Why publish plays as books: Denis Johnson’s Soul of a Whore and Purvis, reviewed.

Who Reads Plays, Anyway?

Who Reads Plays, Anyway?

Reading between the lines.
June 1 2012 11:38 PM

No More Drama?

On Denis Johnson’s Two Plays, and why plays get published in book form at all.

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Both plays are written in blank verse, the regular rhythms standing in for either the hand of the author or the hand of God, depending on how you look at it. But whereas in Johnson’s novels he can affect our reading directly, in the plays all he has is character, scene, and action—out of that, all the rest has to grow, and he plants the seeds as he writes along. You read a play looking for those seeds and trying to cultivate them at the same time.   Being only one person with finite capabilities, you’ll find some bargaining has to take place. Which seeds will I sacrifice? Which nuances will I inevitably miss? Reading Two Plays, the characters in my head spoke all in the same voice; furthermore, I can't say with confidence that I noted in every instance exactly who was speaking—I sacrificed precision for flow. There were no dramatic pauses in the dialogue, no changes in tempo, few changes in pitch or volume—I sacrificed interpretation for comprehension.

Author Denis Johnson.

Photo byCindy Johnson.

Most every time I’ve read a play, it was the beginning of a process. Maybe reading the play was a prelude to writing a paper about it. During the period of my life when I was convinced that the theater was my calling, I read plays in order to prepare to direct or act in them. But either way, the experience itself wasn't complete and wasn't supposed to be, as a novel is. When you read a novel you’re the audience, with the author the director. You buy your ticket and see the work whole. When you read a play, though, you can read it close up, like an actor, or far away, like a director, but you can't do both, at least not at the same time. You pick a focal depth and stick to it. A play in production resolves those two depths by the director working with the actors in the rehearsal process; what you see on stage is the result.

This year the Pulitzer committee for drama gave the prize to a play that none of the committee members saw staged, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful. As the Times’ Eric Grode notes, the last time such a thing happened, John Lahr wrote that the situation was “as absurd as giving a restaurant four stars on the basis of its menu.” Writes Grode: "Couldn’t an argument be made that judging the merits of a play is more accurate, not less, when the middlemen and -women are cut out?" There could, of course. A staging is an interpretation, and any audience is subject to whatever kind of interpretation is being rendered: in the mouths of bad actors, a play is bad; under the direction of a bad director, a play is bad. If you want the pure experience of a play as a literary work, goes the argument, you have no choice but to read.


As Dwight Garner once suggested, I invited five friends over to my apartment, bribed them with micheladas, and handed out copies of Johnson’s plays. How might the experience differ? First and foremost, it was a tremendous relief. Reading the plays to myself had been a deeply anxious experience: Every page, as I worked to cultivate those seeds, I wondered about which ones I was missing, and whether I wasn't picking the wrong ones. Perhaps I wasn't reading it correctly? Had I missed a key detail of character as I tried to puzzle out a thorny plot twist? Or was I neglecting the story to focus on Masha, the whore, and her relationship with the preacher? Hearing it aloud let me leave the acting to my friends and at least direct my own version, in my head, of what I could now enjoy as a work in and of itself. Simply by getting the characters out of my own head, the story became clearer, no matter how unprofessional our treatment. Our version of Soul of a Whore had HT, the big, black, double-murdering ex-convict hostage-taker, played by a petite, white, female schoolteacher. We had no sets, no costumes, and no stage. But nevertheless, it came alive, even when my petite schoolteacher HT hollered, “My dick won’t make no juice.”

A play in a book is not a play. It isn't anything; it's incomplete. A playwright, after all, is not a play-write. A playwright is a craftsman, and what he builds are scaffoldings for actors and directors, as well as lighting designers, costume designers, set designers, and audiences to inhabit. I can’t help but think that the Pulitzer committee, no matter how great Water by the Spoonful must be, missed something only seeing that scaffolding. Like a wheelwright or a shipwright, a playwright's product can be beautiful or not, literary or not, good or not, but the real test of it is in its function. The prettiest of boats is worthless if it doesn't float. Likewise, a beautifully written play, if it can't support all of those people and their ideas, is nevertheless a failure. A play as a book is nice, but it's a curio, and belongs on the shelf beside the ships in bottles. Buy it, read it—but don’t think that’s the same thing as sailing.


Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson. Farrar, Straus.

Jillian Goodman is an editor in Manhattan and a writer in Brooklyn.