If You Can’t See the Stage, Turn to the Page

With theaters shut during the pandemic, reading plays has shed surprising light on works both familiar and strange

Keith Morris/Alamy
Keith Morris/Alamy

When New York State shut down all theaters on March 12, 2020, I held a half-dozen tickets to productions that I soon realized I might never see. I go to the theater at least once a week all year long, and the shock of deprivation was considerable. I knew how relatively fortunate I was. New York City was a scary place that spring, and I live just a few blocks from one of the hospitals hardest hit by the pandemic. Whenever my husband and I walked by in April and May, we saw long lines outside the special pavilion set up for emergency admissions. We were healthy and employed while others were suffering and dying.

At first, I watched many of the online performances produced by theater companies struggling to maintain contact with their audiences and provide their actors with some minimal income. But “Zoom theater” was an alienating, unsatisfying substitute for the real thing. I fiercely missed the charged communication among actors and audience that’s possible only when they’re sharing a physical space. I missed it even more when I watched the July 2020 livestream of The Persians, a one-night benefit staged by the National Theatre of Greece. The broadcast began a full hour before the performance; I could see people filing into the ancient amphitheater at Epidaurus and hear the hum of their conversations as they took their seats, the sky slowly darkening above them. The performance was thrilling, but the real-time glimpse of a living, breathing audience was almost as exciting. No matter that the production was in Greek, with hard-to-read subtitles.

The Persians, Aeschylus’s earliest surviving play, was new to me, and the majestic Epidaurus production made me curious to explore the text. The battered paperback I plucked off my shelves, however, a remnant of some long-ago high school drama class, had a stilted, jarringly British translation, so I ordered the University of Chicago Press’s authoritative, multivolume Complete Greek Tragedies. The third edition was published in 2013. Some of the translations date back to the 1940s, but the editors, Mark Griffith and Glenn W. Most, were rightly praised for rejuvenating the series with new renderings as needed while retaining, with minimal revisions, translations that have proved enduring. The collection as a whole speaks in a fresh, timeless voice that allows modern readers to glimpse an ancient dramatic world.

Just as important, the 2013 volumes draw on recent scholarship to add one-word stage directions indicating whether each passage is meant to be spoken, chanted, or sung. Modern American stagings of Greek plays often have the chorus sing portions of the text, but I have never seen a production in which the principal characters sing or chant in response. Reading such exchanges in The Persians, I could visualize the masked actors arrayed on a stage, surrounded by thousands of spectators seated on stone tiers carved into the hillside, experiencing this oldest extant Greek tragedy in song and dance as well as speech. After The Persians, I wanted more.

Working my way through all 33 plays, I was oddly comforted by the ancient Greeks’ stark view of a world ruled by arbitrary forces that can be neither evaded nor appeased. We no longer believe in a pantheon of gods who afflict or uplift mortals at whim, but the pandemic has reminded privileged Westerners what the world’s millions of refugees already know: your life can be upended by events beyond your control. Reading the canon in its entirety gave me a deeper understanding of Greek drama’s formal intricacies—the interplay among the choral songs, the long set speeches of the principals, and the rapid exchange of short lines of dialogue that point the way toward modern drama. I felt more powerfully connected to the theater in those pages than I did watching even the most adept online productions.

When I finished with the Greek tragedies, I moved on to the French neoclassical playwrights inspired by them. Corneille and Racine are seldom produced in America; their verse tends to sound fulsome in English translation, even though the plays seethe with emotion. I’m lucky to be able to read them in French and be swept away by the sheer grandeur of the language. Reading Corneille’s Le Cid and Racine’s Phèdre after running the gamut of the Greeks, I saw in theatrical eras separated by two millennia a similar diversity of tone within the parameters of a strictly defined art form. Racine and Euripides seem more modern, more attuned to psychological shadings than their peers. The conflict between personal desires and society’s (or the gods’) demands drives their dramas just as it does those of Corneille, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, but the characters speak in more distinctly individual voices—something I hadn’t noticed in the theater.

The bienséances that confine French neoclassical drama—no onstage battles, deaths, or physical demonstrations of love; rigid unity of time, place, and action—can make even Racine’s plays feel airless. Still, I recalled reading something in Samuel Beckett’s letters about his indebtedness to Racine’s plays, and I was startled to learn, after a bit of digging in James Knowlson’s biography of the experimental Irish writer, that it was Racine who had convinced Beckett that theater could be made from “virtually immobile characters inhabiting a closed world in which little or nothing changes.”

Beckett’s searing monologue Not I riveted but mystified me when I first saw it in 2014. In the theater, the audience sees nothing but a spotlit mouth apparently suspended eight feet in the air. The actor is strapped into a device that keeps her absolutely immobile as she spews forth a flood of words so quickly that listeners grasp only a general sense of panic and desolation. Reading the seven-page text (in performance it lasts 10 to 15 overwhelming minutes), I saw the story of a woman’s life unfold in bitter, beautiful fragments: “no love … spared that … speechless all her days … prayer unanswered … or unheard … all the time the buzzing …” I understood why Not I is often presented with two other short pieces, Footfalls and Rockaby, which also investigate damaged female histories as case studies in human existence and are as dense and challenging as Not I. Beckett, I realized, is almost as enigmatic in print as he is onstage. The rigor of his prose is echoed in the iron physical limits he imposes on his actors. In Rockaby, this means being confined in a chair rocking mechanically throughout the work; in Footfalls, the actor must take a prescribed number of steps back and forth as she converses with an unseen voice. The characters are figures trapped in lives over which they have little control—a resonant metaphor for me in the midst of a citywide lockdown.

