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tinyfaery's avatar

Are plays meant to be read as literature?

Asked by tinyfaery (42195points) June 29th, 2011

I’ve read many plays, for classes and for fun, as literature, more like a book than like something that is meant to be performed on stage. Is this what the authors had in mind? Isn’t a play meant to be performed and seen rather than just read? Yes, I know the play must be read for staging, lines and whatnot. That is not what I am talking about.

Seems to me that a play is not meant to be studied like a novel. Wouldn’t the study of the play come with viewing it rather than reading it? Opinions?

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11 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

There’s such a thing as a “closet drama” that is meant to be read and not performed. But most plays are meant to be performed. A good play can be understood and appreciated as literature but has its fullest realization in performance. Even a read-aloud with a group of friends can give it a life that it doesn’t have inside the reader’s mind.

You might compare it with a piano arrangement of an orchestral score or a black-and-white photo of an oil painting. You can get some notion of what it’s about, but without the scale and color and texture of the artist’s original composition, you can’t experience and appreciate the creator’s actual work.

A stage play, however, is a work of words and can be studied as words, as compared with a screenplay, which is mostly about action.

iphigeneia's avatar

In a literature studies class, plays are unique because you aren’t analysing a finished product. The trouble is, there are infinite possibilities for the completed piece.

Plays are written for directors, actors and designers to examine, but why should literature students let them have all the fun?

wundayatta's avatar

Personally, I think it is nearly a waste of time to study a play as literature. I don’t think it is possible to understand what is going on without seeing the actors bodies move and emote. The words of the play are the barest and sparest infrastructure on which to pin a meaningful reality. It reminds me of an internet relationship. Yes, you have something online, but it isn’t until you see each other in reality, that you understand what you really have.

I haven’t read many plays. See—it sounds absurd right there to say “read a play.” But when I saw a play I had read before, I realized I hadn’t understood a thing.

Now, to be honest, it goes the other way, too. When I see the play, I don’t catch a lot, that I do catch when I read it afterwards. But I guess that’s the way I think it should go. See it, then read it.

I understand that other people understand things differently and they have different learning processes. But I need to see the whole thing before I read the shadow of the thing.

Which is not to say that I can’t imagine what is happening. Of course I can do that. I can construct an imagined scene out of pure dialog. Mostly. But when I do that, what I’m really doing is projecting my imagination on the words, and while that may or may not be interesting to others, it will almost certainly not be what the playwright had in mind.

laureth's avatar

My high school and college Shakespeare teachers always made a point of telling us that we were not experiencing the story as the Bard had intended, and that if we really wanted to understand it, we should go to a performance.

Jeruba's avatar

I took a course in dramatic literature at a community college last fall. The class was mostly 18‐ and 19-year-olds. We started with a handful of very short modern plays to get the feel of reading a dramatic script.

Then we read Oedipus Rex, followed by The Taming of the Shrew, and then three twentieth-century plays. We discussed them in class before and after seeing filmed excerpts. I was actually amazed at how much three dozen fairly average youngsters who had not yet majored in anything, much less literature, could get out of these dramas by reading them carefully as literature and having a teacher who could bring out their ideas in discussion.

Part of the class included participating on online discussions at a website and also posting short essays. This gave me a chance to see how everyone responded and not just those who felt confident enough to speak up in class. Many of these students couldn’t write very well, and probably a third of them were not even native-born speakers of English, but they surprised me with how well they could get to the heart of characters’ conflicts, motivations, and experiences of growth and change through this approach to drama.

Jellie's avatar

Let me just say I had a much much great appreciation for Hamlet once I watched it performed. I understand reading a play just to know what it’s about but you cannot enjoy it in the same way as a novel or fiction. A performance breathes life into the words and characters. Wish I was still in London :(

Hibernate's avatar

If you like theater and at the same time you enjoy reading .. well you could read them as literature and imagine it performed .
But plays are a total different section from literature because the best of it it’s the performance . And acting takes time to master while the plays need a director for moves and such ... One has to know a lot of things and a vivid imagination to make it work on stage .

roundsquare's avatar

Personally, I hated Shakespeare till I saw it performed on stage. But after seeing one or two plays, I started enjoying reading it as literature as well.

Jeruba's avatar

And of course there’s a plus and a minus side to having someone else do the interpreting. Experienced directors, actors, and other members of a theatre company may be much better equipped than silent readers to interpret a play, but they may also give it an interpretation that varies widely from the intent of the playwright (and from one another).

I have seen interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that ranged all the way from title character as a ruthlessly evil man of boundless ambition to title character as simple-minded dupe of fevered visions, putty in the hands of an overbearing wife. Same script, of course. I don’t honestly know now how I would have understood him if I had only read it.

silentmover's avatar

There is Literature in all plays

DaisyMae's avatar

The author’s intent is for the play to be performed. Having said that, plays are studied academically if they possess the hallmarks of great literature, such as universal themes and complex three-dimensional characters.

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