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  • mmurrayFace.jpgThanks to Rob Weinert-Kendt, the talented theatre writer, proprietor of The Wicked Stage, and cofounder of StageGrade for alerting me, however indirectly, to something that's worthy of discussion. It's in reference to something George Hunka recently wrote on his blog, Superfluities Redux, and that Weinert-Kendt linked to from his with the descriptors "thoughtful," "encouraging," and "keeper." I don't know Hunka personally at all, and I'm only marginally more familiar with his writing, but I'm an admirer of Weinert-Kendt's writing and judgment, so I read Hunka's piece. And I must say I disagree with two-thirds of Weinert-Kendt's assessment.

    You should take a few minutes to read Hunka's entire piece, because it is indeed thoughtful, as well as elegantly written. But here's a relevant excerpt that points to the flaw in Hunka's reasoning:

    That a written drama only comes alive on the stage is one of those truisms that could stand debunking. Certainly something comes alive on the stage during a theatrical performance; call it a play if you wish; but it is not always the drama that is embodied in its original form on the page.

    I'll leave aside for now the question of whether a truism can be debunked, and point out the simple but crucial fact that Hunka basically ignores: Almost invariably, plays are meant to be seen. That what an audience sees live "is not always the drama that is embodied in its original form on the page" is precisely the point of theatre. It's not a bug, it's a feature, as they say.

    Hunka is fundamentally correct when he goes on to say that no production of a great play captures every dramatic or psychological nuance of the script, but the fact that the playwright willingly opens himself and his work to that possibility is what separates him from the novelist or the poet. Words as an end in of themselves are relevant only in writing, but as soon as human beings are involved as actors, directors, designers, and whatever else, the words become only part of a whole. That is their role: They're not to be perfectly transparent, sacrosanct windows into their scribe's intentions, but rather contribute to something that can only find its fullest form live. Words are where theatre begins, not where it ends. And that's exactly how it should be in any performance medium. Consider the idea through the prism of film: Sure you can read the screenplays of Casablanca, , or Citizen Kane, but you won't get the full extent of their creators' visions. Every movie is more than its dialogue. So is every play.

    Just so there's no misunderstanding, I'm not advocating that all theatre must be seen rather than read. As Hunka points out, there are many shows that, despite the most fervent efforts of enterprising groups like the Mint Theater Company and Keen Company, will never be performed in a way that will give everyone who may be interested in seeing them the opportunity. And if the goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the playwright, his thought process, and his use (or perhaps abuse) of language, then yes, you really do need to crack open a book or fire up a Kindle.

    Important as analyzing a play as a piece of writing may be, it is not the same thing as analyzing, critiquing, or reviewing theatre. The two are not identical activities, and they overlap only partially. As a commenter on Hunka's article correctly points out, the stage directions in Ibsen's plays are essential reading on their own; certainly Shaw, who routinely wrote scene and character descriptions that stretched for a page or more, falls into a similar category. But all that must dissolve beneath the lights of a full production; it doesn't make the text of a play necessarily more accurate than one that's fully staged and acted. Good stage directions provide the added color and depth for the reader that good actors, directors, and designers do when the work is performed live—as even Shaw's and Ibsen's plays have from the very beginning.

    Ultimately, reading a play is far more limiting than seeing it live, because you're not experiencing it with all the extra elements the playwright, in designing his work for the stage, intended to accompany it. It doesn't mean that, if you love theatre, you shouldn't read as many plays as you can—you should. But seeing them is at least as useful because only in doing so are you fulfilling the writer's actual wishes. Yes, you're seeing something different than exists in print, but what's wrong with that? War Horse, currently in the midst of a successful run at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, is a spectacular example of a (perhaps) less-than-spectacular play that is elevated by "everything else." Certainly even minor plays attain personality or style in performance that the restrictions of reading naturally impose: I think of Paul Osborn's Morning's at Seven, or more recently Leslye Headland's Bachelorette, each of which contains one showstopping comic line—that reads as utterly inconsequential.

    When immersed in the hearts and souls of living actors, and the electric tension that can only be created between performers and audiences, these moments become something much more than they can ever be read. Unlike Hunka, I don't think that can or should be dismissed. Rather, it should be embraced, as part of what makes theatre as miraculous as it is. Hunka is right that you get more of the playwright from reading a play. But, as a result, you get less of everything else. And true theatre, as a complete art rather than merely a collection of words, occurs only when what's on the page meets what's on the stage.

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