Controversy #4 (Fall 1998)

"Drama Performed vs. Drama Read"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #4: This excellent discussion may also help you understand my practice of having students present/perform portions of the day's assigned reading at the start of class. I'm trying to bring out the difference between the silent reading "performance" and the dramatic oral delivery of the lines in question. But there are certainly losses when one has seen a powerful realization of a text, and every such dramatic performance is, as Joe and Kim point out, an interpretation. So what's wrong with that? Maybe it has to do with building the power of our interpretive "muscle" so we can fight off unwanted influences? Participants were Joe Kranak, Chris Phillips, Kim Garbe, and Arnie.

"The value of seeing a play performed," Joe Kranak, 10/8/98

Since we are in the middle of reading Shakespeare, and, since I have always enjoyed seeing Shakespeare's plays performed far more than reading them, because I often find them quite difficult to understand on paper, I have always thought that it is more valuable to see a play performed than to read it. Shakespeare composed these plays to be performed and never planned to have these plays written down. He might even be disgusted if he were alive today to see students of English reading through his plays without seeing them performed. But, I was talking to someone who was taking part in a similar discussion in the posts for one of Jeff Meyer's classes, and she was arguing that it far better to read a play. Seeing a play performed distorts your image of the play because it has been interpreted by the director, and the individual characters have been interpreted by the actors. Especially if you are a more visually oriented person, this interpretation could cloud your judgment of the play and create a bias toward the interpretation you saw performed. Therefore, with this issue made clear, I would like to ask the question of whether it is better to see a play performed or to read it?

 "On seeing plays performed," Chris Phillips, 10/8/98

I am in Jeff's Shakespeare class this fall & we watched Taming of the Shrew & I know that it helped me to understand the play a little better before I read it. I think it all depends on your own views. Since the visual performance gave me some sort of basis when reading the play, it became much easier to note symbolism, meter, and other literary devices on the first read-through. If a person has enough imagination then they shouldn't see the director's view or interpretation as the only interpretation possible and should formulate one of their own.

"Reading vs. Watching Shakespeare's Plays," Kim Garbe, 10/8/98

Joe- I can understand why you feel the way that you do. Shakespeare's plays are difficult to read and understand especially when not being read for pleasure and at leisure. But I have to agree with the student in the Shakespeare class. I feel that his plays need to be read so that we can use our imaginations to create the scenes of drama and tragedy all on our own. I stage the robbery of the robbers differently than a director may. (I will say that sometimes it is helpful to see the play, the movie etc. but only for a comparison.) the saying is that hte book is always better than the movie. A modern day example for those of you who read the book Kiss the Girls and also saw the movie. The book portrays the main character as a young fortyish man, an African American and relatively handsome. For those of you who saw Morgan Freeman play the same role, please say that you agree with me. Morgan Freeman was not what I had pictured while reading the book. This affected my enjoyment of the movie since I chose to read the book first. If I had seen the movie first, i would have placed the respective actors into their roles while imagining the scenes while I read. (Sorry for the long example!) But to return to my point, I say read the play first (several times if that helps) and while reading try to see the way you would direct the play. It helps to see the scene instead of just trying to read it! Once last thing that I do is to cast the characters. I picture Falstaff as a combination of Dom Deluise, Danny Devito and Homer Simpson with the cultured accent of Sean Connery. It helps to see the humor in his character! I am interested in whether or not anyone else has cast the other characters in this play. Please respond to the folder so that we can share our ideas.

"If you're interested in hearing 1 Henry IV performed today...," Arnie, 10/8/98

Here's the OLLI record for the library's recording of the BBC version, which Jeff Myers recommends.

TITLE The Complete dramatic works of William Shakespeare

[videorecording] / presented by the British Broadcasting


PUB. INFO. New York : Ambrose Video Pub. [distributor], 1987.

DESCRIPT cassettes (VHS) : sd., col. ; 1/2 in.

NOTE Produced in association with Time-Life Video.

CONTENTS [9] The first part of King Henry the Fourth. 3 pts. (147 min.)



04 > Audiovisual VC 826.31 1987 v.9 CHK THE SHELF

Kim's point sets up a wonderful way to get into the author's creative process, especially if you are familiar with a range of actors and actresses. Cast the parts in a work you're studying, trying variations to see how the emotional and intellectual qualities projected best by those artists might shape your sense of what the author was trying to accomplish. The temptation to warp genre, turning tragedy into comedy (Faustus played by Jim Carey), will be strong, but even that reveals things. Isn't there an awful lot of comedy already in Marlowe's "clown" subplot? Is there perhaps something mildly amusing intended in Faustus' fall? Could Marlowe, himself, have been divided about whether to regard the scholar's fate as comic or tragic, and could that be reflected in the play's original, full title, "The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus"? When we get to Falstaff, which Shakespeare at first plays for laughs, consider what would happen if a really great, serious Shakespearian actor was given the buffoon's role, and took it toward tragedy? After all, though Falstaffs are fun to watch, are they so much fun to be?

Chris's enthusiasm for seeing performance should be a warning to all who have never seen Shakespeare performed. How do you know what this text is capable of becoming if you never have seen it fleshed out with action, sound effects, music, costume, scenery, etc.? Would your favorite movie's script, alone, have convinced you it was great if you had not seen it realized on film, first? However, and there's always a "however" around the corner in this business, Joe's concern for one's independent vision of the work is worth considering, especially if you never had thought of challenging an existing performance's standards.