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.

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The Play’s the (Limited) Thing

I go to plays even though I am convinced, largely from the writings of Elmer Rice, that plays are a limited art form. Rice, who lived from 1892 to 1967, did many things. He wrote several novels and many short stories, essays, book reviews, and movie, television, and radio scripts. He directed and produced stage performances, helped run theater organizations, and was a noted civil libertarian. But first and foremost, Rice was a prolific and successful playwright. About thirty of his plays were produced on Broadway, and some of his two dozen unproduced plays were published. In 1914, when he was only twenty-one, his1914 On Trial stormed Broadway with its new technique of flashbacks. His expressionist The Adding Machine in 1923 helped usher in a new dramatic era. His 1929 naturalistic Street Scene ran for 601 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize. Dream Girl, a delightful comedy, was a hit in 1945. He wrote plays of political comment, including We the People (1933), Judgment Day (1934) and Flight to the West (1940), which provoked controversies. More than four decades after his debut, Cue for Passion (1958) opened on Broadway.  As a result of this career, in 1958 a writer in the New York Times labeled him, not extravagantly, “Dean of Playwrights.” A student of the theater, Robert Allan Davison later said, “Throughout a fifty-three-year career, Rice showed genius, talent, and wisdom in his exploration of universal and timeless issues through the finely wrought specifics of his drama. Among the forty of his plays produced or published during his lifetime are some of the finest and most innovative plays in the history of the American Theatre.”

Today, however, even though a play of his is occasionally revived, Elmer Rice is largely forgotten even by the play-going public. He would probably not be surprised by his present obscurity because he maintained that although dramatic masterpieces may always endure, the work of a first-rate playwright was less likely to last than the work of other good writers. Rice thought that plays have a limited lasting potential because they are written to be performed, not merely published and read. He noted that “a play that is unperformed quickly falls into oblivion from which it is seldom rescued,” but a play’s production is an expensive, complicated affair. Large amounts of money and the assembled talents of many are required in addition to an author’s words, and each day a play runs continues to bring significant expenses. A new play almost always has to be instantly successful to last more than a brief time, and if its initial production does not succeed, it is unlikely ever to be produced again.  For a play to generate that audience, it must almost always get favorable comments from the handful of critics attending opening night. A result is that few plays are initially produced, few will continue in production or be re-produced, and consequently few will have the chance to endure. Since the producer knows he needs an immediate, sizeable audience to recoup his investment, Rice wrote, “His choice of plays to be produced is determined by his judgment of their potential popularity. This state of things does not make for the choice of plays of great depth or literary value.”

Books are different. Many more books are printed each year than plays are produced. Less money is required to publish a book than to mount a play. Novels, unlike plays, often survive when not immediately successful and even without favorable reviews. While some book reviewers are more influential than others, a book may receive many reviews around the country with none being decisive. And since a distribution system is in place when a book is published, it continues to remain available after its publication date.  Rice noted in his 1959 book about the social structure of the theater, The Living Theatre, “Even if time is required to overcome adverse reviews, it costs nothing to keep the books on the shelves while the public demand develops.”  Consequently, for books, unlike plays, positive word-of-mouth can build over months and years, bringing new audiences to a book long after it is published.

W. Somerset Maugham is a case in point. He may not be considered a major writer today, but you can still find books containing his stories and novels. As long as you can, Maugham’s works still live as does the work of any novelist or short story writer if there is someone somewhere still reading it. Maugham, however, was also a successful playwright–he had ten plays produced in seven years with several of them running simultaneously in London. Few now have the opportunity to see those stage pieces. Without productions, those works, even if first-rate, cannot live. If he only wrote plays, Maugham’s name would be recognized by almost no one today. Even though successful, Maugham stopped writing plays. He concluded in The Summing Up, a book of reflections, “that a prose play was scarcely less ephemeral than a news sheet” and abandoned the theater.

(concluded on October 26)

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