Drama isn't just something that happens in high school hallways or at big family gatherings. In fact, there's a sense in which literary drama and the drama of everyday life are almost opposites of each other—one is scripted, the other is ad lib; one involves actors before an audience, and in the other the audience are the actors; one tries to illuminate truths concerning human nature, while the other simply reflects the truths of human nature.
Modern dramatists are doing their best to blur these lines.The people responsible for reality TV programming are essentially modern playwrites (albeit very shoddy ones), but far from revealing human nature their productions obscure it and reduce anything remotely enlightening to mere entertainment (if you happen to be entertained by people with too much makeup crying and throwing things at each other for no good reason).
It's a sad situation for one of the oldest literary genres. Most of the great Greek writers who weren't explicitly philosophers were either poets or playwrites, and they maintained that art must employ artifice in order to reveal truths about reality; trying to make real life entertaining, or (worse) entertainment real life, was to betray both art and human existence. Plays, they insisted, must serve as a catharsis for the audience, the theater a kind of temple for relieving its patrons of their emotional baggage through release of feeling.
Plays have consequently always tended more toward the existential (dealing with existence) than the cerebral. A novel, speaking directly to readers, can take more time reflecting, analyzing, commenting. On-stage dramas must portray action, conveying ideas and observations in the behavior and speech of the actors. It is principally for this reason that plays are written in order to be performed rather than simply read. There is a visceral element to them not present in merely written stories.
But it's not simply a snatch of life up there on the boards—Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that enjoying the theater required a "temporary suspension of disbelief." Things don't happen on the stage exactly the way they happen at home, or work, or on the battlfield. It's artifice, and it's ordered in such a way that meaning is conveyed.
Because, at the end of the day Aristotle's dictum that art must both delight and instruct must be served, even in theater. Any play can mean something, or convey an idea, but not every play is enjoyable to watch or listen to. Many of the Modernist variety are just plain boring. They don't delight or entertain, and therefore they fail to ennoble the audience with their professed ideals.
By contrast, William Shakespeare wrote the most thoughtful, philosophical, and flat-out fun to watch plays of all time. He worked in a tradition established by the Classical writers like Aeschylus and Euripedes, but with this appeal to English-speakers: Shakespeare loved words, and he played with them as much as with historical details, psychology, and philosophy.
As poetry is meant to be read aloud, so plays are meant to be performed. Yet a good (or great) playwrite can be read as easily as watched, and his style and content analyzed just as accurately in a university classroom as by a theater critic. Hence, we offer plays in script form. By no means every great playwrite or important school of theater is represented in this section, but we hope there's enough here to demonstrate how satisfying a good play can be, and to kindle in readers who have yet to enjoy it a love of the most human of literary forms.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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