How Plays Work: Reading and Performance

How Plays Work: Reading and Performance

How Plays Work: Reading and Performance

How Plays Work: Reading and Performance

Synopsis

Why are readers who are generally at home with narrative and discursive prose, and even readily responsive to poetry, far less confident and intuitive when it comes to plays? The complication lies in the twofold character of the play as it exists on the page - as a script or score to berealized, and as literature. Martin Meisel's engaging account of how we read play plays on the page shows that the path to the fullest imaginative response is an understanding of how plays work. What is entailed is something like learning a language - vocabulary, grammar, syntax - but learning alsohow the language operates in those concrete situations where it is deployed. Meisel begins with a look at matters often taken for granted in coding and convention, and then - under 'Beginnings' - at what is entailed in establishing and entering the invented world of the play. Each succeeding chapter is a gesture at enlarging the scope: 'Seeing and Hearing', 'The Uses ofPlace', 'The Role of the Audience', 'The Shape of the Action', and 'The Action of Words'. The final chapters, 'Reading Meanings' and 'Primal Attractions', explore ways in which both the drive for significant understanding and the appetite for wonder can and do find satisfaction and delight. Cultivated in tone and jargon-free, How Plays Work is illuminated by dozens of judiciously chosen examples from western drama - from classical Greek dramatists to contemporary playwrights, both canonical and relatively obscure. It will appeal as much to the serious student of the theatre as to theplaygoer who likes to read a play before seeing it performed.

Excerpt

One of the lasting successes of the prolific playwright Carlo Goldoni—written for an eighteenth-century Venetian audience—was a comedy called The Servant of Two Masters. The title already tells all. It names a situation where the protagonist, pulled both ways to satisfy two incompatible sets of demands, has to juggle and stretch, double himself in some ingenious fashion, find ways to reconcile the competing claims. Comedy lurks in Truffaldino's impossible dilemmas, his desperate running from pillar to post, his inevitable sowing of confusion; but also in his serendipitous escapes and solutions. Where there is scope for comedy, however, there is also potential for tragedy. Raise the tone, and the figure caught in a conflict between unyielding master imperatives—between Love and Honour, say, or the commands of the heart and the mandate of the gods—may find no way of reconciling these claims, and so go down to destruction along with his or her world.

The situation of the printed play is not quite that parlous. It can be every bit as awkward as that of the Servant of Two Masters, thanks to the double bind that reflects a problematic identity. But like Truffaldino in his comic world, the printed play, the play that we read, has proved itself adept at finding ways to perform its double role, if at the price of some inherent and irreducible confusion.

Reading plays has much in common with reading musical scores; and yet, what score is designed to be read, like a printed play, for enjoyment, as an end in itself? At the same time, like the musical score, the printed play exists as a manual or a blueprint for performance. It exists as a manual and as a representation, in its own right, of that which is to be performed—whether it ever is performed or not, whether it is performed many different times in many different productions, guided and enacted by many different minds, or only once under the eagle eye of the author. Reading plays in the fullest sense, then, means being able to read the dialogue and descriptions as a set of directions encoding, but also in a measure enacting, their own realization. It means bringing to bear something of a playwright's or director's understanding of how plays work on an imagined audience in the circumstances of an imagined . . .

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