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. . . .’ ”