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.

The 2003 premiere of Denis Johnson's Soul of a Whore at the Campo Santo theater in San Francisco.
The 2003 premiere of Denis Johnson's Soul of a Whore at the Campo Santo theater company.

Photograph by Jeff Fohl.

Getting a play in a book is a bit like getting a backstage pass: What you see is not nearly as glamorous as you might have imagined. Every year, scores of plays are published in book form. Most come from specialized publishers like Samuel French or Playscripts, whose target audiences are mostly theater companies planning to produce the works. But a handful of important modern plays are published each year by academic and trade presses, and they’re intended for … whom? People, somewhere, who just enjoy reading drama. And the number of people for whom that is true is pitifully small: according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of print sales nationwide, the three Tony nominees for best play currently available—Clybourne Park, Other Desert Cities, and Venus in Fur, all in stores six months or more—have sold a total of 7,400 copies.

But many times, plays as books are all we have to go on. The novelist Denis Johnson wrote a half-dozen plays from 2000 to 2010, as the playwright in residence at the Campo Santo theater company in San Francisco, and this month two of them arrive as a book. Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse comprises Johnson's third- and fifth-ever attempts at playwriting, but his enthusiasm for experimentation is present and overriding, and it reads vividly. It also reads long. Jesus’ Son, Johnson’s much-loved 1992 collection of short stories, is a fleet 133 pages; his 2007 National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke wears its 701 pages lightly. The 227 pages of this book, spread as they are between the two plays, go slowly. (To put that in perspective, my old Pelican Shakespeare unabridged Hamlet clocks in at 148, including footnotes.)

One reason Johnson’s longtime publisher might release his plays as a book is if they cast new light on his previous work. Two Plays is a recognizably Johnsonian book in some ways. His characters are outlaws, troubled anti-heroes; the dialogue couches existential anxiety in grunted curses; the scenes are long; the action is violent, both physically and spiritually. An ex-con ambles into a Greyhound station at the beginning of Soul of a Whore, for instance, singing an old folk song: "Let the Midnight Special/ Shine a ever-lovin' light on you." He buys a ticket, eavesdrops on a woman on the payphone, then announces, "Man get crazy when his bus don't come." The woman quotes Lead Belly back at him: "You ever get to Houston,/ Boy, you better walk right." The exchange, mostly blues lyrics, is loud but empty, with the space between the words free of the writer’s voice. But in his other books, Johnson the novelist finds reverential moments of quiet that give the lie to all the noise and chaos. In Tree of Smoke, for instance, a character boards a jalopy in the Philippines in a similarly mundane scene—but Johnson describes the event with such beauty: the thing "budging forward by some supernatural force, drifting hugely out of town, like a greasy, sweaty, iceberg—of what use brakes against such inexorableness?" Narration is not typically a tool in the playwright's toolbox, however, and Two Plays barrels forward with little sympathy.

"Soul of a Whore."
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Soul of a Whore is, remarkably, more delicate than Purvis. Purvis is Melvin Purvis, head of the Chicago office of the Federal Division of Investigation, who collared or killed Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger in a six-month spree in early 1934. J. Edgar Hoover fired him not long after, is about all the rest of what's known for certain. Everything else, from the circumstances of the arrests (did he order the cops to shoot a wounded Baby Face?) to the reason for his firing (Hoover's jealous paranoia or improper conduct in the field?) to his death (by his own hand, certainly, but suicide or accident?) is called into question. From an author who frequently evokes God ("tree of smoke" is a reference to the Book of Joel), Purvis is uncommonly cynical. Soul of a Whore is more reminiscent of Johnson’s fiction, and involves a con-man preacher, prison, a hooker, her pimp, a roadside dive called the Big-As-Texas topless lounge, a hostage-taker, that Greyhound bus station, an executioner, a demon, and God. It closes with an impassioned speech in support of capital punishment.