A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 39: Reading Theater

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Jonathan Croy and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in Shakespeare & Company's War of the Worlds. Photo Kevin Sprague.
Jonathan Croy and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in Shakespeare & Company's War of the Worlds. Photo Kevin Sprague.

Books aren’t what they used to be. Now we have devices. They talk and sing. They are a library. But can they really be read? Could we have a reading of a play from a Kindle? Of course we could. But could we really? What about the sound of clicking instead of a page turning? Or worse, complete silence as the page turns? In two pleasant visits to Shakespeare and Company this late summer, I started thinking about these things. How active is reading anyway? Can we read King Lear better than it can be played? What about centuries of western civilization where only a fraction of the people on earth could read, and an even smaller group owned a book? There are some among us who are fans of these eras and who claim we have lost the orality that animated their cultures. Sounds a lot to me like what people are saying about books just now. I wondered in the lines above if the act of turning a page in a staged reading is an important one. Is the actual sound of the page turning important? Does it distance us from the acting, or does it broaden the experience into something which is at once public and private? Why is there a sense of privacy, perhaps secrecy, around a person who is reading, even if they read in public? In Love’s Labours Lost the character Dull is said to have “never fed of the dainties that are bred in a book. He hath not eat paper, as it were, he hath not drunk ink.” John on the Isle of Patmos was encouraged by his sacred respondent to actually eat a book—a stark and startling engraving of this act could be seen in The Clark’s Dürer show last year (November 14, 2010 – March 13, 2011). John the Revelator, actually ingesting a book! Think of the physical acts involved here. There is the presence of the book itself, its objectivity. There is the strange, wholesale devouring of its object-ness, without any mention of comprehending the words in the book, or even any idea of what the words in the book are. Perhaps it is a blank book! Can it be that there are still things to do with a book we haven’t thought of?

In the Company’s reading of Kaufman’s Barbershop by Robert Sugarman, each of the actors read a different way. Some were more “in the book,” as we say in the music business. Some seemed to perform the act of reading; some seemed to hide it. I went back and forth from the theater to the script. Robert Lohbauer had a moving knowledge of the text he was reading. It was he who seemed most actor-like. Kelly Galvin was perhaps more vivid—this is always her excellent way with words—but still conveyed a sense of words on a page. Each of these actors in particular moved me and interested me. The text (of course it was the same text) which they read seemed differently located in their familiarity with and connection with what a “reading” actually is. To pile Ossa on Pelion, just behind me I heard someone who seemed to be connected with the Company talking about another paper and ink issue. She was explaining to a friend that in the Fall Festival of Shakespeare, the Company was going to try the use of part-books with some of the young actors—books which contain only the lines of the role the actor is performing. This seemed to me to be a bridge of some kind. These texts would have little usefulness standing alone. Shakespeare’s greatest speeches, if isolated, would seem smaller things. There is also the acutely connected listening that would be required if these part-books were used and not a full text. An intensity of listening would be essential beyond that of a staged reading and certainly beyond that of reading the book oneself. The idea was out there, and I think it’s a correct idea, that how the script was printed, what the limitation of the actual written material was and how it was handled by the readers, would contribute fundamentally to the kind of performance that resulted. The limitation was the connection, it was the bridge.

Several weeks later I went to The War of the Worlds, an entertaining show in which we witnessed the workings of a radio station with actors reading at various times scripts, music, news flashes, or speaking spontaneously. Just about every connection that could be made between what was printed and what was spoken could be seen or heard. In fact these connections were the show. My favorite exhibition of this was in the second half of the performance, which contrived to convince us it was real, particularly the long narration by Elizabeth Aspenlieder of the growing terror caused by the Martian invasion. This was a reporter’s kind of speaking at the beginning, but became much more. It went away from something that was written, from a kind of scripted language, to something I would call a straight-out conversation, and ended finally as a desperate narration of what turned out to be, for this character, a mortal event. I saw in her performance something like what I am writing about. It lifted itself off of the bromides, then away from the script, then into pure and personal narration, read by us as real. Or should I say, heard by us as real. All of this would not have worked so well if it were not contained in the artifice of the radio show itself. As the show went back and forth from “real” to “more real” to “mortally real,” I got an idea, especially in Ms. Aspenlieder’s performance, of how the whole process of acting works—the constant balancing between technique and abandon. Why and how the narratives in Cervantes’ Don Quixote leap off the page, and why some actors with exquisite skill and beautiful voices do not seem to be able to pry words off the page. It is in the constant awareness of the process; it’s the “bookness” of Don Quixote, it’s the “actorliness” of Orson Welles’ radio show, that keeps Don Quixote dramatically vital and keeps Orson Welles’ show connected with the script. It is when these things are fighting, touching, reminding us of their existence, confusing us, or meeting in the performance of a first rate actress, that we are really in the theater—or we are really in the book.

1 thought on “A Singer’s Notes 39: Reading Theater

  1. Keith, your thoughtful observations bring to mind a paragraph in a speech by Gilbert Murray I was reading just last night:

    We intellectuals of twentieth century, poor things, are so intimately accustomed to the use of Grammata that probably many of us write more than we talk and read far more than we listen. Language has become to us primarily a matter of Grammata. We have largely ceased to demand from the readers of a book any imaginative transliteration into the living voice. But mankind was slow in acquiescing in this renunciation. Isocrates, in a well-known passage (5, 10) of his Letter to Philip, laments that the scroll he sends will not be able to say what he wants it to say. Philip will hand it to a secretary and the secretary, neither knowing nor caring what it is all about, will read it out “with no persuasiveness, no indication of the changes of feeling, as if he were giving a Iist of items.” The early Arab writers in the same situation used to meet it squarely. The sage wrote his own book and trained his disciples to read it aloud, each sentence exactly right, and generally, to avoid the mistakes of the ordinary untrained reader, he took care that the script should not be intelligible to such persons.

    I thought this an especially interesting take on the power of oral delivery in an age when literary composition was already the norm, especially in a letter!

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