Dear Reader: Give Plays a Chance

Looking at a shelf undisturbed by browsing hands, I wonder, “Why don’t people buy plays – or more directly, why don’t people read plays?” I suppose those of you in the bookselling trade know, and maybe have always known, that people don’t buy plays. I was warned by my senior advisor, Dennis Gavin, not to devote too much time and space to plays, and he was right. Today, two forlorn shelves of masterpieces sit untouched and unwanted in my store. But, really, can a bookstore cull Ibsen and Chekov; Tennessee Williams and Pinter; and, let lightning strike me dead, the Bard? No, I’d sooner go broke than admit to a customer that I have no space for Eugene O’Neill and Noel Coward because room must be made for 65 Tom Clancy novels. Still, I ask, why don’t people buy plays?

Further Reading: Killing a Section in Your Bookshop

Saint Joan playHow often does the New York Times Book Review feature a new play? I don’t know the answer, but I read the review every week and I don’t remember many. I know that playwrights continue to produce plays and the Pulitzer Prize continues to issues awards, but there’s little attention paid to the published version of these works. This year the Pulitzer for drama went to Quiara Alegria Hudes for Water by the Spoonful but if you wanted to buy the book, you couldn’t; it hadn’t been published, at least not at the time the award was announced. The Pulitzer (and the Tony Award, for that matter) honor theater productions, not published literature; they provide no encouragement for readers who might want to consider buying the book. And when Hudes’ book was finally published in September, it failed to earn a book review in the New York Times. And the Times’ list of 100 notable books also omitted “Water by The Spoonful,” even though every other Pulitzer winning book (biography, history, non-fiction and poetry) was cited. Perhaps they just don’t consider plays books.

Edward Albee has written that, from the writers’ perspective, a playwright would often rather his plays be read than seen. Too many interpreters pile up between the writer and his audience when a play is performed; the director, the sound and set designers, the actors and the theater itself all get their two cents in. But Albee says “anyone who… reads a play can see and hear a performance of it exactly as the playwright saw and heard it as he wrote it down, without the ‘help’ of actors and director. No performance can make a great play any better than it is, and most performances are inadequate – either in that the minds at work are just not up to the task, no matter how sincerely they try, or the stagers are aggressively interested in ‘interpretation’ or ‘concept’ with the result that our experience of the play is limited.”

I’ve never seen George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” performed, but I read it recently and as a literary experience, it was every bit as rewarding as a good novel. A few brief stage directions, and 100 pages of crackling, inventive, memorable dialogue. I know people who say they skim through novels, concentrating on the dialogue and sentences that contain only proper names. I am sure there are a lot of readers who feel burdened when writers’ wallow interminably in ornate description. A play doesn’t just cut to the chase, it skips the chase entirely and goes straight to the confrontation. I think many readers would welcome that, if they could just be persuaded to give plays a chance. I have a book of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams; I am sure there will never be a similar volume by E.L. Doctorow, as much as I love his novels. There is a reason that “Bartlett’s Quotations” is filled with Shakespeare. So, from now on I am going to aggressively market plays to my customers, because, after all, one can never pursue too many hopeless causes.

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