Upstaged: Reading

Upstaged: Reading

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 10/05/11

This week Nell is throwing on her nightie, forgetting to brush her hair and celebrating the fine domestic art of reading plays…

They say that reading a play is like showering in a raincoat.

Well, okay, they don’t. But, you know, they might. Particularly if “they” were 12 shades of jabbering twit.

Reading plays is great. As an English student I read as many plays as I could get my lonely, swollen, nicotine-stained hands on. I did this for two reasons. Firstly, plays are a lot shorter. When your pile of Victorian prose is starting to resemble the leaning tower of pressure and The Mill on the Floss is weighing heavy on your soul, the chance to whip through the five rollicking acts of Congreve’s Love for Love, or even the five fatuous acts of Much Ado About Nothing feels like a free pass at Alton Towers.

Only once did I manage to read a whole novel in one sitting: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Sadly the sitting began at 10pm and by the time I came to final chapter it was 4am, I was sitting under an open skylight in the hope that thermal shock would keep me awake and I had drunk enough tea to build an empire. A play, on the other hand, can usually be finished in well under four hours – leaving you free to, oh you know, “exercise” and stuff.

Secondly, when reading a play you can get all pervy about the language in a way that just isn’t possible when watching theatre. At the risk of sounding like a thunderous wanker, reading Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood has, more than once, brought me close to tears. Granted, I was taking a quantity of contraceptive hormones that would fell a small stallion at the time, but still.

You show me a fat girl who wouldn’t weep at the phrase “Gomer Owen kissed her once by the pigsty when she wasn’t looking and never kissed her again although she was looking all the time” and I’ll show you a flinty-hearted liar.

While hearing Richard Burton boom out the First Voice’s alliterative poetry is magical, there is something deeply satisfying about reading a line like, “The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles)” or “Mr Edwards, in butterfly-collar … bellows to himself in the darkness behind his eye,” at your own pace and in your own tone.

Equally, the syntax of a phrase like Marlowe’s, “Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven/That time may cease, and midnight never come;” is so impeccable that you can’t help but read it in a performable rhythm.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of plays that seem written almost exclusively to be read, thanks to their insane, impractical and imperfect stage directions. A woman buried up to her neck in sand? A hotel room struck with a mortar bomb at the end of Scene II? How about “Dance of the gentleman fallen from a funnel in the ceiling onto the table”? These so-called “unperformable plays” may be a tad unsuitable for live action, but they are nevertheless kept alive and active in the reader’s imagination.

So, whether you’re suffering from poverty, laziness or just good old-fashioned wind, forget your raincoat and whip out your play text. Although you know what they say; too much and it will make you go blind.


Image by narcsville.


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