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Find more Every Book Its Reader
Let me guess. The 800s in your library are located as far from the fiction as possible, on the floor or in the room that’s a little hard to reach. It’s like Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement, containing everything we need but only rarely accessed. Should someone find it, a spell guards the loot. Forget alphabetical authors—that’s for popular fiction. Here one has to decode the classification, sorting by type, by nation—a system for scholars, not for the rabble, the readers. And so the anthologies and the poems and the essays molder, lovingly curated by the most distinguished librarians, until the bulging shelves are reluctantly weeded for nonuse, flowers pulled to make room for another season’s heirloom plants.
As we spotlight the Arts (another capital letter, under-read subject), my thoughts, my heart, go to the theater. Of all those 800s treasures, the books that I most wish more readers would find are the plays. Typically, those slim, paperbound Samuel French acting editions of single plays are sandwiched between fat, out-of-print anthologies bringing together the best of decades past and photograph-filled deluxe editions devoted to Broadway musicals. They’re all there on the shelf, waiting.
I confess that I’m not a disinterested bystander. When I’m not in a library, or in bed, you’ll mostly likely find me at the theater. Six years ago, my wife came home from a successful audition for Stephen Sondheim’s Company and said they were still looking for men. Thus began her early widowhood. I’d stayed away from the stage for 20 years but happily discovered in middle age that I could now participate without twitching through the floor. Since then, the acting bug has taken its usual progression—bigger parts, directing, my theater’s board: I’m a goner.
If you’re normal, your play-reading experience came during your school days, where you gamely struggled to hold up your end as Benvolio or Guildenstern as the class read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet aloud. If you had a really progressive teacher, maybe it was Our Town or Death of a Salesman. You puzzled over which words to read aloud (“Exit, pursued by a bear?”). Then the teacher showed the movie version, and you could safely forget the script. Unless you were one of those kids who felt the need to express themselves through strange haircuts or emotions that were a bit much for even the teenage world, and then you were just getting started.
Speaking from that world to yours, oh, what you have missed if your play-reading career ended in high-school English class! It’s easy to wave your hand vaguely and say, “Plays are meant to be seen, not read.” But unless you have oodles of cash and regular access to New York, London, and a time machine, that’s even more limiting than saying “I’ll skip the book and wait until they make a good film.“ We just lost Edward Albee, one of the great playwrights. If you can take a speedball hit of intensity, his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would make a good starting point for your return to reading plays. Here’s what he had to say on the subject:
“There are a lot of swell productions, but keep in mind that a production is an opinion, an interpretation, and . . . the interpretation you’re getting is secondhand and may differ significantly from the author’s intentions. Of course, your reading of a play is also an opinion, an interpretation, but there are fewer hands (and minds) in the way of your engagement.”
They feel exotic—stage directions, character lists, the struggle to build the scene in your head—but theater scripts are just another mildly different form of storytelling, a format like audiobooks, graphic novels, or
e-books that you will appreciate with a little practice. Plays are fast-moving stories that you can read in a sitting or, if you prefer, luxuriate in slowly. The format requires a playwright to show, not tell, to get to the point and avoid big info dumps of exposition. Emotion, conflict, and humor are front and center. If strong characters and clever dialogue appeal to you, look no further. And that battle to imagine the setting—locations, movement, details—becomes part of the fun: your chance to mentally design the production, direct the players, and act each part to perfection, without real-world nuisances like your scratchy voice, your incongruous looks, or your lack of presence in front of a crowd to interfere.
Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Miller are worth revisiting, regardless of how you reacted to them in high school, but there’s a play for every reader, high- or lowbrow, beyond the classics. Here are a few great choices to start a theatrical journey beyond English class.
I’ve written more about these and other great modern plays on the Booklist Reader.
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