I save Playbills, those little magazines you get when attending the theater. At the performance’s conclusion, if I can’t find mine, I feel a bit unsettled and try to find a discarded one. When I get home, I stack the Playbills on a shelf of the table next to my morning reading chair. They amass there for what I consider a season—from September until the following summer. Then I move them to a bookcase in my office where I place them on top of last season’s accumulation. Why I do this I do not know. I certainly don’t catalog them. When I move them, I may glance at them, but I seldom look at them after that. I just have them.
I get the Playbills, obviously, because I go to plays, and part of the reason I go to plays is because of Professor Alan Downer. I took his course in modern drama in college. We saw a few classic movies—I seem to remember M and Treasure of the Sierra Madre–but mostly we read plays. I found almost every one of them interesting, and I still remember many of them. On the other hand, I don’t remember any specific lecture by Downer. They must have been informative, however, for I feel as though I have a solid grasp of the development of modern drama, and that had to come from the Professor.
While I enjoyed reading dozens of plays in college, I had seen very few–a couple of high school and college productions and only one or two professional companies. I had not yet learned the real power of the stage.
Soon after I came to New York that changed. I was lucky enough to attend Peter Brook’s now legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I learned that night that a script can be read, but that a play must be seen. This was not Shakespeare of the printed word, but the creation of a magical world on the stage. It drew me into that world. It was more immediate than any movie could ever be. It required live actors, a stage, and an audience. I learned that evening that the theater could present an experience that could not be had elsewhere.
When I now experience the powerful moment that only the theater can give, I think of Brook’s Dream, but I also I often think of Elmer Rice, little known today but a prolific playwright from the last century. I was introduced to Rice in Downer’s course where I read The Adding Machine. I have never seen it, even though it is occasionally still mounted, but the play stuck with me. Decades after college, I learned that Rice was a graduate of the law school that employed me, and I then read some of Rice’s writings on the theater. I was gratified to find that he stressed what Brook’s Dream had revealed to me–a play is meant to be seen, not just read. He said, “To read in a stage direction such indications of mood as ‘savagely’ or ‘tearfully’ is surely not the same as to sit tensely in one’s seat while a player strides the boards in simulated rage, or to be moved to tears oneself by the apparent distress of a beautiful actress.” And he gave some examples.
Elmer Rice explained the effect watching Act II, Scene II from Macbeth had on him. The title character has killed Duncan, but he has not implicated the grooms as planned. Lady Macbeth scornfully leaves to do the unfinished deed. The stage directions say, “Knocking within.” That direction is repeated over the next few lines. Lady Macbeth returns, and she, too, is now covered in blood. Rice continues: “It is dramatic enough in the reading, but the full effect can be understood only when one sits in the theatre watching those two desperate figures in the cold predawn light, he already overcome with guilt and remorse, she hysterically intent upon the consummation of the crime. Then comes the knocking upon the locked gate of the castle; the inchoate fears of Macbeth and the cold disdain of his wife are punctuated by the repeated pounding. Who is there? Will the guilt be discovered? The words convey all that, of course, but they are immeasurably enhanced by the visible and audible situation. No one who has merely read the play can be aware of the intensity of this celebrated scene when it is enacted.”
(Concluded on May 11.)