“Time she stopped,” an insistent refrain in Rockaby, sent me to another play that presents death as a not entirely unwelcome end. “When we can stop” are the last words in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. When I stumbled out of the Golden Theater in 2018 with Glenda Jackson’s rendering of those words ringing in my ears, I went directly to the nearby Drama Book Shop to buy a copy of the script. In the play, Albee tells the story of his mother through the interactions of three characters who embody her at three ages, and though the play evinces no forgiveness for her bigotry and meanness, it allows readers to share Albee’s “grudging respect” for her toughness. “Very few people who met my adoptive mother … could abide her,” Albee writes in his introduction to the play, “while many people who have seen my play find her fascinating. Heavens, what have I done?!”

Thinking of another appalling, indomitable Albee woman, I turned next to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  I’ve seen this brutally funny play four times, so I wasn’t expecting any great revelations from rereading it. Indeed, the dialogue on the page simply underscores what the best performances make clear: Martha and George’s vicious banter is an expression of love as well as hate; not infrequently they enjoy themselves as they rip each other apart.

What did jump out at me from Virginia Woolf this time were the stage directions describing how the characters should deliver their lines: “By way of irritable explanation”; “Hopefully”; “Armed again.” Sparingly employed by Albee, these indications of the characters’ inner lives are meant for the actors to use as they see fit. By contrast, Eugene O’Neill, who trusted neither actors nor directors to fulfill his intentions unless relentlessly coached, provided minutely detailed stage directions in his scripts. His directives are sometimes impossible to execute—in a hilarious example from The Great God Brown, a woman “chews gum like a sacred cow forgetting time with an eternal cud”—but they make O’Neill’s plays read like novels. O’Neill even characterizes scenery (which Albee describes in a single sentence in Virginia Woolf   ) in terms of its emotional impact and relation to the progression of the plot.

Contrasting Albee’s deft, economical hints with O’Neill’s micromanaging, and remembering that for the most part, the published works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries offered little more than entrances and exits, I wondered when playwrights began to supplement dialogue with further information. My pandemic reading made it clear that from the Greeks through the 18th century, dramatic texts developed characters and plot almost entirely through dialogue. By the time of Ibsen in the 1860s, detailed stage directions became standard. The theatrical revolution wrought by Ibsen and his successors, I belatedly recalled, was roughly simultaneous with the arrival of the director in the late 19th century. Before that, playwrights were usually members of a theater company and staged their plays themselves. The new drama’s emphasis on psychological and social realism meant that line readings and scenery were integral to the playwright’s vision, and when playwrights were no longer directors, they needed to convey those elements in the script.

I opened my well-worn volumes of Ibsen and Chekhov with a different focus, observing how carefully they delineated the characters’ surroundings, physical actions, and emotional states. Reading several Ibsen plays in a row, I realized how similar his descriptions of the settings are in Ghosts, Hedda Gabler, and John Gabriel Borkman. That all those bourgeois households look alike visually underscores Ibsen’s central theme: the stifling impact of conformity. And Chekhov’s justly famous final stage direction in The Cherry Orchard gives readers the entire arc of the play: “A distant sound is heard. It seems to come from the sky and is the sound of a breaking string. It dies away sadly. Silence follows, broken only by the thud of an axe striking a tree far away in the orchard.” I’ve seen wonderful productions of The Cherry Orchard, but not one could match with auditory effects the heartbreak of Chekhov’s description. It’s unfair, really: how could actual sounds compete with what the words prompt you to imagine?

As the months without live theater stretched toward a year, my hunger for new plays grew. I rarely read contemporary scripts, preferring to see them performed. But now I started with two works by Edward Bond, a British playwright seldom produced in the United States. I relished the savage vigor of Bond’s dialogue, winced at his (historically accurate) portrait of Shakespeare as an exploitive landowner in Bingo, and was awed by his Lear; I didn’t know it was possible to write a version more apocalyptic than the original. That bleak portrait of an unjust social system in terminal disorder suited my wintry mood as the pandemic worsened and American democracy came under attack.

It seemed like the right time to read Jeremy O. Harris’s astonishing, unsettling Slave Play, which was among the last productions I saw before the lockdown. I don’t think I have ever been as uncomfortable in a theater as I was during Slave Play’s first act, not just because the content was so racially and sexually provocative, but also because the actors were exposing themselves in terrifyingly intimate ways. I wanted to read the script to see how Harris negotiated the transitions from that material through the stinging satire and raw emotional exchanges of Act 2 to Kaneisha’s final monologue, a demand for her white husband—and white theatergoers—to truly listen, not just stop talking.

Harris’s script turned out to be as inventive in print as it was taboo-smashing onstage. He uses ellipses and slashes to punctuate speeches in a way that indicates the characters’ pressure points and uncertainties; speeches are broken up into short, fragmentary lines to reflect the movement of their thoughts. I learned things about the characters that I hadn’t seen in the actors’ (excellent) performances. I also discerned a link to one of my favorite contemporary playwrights: Caryl Churchill, whose central concerns are different from Harris’s but who also uses punctuation in unusual ways. In Top Girls, slashes indicate where one character interrupts while another keeps talking, and asterisks link a cue to multiple lines responding to it. The focus is on crafting a useful blueprint for the actors and director rather than an easy experience for play readers. For that reason, I’ve always preferred attending Churchill’s plays to reading them, and as interesting as I found the script of Slave Play, its greatest influence was to make me eager to see Harris’s next production—to see any theater in the flesh.

As I write this in June, that happy day is not too far away. Shakespeare in the Park resumes in a few weeks with an adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor set in South Harlem, and I can’t wait to take my seat. It feels right that Merry Wives will be my first live theater in 16 months. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate theater’s return than in the open air, where Western drama was born, in the company of my fellow New Yorkers.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Wendy Smithis a contributing editor of the Scholar and the author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940.


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