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Text or Performance: Who's in Charge?

By Preston Waddoups

At least in my experience, it seems to be the case that dramatic texts are thought of as incomplete by themselves, like a libretto or something between a synopsis and a novel. In my high school, reading Shakespeare was treated as a preparatory experience for seeing the lines performed, and thus much of studying Shakespeare consisted of learning phrases and antiquated terms so we could eventually follow the lines at a speaking pace. I think this is a perfectly fine way of learning Shakespeare, as his plays were written to be performed, and a good actor brings more life to his lines than a reader could. It's easy to extend this attitude towards the text and performance to all dramatic writing, and I believe it is commonly done, as Shakespeare is often the foundational (or only) playwright studied in American public education. However, the performance's supremacy over the dramatic text is hardly a given across the history of literature. Many authors have written using dramatic conventions without supposing the text to be subordinate to a performance, or even intending a performance to take place at all.

Plato’s dialogues—which I take to be dramatic texts of sorts—are almost exclusively read rather than performed. I can’t say how the dialogues were used or meant to be used in antiquity, but today they’re treated as self-sufficient texts (they’d make for pretty dry plays if they were actually performed). Not only is the dialogue format fitting for the historical Socrates’s style of philosophy, but it also allows Plato to conspicuously write himself out of his dialogues. I can only speculate why Plato did this, but it could have been to downplay the implied superiority of the author that is unavoidable in purely didactic writing (and narration generally, to some extent). Plato certainly thinks he’s guiding his readers towards the philosophical truth, but perhaps he thought the dialogue format would encourage the reader to “join in” the dialogue and reach the truth for themselves rather than simply being told it.

Closet plays, first written over a thousand years after Plato’s dialogues, are perhaps the most widely recognized and popular form of non-performance-oriented dramatic writing. Closet plays are simply plays that were meant primarily to be read rather than performed. Reasons for writing in the closet drama form varied as much as their authors, but it attracted writers in social positions without access to the literary and theater world (like women and African Americans) and in times where public performances were banned. Closet dramas have also been used to avoid the censorship or recrimination more likely to result from controversial stage plays.

While I wouldn’t call it a play, Denis Diderot’s 1796 novel Jacques the Fatalist and his Master also plays with dramatic format. Although the text format of "CHARACTER: line" tends to hide the author and do away with the need for a narrator, removing mediators between the reader/audience and the characters, Diderot uses this format in a strange, comical fashion, inserting a narrator (and even the reader) as a character in his novel.

More recently, Samuel Beckett wrote some short plays that, though they’ve been performed often enough, are only comprehensible through the text. Beckett’s Play (yes, he titled it Play) consists of three people talking rapidly about a marriage and an affair while encased in urns. Their lines are fractured and jumbled, and they often all speak at the same time. Beckett himself wrote that the voices should be “largely unintelligible,” and at one rehearsal he reportedly said that their effect should be something like that of a lawn mower. Here the text doesn’t just stand alone, instead it’s the more essential part of the text/performance duo. If the performance of Play adds anything to the text--which I believe it does--it does so by emphasizing the surreal chaos that is inherent in the text (but which cannot be understood solely through its chaotic performance).

In these examples, I’ve hopefully shown that dramatic format in fiction isn't necessarily a handicap or a signal of a text’s lack of self-sufficiency; rather it’s a historied practice that can be a strategy for developing a narrative in a variety of creative ways within the text itself.

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