I don’t think the theater community does enough to promote drama as a form of literature. The conventional wisdom is that plays are written to be performed on a stage and not read. While it is true that you should prefer to see a play performed on stage, you should not be discouraged from reading a play. Personally I love to read plays because I am rarely disappointed by a play. In order for any play to be published, it had to be worthy of being performed since nobody publishes plays which were never produced. This generally ensures that any play you read will be intelligible and entertaining. You certainly have no guarantee that any novel you read will be intelligible or entertaining! Since most plays don’t run longer than two hours you are also ensured that reading a play will not take more than a single day or a few hours. Compare that to a Dostoevsky novel which may require you to invest a week into the reading of it.
I was reading plays long before I was able to go the theater to see them performed onstage. I only began to attend shows at the theater because I wanted to see some of the plays I’ve read performed live right in front of me. So the theater isn’t doing itself any favors if it discourages people from reading plays. Readers of drama are sure to become your future audience.
Unfortunately there are only a few publishers devoted to publishing plays; Samuel French, Broadway Play Publishing, Playscripts, Inc, Smith and Kraus Publishers, and Theatre Communications Group. The market for plays is assumed to be actors looking for monologues to perform for auditions. Smith and Kraus publishes collections of monologues and many of their books are labeled “Plays for Actors”. We need to encourage the general public to read plays, not just actors. Many plays are only published as cheap looking “acting editions” without even an attempt at cover art. Personally I don’t care for that because cover art can be inspiring.
Recently I’ve read the book, The Philadelphia Connection: Conversations with Playwrights, by B. J. Burton. I was surprised that I’ve never heard of any of these playwrights even though I try to follow the Philadelphia theater scene. Actually this isn’t too surprising. Obviously I can’t get down to Philadelphia very often. And none of these playwrights has had their work published in a very prominent format. I was able to buy a few of their plays from Playscripts, Inc (in acting editions) but it was expensive. The Philadelphia Connection book really needs a companion anthology, a collection of the plays mentioned in the interviews.
There are a few other reasons I prefer drama over other forms of literature. Take poetry for instance. Modern poetry is often unintelligible. Poetry critics are so severe that a poet can only survive by being totally opaque. You can’t criticize a poem if you can’t decipher it. I don’t mind being mystified by a poem but it has gotten to the point where you can barely read the poem. A lot of poems are just jumbles of words that don’t appear to be trying to say anything at all. What has been sacrificed is eloquence and a heightened use of language. Fortunately you can still find eloquence and a heightened use of language in plays. Even contemporary plays can be more poetic than modern poetry and of course Shakespeare is the most eloquent poet of them all.
So what can the theater community do to promote the reading of plays? Some theaters are more devoted to playwrights than others and they are doing some things right. The Signature Theatre Company actually has a book store in their theater building where you can buy the published plays of the playwrights they are featuring this season. It is not just a table with some books on sale, but an actual store. A theater could also create a play library in their lobby so patrons could look through some books before the show begins. Playwrights Horizons is just up the street from the Signature Theatre Company and I think they actually publish the original plays they are producing using print-on-demand technology. Theaters could also create drama reading clubs and writer groups to increase the literary activity in their community.