Monday, June 2, 2014

The Play Is the Thing

I just finished reading Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Honestly I wouldn’t have read it except that I had to for my job as a proofreader. (Right now I’m reading a literature book, which gives me all sorts of English class flashbacks.)

I’d never read A Raisin in the Sun before and have never seen a production or film adaptation. I was familiar with the play by title only. When I started reading it, I had the foreboding feeling and expectation that this play was going to be depressing, as so much of the literature in English classes tends to be. Those feelings didn’t change as I got deeper into the play. In many ways, A Raisin in the Sun is reminiscent of Death of a Salesman, and we all know how that one turned out.

So I was glad to discover that A Raisin in the Sun does NOT have a tragic ending but a triumphant, redeeming one. I loved it because the ending totally surprised me while also seeming inevitable, which is one of the most perfect things any author can do for a reader. It was poetic; it was wonderful. I was practically giddy after I read it, considering my initial misgivings about the play. Reading A Raisin in the Sun-and enjoying it-reminded me how satisfying reading a good play can be. It’s been a while since I read a play, so perhaps I’d forgotten. It’s an interesting, unique genre and one I’ve never taken the time to really reflect upon before.

In my play-reading experience, I’ve loved happy endings and sad endings, comedies and tragedies. Like I said before, several aspects of A Raisin in the Sun and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman are quite similar. But their outcomes also make them polar opposites. Despite its tragic ending, I love Death of a Salesman; in fact, it’s one of my favorites. This, coupled with my fortuitous discovery of A Raisin in the Sun, is evidence to me that my appreciation for either play goes beyond a desire for a happy or sad ending. In another example, Taming of the Shrew is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays-but so is Othello, and I love it just as much. Like Miller’s and Hansberry’s plays, I believe Taming of the Shrew and Othello are comparable works with similar themes but opposite outcomes: Taming of the Shrew shows a marriage that becomes strong despite it being severely tested, while Othello shows the destruction of a marriage through deceit and jealousy.

Other plays I’ve read and enjoyed include Our Town by Thornton Wilder; The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams; and another Arthur Miller play, The Crucible. Each of these plays I’ve read several times. In the cases of Our Town and The Crucible, I’ve also had the chance to see them performed onstage in college productions. On the other hand, two plays I did not particularly like are Romeo & Juliet and Oedipus Rex. To be clear, it's not that I don't think they're well written. I’m sure you could spend hours telling me how technically brilliant they are, or how timeless and universal their stories are, and I would not dispute it. You’re right. But there is another, more fundamental reason for my dislike. Moreover, I believe why I don’t like them is directly related to why I love other plays. And this, in turn, will further explain why I think plays as a genre are important.

I’ve read several other plays (including many by Shakespeare, of course) but the ones I’ve mentioned thus far are the ones that have had the most impact on my play-reading experience, for better or worse. Now that you understand where I’m coming from, let me tell you what I know about plays because of that experience.

To understand the essential difference between plays and other genres, I think you need to ponder the significance of another word closely associated with plays: drama. Why is play-acting referred to as drama? Precisely because that’s exactly what it is. Plays are meant to be performed. Unlike, say, adapting a book for a film adaptation, where a lot can be lost in translation when it goes from book to script and then to screen, a play is written with the specific intent to be seen and not just read, with the advantages and limitations of the stage in mind. I find this focuses the storytelling more on action rather than description. Showing, not telling. And because plays are performed onstage, you see the action in the moment in a way that not even film can capture, like witnessing life as it’s happening even if it is scripted. But drama, by its very nature, also involves conflict, which implies a choice. By the end of the play, someone is going to have to make a vital decision that affects everything. Plays are not just long, drawn-out conversations even though they are composed primarily of dialogue. Action + conflict = drama.

Unfortunately, the strengths of plays are also their weaknesses because if you’re a reader first and not a performer who is used to thinking in terms of stage directions and sets and the nuances of dialogue and actions, it can be difficult to read plays. That’s why it’s important to see them performed if possible. But when you can’t see a play (which tends to be most of the time), what can you get out of a play by simply reading it? For me, watching plays helps me understand the action, i.e., the first part of drama. Reading plays, on the other hand, helps deepen one’s understanding of the conflict of a play, which is why it can be a helpful exercise even if you’ve seen the play before. It gives you a chance to study the meat of the material instead of only seeing it performed once, where you might miss something.

Knowing this, I hope I can now at least begin to explain why I like some plays but not others.

