The Play’s the (Limited) Thing (concluded)

The dramatist Elmer Rice thought that plays don’t have lasting power because they have to be produced, but he also thought they did not last because plays are written for a group audience, and this limits their quality. The author of a book seeks wide readership, but in an important sense that writer really composes for an audience of one, the solitary reader who can choose where and when to read.  That author has a freedom in determining at what level to pitch his writing. He can seek an audience of an academic, a trained professional, a serious reader, or pitch to a mass market. He can aim for literary or intellectual merit and have a chance of finding the right readership.

The dramatist’s audience, in contrast, requires a group of individuals assembled together at a particular time and place to experience the work together.  The socially indelicate or controversial book can be read in private, but a dramatic performance is public, which makes it subject to many forms of public scrutiny and influence that have little or nothing to do with drama as art. Furthermore, theater-going is generally not inexpensive and the audience is largely limited to the upper economic class. Rice thought that such audiences generally sought mere entertainment and were not particularly sophisticated, having on average, less understanding of the art they are perceiving than concert-goers, visitors to art exhibitions, or readers of serious books. “Rocketing costs have increased the professional theater’s dependence upon an audience that is likely to be better equipped with money than with taste.”

Furthermore, a play’s audience does not have an advantage of the book audience.  The reader can always thumb back if something has been missed, but the playgoer cannot requiring the playwright to repeat important information sometimes undercutting the artistic integrity of the work. “The audience must move forward with the performers, and what is not instantly grasped is forever lost.”

Equally important, Rice felt that the collective behavior of any group, including an audience, was different from the private reactions of individuals.  Writing in mid-career in an introduction to a British collection of his plays, Rice concluded that for whatever reason, those in a group “assume a uniformity of conduct, a sort of common denominator, . .  . which is far below the habitual level of the more intelligent . . . members of the group. . . . [The dramatist] is handicapped by the low level of his audience, which imposes upon him the necessity of over-simplifying and over-emphasizing his points in order to make them at all.” Even so, Rice pronounced “that almost any play is considerably above the level of the audience which it attracts. Anyone who has listened to the comments of an audience, during or after the performance, can say without hesitation that at least one-half of those present have no definite notion of what the author has been driving at, or even what the play is about.”  Rice concluded, “Why, then, is the lot of the dramatist more unhappy than that of his fellow-artists?  For the simple reason that he cannot address himself to the individual judgments of the scattered few to whom he may have something to say. The very nature of his art demands an organisation of his audience, in space and in time. If he writes plays for the theatre, he cannot fail to take the theatre heavily into account; if he writes plays for the library, he is no longer wholly a dramatist.”

Rice was not alone in seeing the limitations brought by a group audience. Maugham wrote that when assembled as a group, its members only want limited ideas. An audience “likes novelty, but a novelty that will fit in with old notions, so that it excites but does not alarm. It likes ideas, so long as they are put in dramatic form, only they must be ideas that it has itself had, but for want of courage has never expressed.” Arthur Miller agreed after seeing a Greek theater in Sicily that could hold 14,000 that it is “hard to grasp how the tragedies could have been written for such massive crowds when in our time the mass audience all but demanded vulgarization.”

Even with these pessimistic thoughts about the limitations of plays, however, Rice did not abandon the theater. He continued to write play after play, sometimes merely to entertain, sometimes to experiment with form, and sometimes to present ideas. He apparently saw drama’s inherent limitations as a challenge to surmount, and at least some of the time, he succeeded well enough to produce worthy plays.

And even though I appreciate the limited reach of plays, I continue to go because some of the time a production succeeds in producing a memorable event.

Related Posts: