Thursday, November 12, 2009

Naive at the Theater?

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?


  1. Here's something of my experience across time and stage--of life and of place: When I know the play, I DO NOT LOSE MYSELF IN THE STORY; I never reach that (what is to me) necessary and less-than-willful suspension of disbelief. I know the story, so it is rather more like being in on the magic trick; I'm watching for it to unfold as I know it is gonna.

    So, here is a heretical statement: I ALWAYS have my students WATCH before reading. A real gift and limitation is drama on film; makes VISUAL STORY highly accessible, though not always in the form the scriptwrite conceived...carries, though, always, the thrust, don't you agree? Therafter we return to text to analyze and critique and nosh on the writer's clever wranglings...if we must (see, I don't think we must ALWAYS go to the text at all--you know, if we are teaching script, yeah; if we are doing Shakespeare, yeah; if we are teaching writing script, yeah, we prolly oughta look a one or two...but can't it and shouldn't it sometimes be about the narrative as the author intended the audience to have it?).

    See, here's the thing: I think Willie would be appalled to think we pull the curtains back so far for students that the stage's knickers are all hangin' out (if she's graceful enough to even be wearin' any, right?) I think a playwrite is a particular kind of writer, and that his/her texts are made via a correspondance between the director and actors and the viewing audience, and that the script is intended to be a tool only to those on and behind the stage, not to those peeping in at a penny (or 10,000) a head. And I think that when we treat plays in our classrooms for our kids as if they were poems and short stories and essays and novels--you know, narratives written to be READ rather than VIEWED--we gutter them of the experience of drama. And we thereby assist in making them HUGE fans musicals, but of plays? Eh, not so much...

  2. I think I'm kind of an intermediate viewer: that is, I have often read a play, but because I'm a historian I haven't studied them the way lit people do. So I know the plot, but I rarely know lots of lines.

    Also, while I've read a lot of Shakespeare, I'm poorly read in the non=Shakespearian drama. So I was a naive viewer of the Duchess of Malfi, and The Revengers Tragedy (in the crypt of a London church -- very cool).

    I think the problem for students with early modern drama is that there is so much that is strange (language, ideas, etc.) that it's hard to get lost in it. But I could get totally lost in The Duchess of Malfi. But I'm pretty sure I would have anyway -- it was a very compelling production.

  3. I have videos of all the plays I teach on reserve in the library, and I encourage my students to use the videos to enhance their understanding of the plays. Most of the students do watch the videos, and mostly before they've read the play so that they have a better idea of what's going on when they read it. I think that's great. My only caveat to them is that they do need to make sure that they read the play for class, too, just in case anything is excised from the play in performance (which, of course, happens all the time).

    I can't really imagine what it would be like seeing a play in the Renaissance, though. Of course, so much of what Shakespeare wrote -- almost everything -- was a revision of earlier plays, romances, chronicles, etc. So the stories would be familiar. I guess the best parallel I could draw would be when I wrote my master's thesis and was researching absurdist adaptations of Shakespeare plays. When I read them (no videos were available), I already knew the story, but I didn't know what Stoppard or Ionesco or others' takes would be on the story. It was a ton of fun seeing how the authors reshaped the familiar.

    Four years ago, I saw a new play that was premiering in Marin County called Killer Joe. I didn't know anything about it -- hadn't read a review or anything. When we saw it, I got so wrapped up in the story (about a family that hires a hit man to kill the mom, thinking that she's going to leave money to them, but they get screwed). It was definitely a different experience from seeing a play I knew well. Same thing happened in high school when I saw Les Miserable without knowing anything about it (or the French Revolution). I cried throughout almost the whole play.

  4. For me, there's always a special dynamic at work when I see live theatre, regardless of whether or not I've read the play beforehand. It's the total sensory experience, the smell of dust and old boards and musty 1930s upholstery, and all the rustling as the lights go down and everyone is anticipating the entrance of the first actor. But I've never really thought about whether I respond differently, or have different expectations, if I'm seeing a play I have previously read, so it's an interesting question.

    If I'm already familiar with the play, I think I'm probably more inclined to respond on an intellectual level, thinking about how it's been interpreted/staged, what has and hasn't been cut etc. Like Mrs C., I don't fully lose myself in the story. When I think of the plays that have really engaged and moved me emotionally, they tend to be the ones where I've gone in with no idea what to expect and no preconceived notions. Seeing something like Shakespeare or Marlowe in those circumstances, I've also found unfamiliar language hasn't been such a barrier because I'm not focused so much on trying to interpret and deconstruct deeper meanings - I'm just going along for the ride.

  5. Dr.GunPowderPlot3:45 PM

    I have a background in theatre, so my mantra is, "if I'm thinking about the lighting, something's wrong." That means that I've lost interest in the action, or I no longer care about the characters, or it's just boring. I recently saw a production of part 2 of "Angels in America" and although I had read it before, it was magical! There's nothing like being in the space with the actors, the other audience members, and feeling the energy move back and forth between us and them.

    I love being a naive theatre viewer! And I love the excitement that my students have, as many of them have never seen a play before, or if they have it's been High School Musical at their HS. They are not prepared for that exchange of energy, for their own role in a successful theatrical production. When I take my students to the theatre, I don't always have them read it first, but when I do I honestly don't think it changes their excitement. Often, it adds to it as English majors usually read plays like novels, and I'm a firm believer that plays should be read like plays (that is, as if they were going to be performed).

  6. I've starting requiring my students to see a play every semester -- after one too many students (often advanced undergrad English majors) admitted that they had *never seen a play before*.

    I couldn't let that stand.

    Kudos on doing your part!