Saturday, February 11, 2012

Page Or Stage?

Reading countless books on dramatic writing one is constantly reminded: “Plays are not literature. A play is nothing by itself, it must be performed to be complete.” And yet, many people, including myself, have enjoyed reading plays as literature with no difficulty seeing the theater in our mind's. If this were not so where would English classes around the world be when it came to Shakespeare? Every day he is perhaps more read than seen, even as the most performed of dramatists. Aristotle, the man who first laid down the rules of stagecraft in his Poetics, was even satisfied with this when he said: “Tragedy like Epic poetry produces its effect even without action; it reveals its power by mere reading."  And that: "it has vividness of impression in reading as well as in representation."

Due to the meager resources of the stage in earlier ages, it was not uncommon for many playwrights to compose “closet dramas”, that is, plays not intended to be performed but read. Goethe's Faust is one great example, yet even it has had productions. Of even greater relevance is perhaps Henrik Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean. Colossal in size and scope, with a playing time in the original version of about six hours, its impracticality was perhaps due more to the limitations of the stage in Ibsen's time than to the author's intentions for it. An edited version had its English premier only last year at the National Theater to high praise. Clearly, the modern stage has no limits on what might be done in reason. More to the point, our predecessors obviously saw no diminishment between page over stage.

This prejudice seems baffling except when you consider the power of Hollywood. In the film industry, the screenwriter is of no importance. He's brought in almost under cover of darkness to lay the foundations that the director then proceeds to build his temple upon. The screenwriter's role is even more diminished when those of screenwriter and director are one. The screen actor too has some blame in this, being a “star” he or she stands out from the story being told almost at the risk of the story becoming redundant. This is not always so but often enough to bare notice.

Walter Benjamin, in his great essay TheWork of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction expresses it this way: 
For the film, what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else...The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity.” 
In other words, persona becomes a replacement for performance, or at least the sense of art that the immediacy of a live performance brings.

The theater still remains the place where word and writer are king, but the theater is not something that can be folded up and prepackaged for sale. Consequently, the individuality of the artist must be crushed if a mass produced commodity is to be made of it, and thus the writer be reminded that he is but a small part of the whole. In the funnel of money and power that is Hollywood this is true, but a stage can be found anywhere you wish to find it, and a play that is read may be all the stage that one needs.