Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Power of the Unspoken

I'll just come out and say it: plays were meant to be performed.

I know, revolutionary, right? I'm thinking of writing a book. Or maybe starting a club. With breakfast. Sans the teenage angst though. Anyway, old as this idea might be, it's still baffling how often people are satisfied with JUST reading plays off a page. Especially when it comes to the classics, because we have no stage directions from the original sources for these plays, which leaves notably more up to the imagination. You might then think, "Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that the point of (adjust monocle here) literature?" Well yes, but actual "literature" has the funny quirk of making explicit  everything that's happening that you need concern yourself with, thus holding your hand through the journey. Now don't get me wrong: our imaginations are more than capable of working through a play, and reading classic plays can be and often is a moving and pleasurable experience, but it's just not the same as seeing the thing unfold before you in vivid and immediate drama. So all opinions on that (and their validity) aside, the two questions I would raise are the following:

1-What is the artists psycho-emotional intent? (this can and should apply to ANY artistic field)
2-How can we best experience this intended effect?

Now we can take stabs in the dark as to things the artist MIGHT have meant, but we will soon find ourselves walking in socratic circles ad infinitum. This is good if we want to expand our minds with new and interesting interpretations, but to necessarily ascribe any of our own tenuous extrapolations to these long dead geniuses can often border on outright arrogance, in my opinion. What we can comfortably do is look at the facts and what we know about the writer, the piece, and their society, and then after that accept the idea that any interpretation beyond this concrete evidence, while valuable, can only securely be accredited to the interpreter. We must then, as artists ourselves, give it our best shot.

What's my point in all of that? Well that's the answer to question 2!

Due to the fact that the artists are no longer around to direct us on exactly how they mean for these things to be expressed, if we are to best experience their art, our situation necessitates a hybrid of faithfulness to the original and interpretive adjustment. What we then must do is pump our own emotional electricity through the magnificent yet lifeless frog that is this piece of art so that it might learn to jump again. Only then can the frog reciprocate the charge. This can be simulated in the mind as one reads a play, but that method can actually prove a slightly single-minded distraction from the full potential experience--like looking trough a paper towel roll--when compared with the experiential cornucopia set before (and readily digested by) an attentive audience member. Anyone who has both read and seen a play knows this to be true: reading is good, but good quality performance is better. If this statement is false, then why bother to write in the play format at all? Why not just write more "literature"?

I can read and be moved by Shakespearean characters losing their minds, but I'd rather see it. I can picture in my head a damaged Electra, inconsolable and approaching psychosis, but I'd much rather see it. And I can do my best to imagine a Fury so terrifyingly hideous that it sends pregnant women into labor, but I would definitely rather see it made tangible before me! And why? Because of the palpable power of the unspoken. Reading the play allows me to experience all of the wonderful words. Seeing it performed also gives me that, along with the other 50% of the intended experience found only in the visual aspects of the play. I'll say it again: we can have great experiences with plays by simply reading the words, but all that is unspoken is entirely too valuable to limit or ignore.


  1. Maybe we will start acting out stuff more in class with our readings!

  2. I love what you say about how scholarly speculation and interpretation can only get us so far in our effort to understand these plays and that the next step is to give it our best shot at performance as artists. The question of authorial intent is a tricky one. Over the last 50 years (actually a little bit more) critical theorists have pushed readers away from looking at authorial intent as a way of interpreting a text because, as you point out, there is ultimately no way of knowing what the author's intent really was. Even when they tell us what they intend to do, there is uncertainty about how genuine such statements of intent might be. With theater, though, we can (usually - wait until we get to Seneca) say that at least we know that the author intended for a play to be performed and experienced visually on the stage, not read silently.

  3. I agree that performance increases literary understanding of these plays. It might be beneficial to watch a few clips in class of different ways actors have portrayed (and been directed) on some of the scenes we have read.