February 6, 2023

Theatre A Literary Art?

by Christopher Hirschmann Brandt

Hilton Als, with all the confidence and aplomb of a Certified-Widely-Read-Professional-Theatre-Critic (for The New Yorker), states that “theatre is primarily a literary art.” Really, Hil? (May I call you Hil?) So Hil, what about a great deal of theatre of the past, oh say, sixty years? What about the costume sewer and repairer? The dramaturg? The actors? The lighting designer? The director? The composer, the choreographer, the music director, the producer? What about the audience itself, which makes each performance different from all other, even of the same play in the same run?

Could your assumption of the writer’s primacy be a function of the fact that you yourself are a writer? That would be understandable of course, since we all tend to think we are the center of the universe, but it would be dead wrong. You seem truly to believe people go to theatre first and foremost for the literary value of the evening. We do not. As you must know very well, one can experience and examine a work’s literary value by reading it, far better than any other way. And the greater the literary value, the more times it bears – or demands – rereading.

No, people come to see a show for the theatre of it, not the literature. Of course, it helps if the words are Shakespeare’s or Shaw’s, Moliere’s or Millay’s, Beckett’s or Brecht’s, but the words alone are only words, even when passed across well-trained vocal chords. Ritual circles, places centrales, zócalos, plazas, commons, and other gathering places all develop and spawn writing as a way of perpetuating our leaps in consciousness. But the written word can convey no more than a fraction of any such moment’s gestalt. No, Hil, the words of a play, no matter how grand, comprise no more than a quarter of the theatre experience – and that’s if they are the words of a truly great writer. Most plays come in at around 10-15%.

Writers do have one great advantage over all other theatre artists though, especially actors. There is no way to record a live performance. Film or video makes a record but lose the “live” part. Even holograms – if and when – may be 3-D, but they are not and never could be live. So, writing survives; performance does not. Maybe that’s why you think the literary part is so important.