spoken and seen.

Play scripts are interestingly complex pieces of work. They have multiple layers to them that are all meant to be deciphered by various groups of people. A play script must simultaneously speak to the director, the actors, the scenic designers, the audience, and the readers. All the information that these very differently tasked groups of people need lies within the same piece of work. It speaks differently to each and every one of them. Obviously it does, otherwise we would only ever see the same production of plays. The variety of productions proves the intricacies that a play script possesses. Unlike a novel, which I believe has a very intimate relationship between the reader and author, play scripts are not so. Playwrights are not catering solely to readers. Therefore, what you might encounter is writing which was not meant for your eyes. Take, for example, lighting directions. Though we can equate this to how a novelist might describe a sunset within his descriptions, the fact remains that the playwright is not talking to you. They are talking to the lighting designers, though you might choose to intercept this information and decipher it regardless. More importantly, play scripts are works of transition, of incompletion. They are not the final stage (excuse the pun) of this particular work. They are not meant to be final and unchanged. On the contrary, you are urged to change, alter, interpret, misinterpret, analyze, compose, and create your own version. Sometimes this is because play scripts are lacking a lot of information. A novelist will tell you exactly how someone speaks; a playwright might not.

However, let us also consider that plays are not put on by writers, but by an entire cast and crew. Directors, actors, set designers, costume designers, lighting designers, and sound designers all contribute to the experience of the play. Is it still within the territory of literature to comment on productions of the plays? Are we, as students of literature, equipped well enough to handle audio-visual performances? Where does one draw the line? More importantly, are play scripts meant for our eyes? Can we determine which parts are for whom and why? Is it alright for us to take a play script not meant to be read and purely treat is as a written piece of literature? On that note, I leave you. [Exit, pursued by a bear.]

By: Fatima Ahmed

Image Credit: “Children in Theater” by E. L. Leonova