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Detaching A Play Text From A Performance

September 1, 2010

images.jpegA friend and I had a discussion this morning about how possible it is for an audience member to detach his or her experience of seeing a staging of a play from the play text itself. We disagreed.

My friend thinks that if a play is great, you can still enjoy a production of it, even if the production is very bad. He looks at the staging as an inconvenience and a distraction, but no matter how ham-fisted the mise-en-scene is, it ultimately doesn't stop him from enjoying the play -- as in the words on the page -- itself. "It's hard to fuck up Macbeth," is what he said.

I feel very differently about this. A bad production can completely wreck a play for me, no matter how great the source text might be.

I envy my friend's ability to divorce the text from the staging. I have never been able to do it. For me, plays are no good simply sitting on the page. I mean, they're OK. I like reading plays. But plays are meant to be put on stage. That's where they're supposed to come to life. A lifeless production cannot help but kill the dramatist's words.


  • I think I can weigh in on this one. When you spend a lot of time in theaters of all manners and shapes, you cannot avoid performances of all levels of quality! On this matter, however, I realize that I can only the standard rabbinical opinion: It depends!

    Unlike your friend, I happen to think it is not hard at all to do serious damage to any Shakespeare play, regardless of how familiar it is or how elevated it is in the canon. Mind you, my opinion has been shaped by all the dreadful things done to Shakespeare in operas; but I have seen "straight theater" productions that were absolutely intolerable.

    On the other side of the coin, I would say that the most resilient texts I have encountered are those by Shaw. Yes, I know there are any number of accusations about his being wordy; but means that there are any number of productions were the actors end up doing little more than standing and declaiming. Nevertheless, there is so much in those texts to keep the mind alive that, as long as the declaiming is clear enough to be comprehensible, the words can easily transcend incompetent acting.

    For my money the opposite to Shaw is Stoppard. The easiest way to kill a Stoppard text is to ignore the need for timing. That is why my personal experience has led me to avoid any performance of Stoppard in San Francisco!

    (Out of discretion, I have avoided using any proper nouns concerned with performance in order to protect the guilty!)

    By Blogger Stephen Smoliar, At September 1, 2010 at 11:07 AM  

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