I think part of the reason I am so against Romeo & Juliet is that I spent a lot of my early years (long before I was even old enough to read literature as complex as Shakespeare) under the impression that Romeo and Juliet were the epitome of the romantic couple. Indeed, to this day, when people speak of great literary romances, Romeo & Juliet is probably somewhere at the top of the list. But it is my opinion that this is a complete misconception. It really disturbs me that Romeo & Juliet is considered a great love story because to me it isn't the ultimate love story-it's a story about how hate destroyed everything good, including true love. Furthermore, Romeo and Juliet played the pitiful victims in their own story, marred not by Fate but by their inability to take control of their situation. Instead of being a beacon in a world of hate, they let circumstances control them until it destroyed them. I feel like when they died, they didn't just kill themselves but also love itself. I had no sympathy for anybody in that play, and there’s no real drama in that. (Go ahead and drop off the face of the Earth. What do I care?) Oedipus Rex? Same deal. In both stories, there is nothing and nobody redeemable in them, and no one realizes anything until it's too late. They may speak true to life on some level (i.e., the miserable part), particularly as warnings against hate and hubris, but why would I want to waste my time on stories that tell me people are idiots and life is hopeless?

And don't think I'm just griping about this because Romeo & Juliet and Oedipus Rex aren't "happy" plays. Believe me, if Oedipus Rex were nothing but sunshine and rainbows, I'd still hate it. If Romeo & Juliet was indeed the ideal romance that everyone makes it out to be, with all the sappiness and sentiment that implies, I'd still have essentially the same problems with it. Ignoring all the bad stuff for the sake of keeping a story "happy" is untruthful, but so are stories that are basically saying: We're all doomed and there's nothing you can do about it.

By comparison, I think the element that keeps Death of a Salesman from being a completely miserable play is Willy Loman’s son Biff. I think it’s quite clear where Willy is heading from the very beginning. I think his fate is ingrained in his character. It’s Biff who has the epiphany at the end, not Willy. Ask yourself what might’ve happened if Arthur Miller’s play had focused on Biff: Would it have ended with redemption instead? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about. You do sympathize with Willy somewhat despite knowing he’s on a downward spiral. It’s painful to watch, but you feel sorry for him nonetheless because you identify with his aching desire to succeed, to live up to something, to matter in life. But it's not enough to save him. It's Biff who's saved in the end; he is the glimpse of redemption before we witness Willy’s demise. Biff might still make it, and he tried to save Willy too. For a second, we may have even believed that Willy would be saved, given the desperate hope we can sense deep inside him, but, as we know, Biff can only save himself. It’s these little bits of hope that make failures tragic instead of miserable. So much potential, gone.

If plays are fundamentally composed of a choice, inherent in the play’s conflict, then naturally I will gravitate toward plays that I believe execute that choice well. The best plays are the ones you can imagine going either way; it’s just a matter of what the characters are going to choose. To have drama, there must be conflict, and to have conflict you must believe, wholeheartedly, that the outcome of the play can end well OR end badly. And that’s like holding up a mirror to life, isn’t it?

Which makes my attraction to plays like A Raisin in the Sun versus Death of a Salesman or Taming of the Shrew versus Othello quite interesting because it speaks to the exact theory I’ve been trying to explain. If in fact the greatest plays make it possible to go in either direction, then these examples prove it to be so. It’s kind of like, if you decided to switch it up and rewrite A Raisin in the Sun with a tragic ending (or Death of Salesman with a happy one), A Raisin in the Sun would morph into Death of Salesman, and vice versa. Same with Taming of the Shrew and Othello. You wouldn’t be able to do that with plays that don’t have strong enough material; but these plays are so good that you can contemplate a different ending without changing the essence of the story because the different choice is already built inside each play’s conflict individually. You follow a character on a journey, witness the big and seemingly small decisions they’re making, until you’re left at a crossroads. At that point, you still want to be wondering if he’s going to turn left or if he’s going to turn right. That’s drama. And the genius of EACH of these plays is that they give you pieces of both options before deciding, once and for all, which direction to take. It doesn't really matter what they ultimately decide (i.e., whether the play ends happily or tragically), but I have to believe the decision and its consequences.

And so it goes. With each play I admire, I like it because it reflects the drama of life. The substance of a well written play can be as complex in its conflict as we often face in real-life dilemmas and decisions, and I’m grateful for that because it makes me think, perhaps before I’m faced with a crucial decision in reality. Whether it’s John Proctor’s powerful transformation in The Crucible, which seems to be tragic AND redemptive at the same time; the nostalgic but bittersweet depiction of life in Our Town, which is unique in how it makes you ponder life's big questions about life, death, and the passing of time; or the dashed hopes of the Wingfields, who were so close to finding a way out of their small life, in The Glass Menagerie, every good play leaves me feeling like I have a big decision to make-happiness or misery? But also thanks to plays, I feel like I have a clearer idea of what exactly those choices are.

Thanks for sticking with me for a long and rambling post.