I was hanging out with my friend Nick the other day and we were talking about two plays by Harold Pinter that he had plans to read – The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter. We then got into a brief discussion of the Theater of the Absurd, existentialism, and how Pinter pioneered the use of both within his works.
Later that night, I was telling Nick my plans for summer break. I was going to write more poems and finish at least one short story, and then he chimed in “have you ever written a play?” The answer to that is no, I have never written a play. And then I got to thinking about it – why don’t I write plays? I’ve studied plays, along with other forms of literature, throughout my schooling, but on top of that – I used to BE in plays when I was younger. I’ve acted before, and I understand firsthand the three dimensions that go into performance: writing, directing and acting, and the audience. I have written poetry and short stories before, I have acted on stage, and I have been in the audience to see plays being performed.
As a writer, plays are approached differently than other literary works. Poems, short stories, novels, and other literary forms have two levels of interaction with them – that of the writer, and that of the reader. Plays, however, have a performance aspect to them which adds an extra layer of interpretation. Sure, one can read a play and get the standard writer-reader relationship out of them, but plays aren’t meant to be read. Plays are meant to be seen. When a writer approaches a play, he or she must take the physical embodiment and staging of their concepts and characters into account.
As Dr. Rocklin, a professor I work with regularly, states a playtext has infinite possibilities. When a reader engages with a play and reads it closely and carefully, the reader can see multiple threads of interpretation. When a play is performed, however, these limitless possibilities are locked in and the audience is left with the writer’s message, filtered through a director and actors interpretation. While reading a play offers a rich vastness of possibilities, seeing a play offers one solid interpretation from start to finish, with the absolution of actions and decisions being played through to the very end. I posted the video of Aston’s speech from Pinter’s play The Caretaker. That is one interpretation of the character (in film), directed by Clive Donner and enacted by Robert Shaw. Another interpretation of the character Aston comes from a reading by Colin Firth. While both men are playing the same character, the enactment and delivery creates two very different Astons – one cold and removed, and the other vulnerable and scared.
I think, as a writer, I’d like to be in as much control as possible when it comes to how my work is interpreted, and that’s why I’ve steered away from writing plays. But the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to realize that the added layer of performance doesn’t take away from my control of the work, but rather adds another layer of possibility in the interpretation and reception of the words that I write.
Now, excuse me, I have to go write a play.