Rummaging in the basement a few weeks ago, I came upon a copy of William Gibson’s play “The Miracle Worker” in a 40-cent, Bantam paperback edition from 1962, its pages the color of a Daguerreotype. I started reading and couldn’t stop. This 1960 Tony Award-winner is the story of Annie Sullivan, who overcomes daunting odds to teach the deaf, blind, mute Helen Keller to communicate. As a play-reading experience, it is near-perfect. The dialogue gives vivid shape to stubborn Annie and each member of Helen’s tortured family. You won’t find any thriller more gripping, more packed with a daisy chain of dramatic crises.
But read a play? What a nutty idea! Plays aren’t meant to be read, they’re to be seen and heard. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies understands this: He writes not for the page but for the stage. His plays, he told me, are blueprints for actors and directors, incomplete until they’re performed. Tennessee Williams knew this, too. He tested out his new plays by reading them aloud to friends. Thornton Wilder perhaps put it best. He said that while fiction, painting and sculpture can be appreciated in solitude, “a play presupposes a crowd.”
And yet for me, reading a play is a literary pleasure as intense as any I know. When I was a kid, I had the bad habit of listening in on other people’s conversations, usually in hiding, the better, for instance, to hear my big sister love-chatting with her boyfriend or to pick up my mother’s rants at my father through their bedroom door. I was fascinated by the dialogue, by the storylines unfolding in the conversations. What is a play but an invitation to listen in on the things people say to each other in private, sometimes brutal things, sometimes hilarious, always mysterious? In the world of the theatre, we’re all voyeurs peeping through that missing fourth wall. And the eavesdropping is completely legit — you won’t get grounded for it.
I started reading plays in high school and have never stopped, dreaming perhaps that from Matt and Sally’s romance in “Talley’s Folly” and George and Martha’s howling in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” I might discover why my sister cooed and my mother raged. This summer, my reading plans are no different than they’ve ever been. Instead of whipping through the latest thriller by Vince Flynn or James Patterson, I’ll catch up with some recent plays by Yasmina Reza and Caryl Churchill, and I’ll dip back into old favorites by Arthur Miller and Neil Simon.
Whether you’ve read one play or 100, what astonishes is that a complex, affecting story emerges from mere dialogue. Stories exist in onion-layers in what we say to each other, and playwrights do the peeling for us. We get a beginning, a middle and an end — the full narrative arc — in what passes from the lips of Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois or Hedda Gabler. “Theatrical dialogue is a highly concentrated and powerful form of verbal expression,” writes James Thomas in “Script Analysis.” “Each word carries far more dramatic impact than in most other literature. Even a single utterance can pack a tremendous emotional wallop. ‘To Moscow . . .’ ‘To be or not to be. . . .’ ”
A play has the virtue of being a quick read; it is no longer than a novella — you can down one between mojitos on the resort sands. And because of its brevity, a play has no time for leisurely descriptions of landscape or Proustian ruminations on a madeleine dipped in tea. Each line is a workhorse: It drives the plot, it drops in background, it builds tension, it reveals character, it explores a theme, it is funny, sad, angry, ironic.
In “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a play that only gets better the more times you read it, one deceptively simple line highlights the workhorse role. It comes only a few pages in, when Ernest informs his friend Algernon that his name is not in fact Ernest but actually Jack. Algernon’s reply is quiet but suggestive: “You have always told me it was Ernest.”Nothing remarkable about that statement, but it is from that one line that all the subsequent fun and games flow — all the humor, duplicity and misunderstanding that give the play its deliciousness.
Over the years I learned that other play readers got the emotional wallop that Thomas spoke of. Listen to Gail Merrifield Papp on her first reading of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. “When I finished,” she recalled, “something happened that has almost never happened to me. . . . I just broke down and cried.”At the time, the play was raw and overwritten, in need of much work. Gail pruned it a bit and gave it to her husband, Joe Papp, the founder of the Public Theatre, and insisted he read it. But after 10 pages he tossed it aside — he hated it. Then he picked it up again and kept reading until finally he’d plowed through. “I put the damn thing down,” Papp recalled in “Free for All,” an oral history of The Public. “I said, ‘This is one of the worst things I’ve ever read,’ and I was crying. Can you believe that? I was crying.”When it was further edited and staged, “The Normal Heart” became an early banner of AIDS awakening. This season, a quarter-century later, it won a Tony Award for best revival.
Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” had a similar impact on director Alan Schneider. “Page after page of [Albee’s] lightning-like words exploding in my brain,” Schneider wrote in his memoir, “Entrances,” describing his first reading of the 1962 classic. He wondered how long the wallop could last, how many pages could Albee keep at it? “I felt as though I were being hit over the head with a succession of concrete blocks, and yet I didn’t want them to stop hitting me. . . . I had a headache, and yet I wanted to stand up and shout out the window.”
So many plays are so wonderful to read it would be impossible to provide a fair list. I especially like two-person plays because they show how a rich story can be found in the narrowest of circumstances: two souls in conversation. Among my favorites: the aforementioned “Talley’s Folly,” by Lanford Wilson, in which Sally Talley and Matt Friedman just talk and talk in an old boathouse on her family’s farm until love blooms; and “The Gin Game,” by D.L. Coburn, which pits two nursing home residents against each other in gin rummy and psychological warfare. In place of a Michael Connelly crime novel, this summer I might re-read the old reliable stage thrillers “Sleuth,” “Deathtrap” and “Witness for the Prosecution” — all wonderful for nasty surprises.
Some theatre innovators pooh-pooh the standard well-made play, that tidy piece whose fuse burns inch by inch until the core domestic conflict detonates at the end of the second act and then is resolved in the final act. But I get immeasurable pleasure from the exquisite crafting of such works, including “All My Sons,” by Arthur Miller, and “A Doll’s House,” by Henrik Ibsen.
Though playwright Margulies is partial to staged productions, he confessed that he wants his plays to be good reads, too — and they are, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends.” Indeed, he shares my longing for a play-reading revolution this summer: “Imagine stumbling through the sand while sunbathers mumble Shakespeare and Stoppard to themselves! O, happy day!”
Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of Book World and a playwright.