Some of my students recently went to a play we'd read for class and then wrote a response to it. Some of them are acting majors; others have never been to the theater before, so there's an interesting range of responses.
A couple of the responses talked about how helpful it was to go to the play after they'd read it, because they got so much more out of it. And that response got me to thinking.
Pretty much all plays are written for an original naive audience, that is, and audience that hasn't read the play. It's unlikely that folks in Shakespeare's audience had read a play before seeing it. And today, the first audience for a play probably hasn't read it.
So there's a sort of very special occasion when the audience hasn't read the play. Yes, the audience likely knew the story of Henry V well before they saw it; and the opening of Romeo and Juliet pretty much gives the plot away anyway, but seeing it would still offer surprises. But it's still a very special occasion; no one knows the jokes ahead of time or is waiting for their favorite line. No one is dreading the Macduff household slaughter or waiting for Hermione's statue to come to life.
I've never been part of an audience at a play opening like that; I can't even imagine the excitement.
I have been to plays I hadn't read and didn't know. I remember going to Cyrano, the first play I saw (as part of a junior high school, take the kids to the big city for a matinee program), expecting that Cyrano would "get the girl" (because that's how TV always worked), and then... well, I won't tell you what happens.
When you haven't read the play, you get certain pleasures in the surprises, in the turns, in the language and staging, and I don't know that you can get quite those pleasures if you've read the play before.
On the other hand, if you've read the play, you get the pleasures of anticipation, of thinking about how the production reinterprets the play for you, how embodying the characters changes everything from your imagination.
I have a vague sense that the difference is bigger for students who haven't seen many plays before than for those who've had more experience seeing plays. What do you folks think?