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Posted in: Reading

Reading is . . . something you do

Out with the old notion of the unsociable aesthete, pale and too-thin in a lonely room, huddled next to a stack of books. In with the idea of the reader actively engaged, all senses on high alert, merging body, mind, and spirit, ready to transform to read to an action verb. Reading is now a full-contact sport. Stanley Fish might agree – I’ve appropriated his words for my title – and he’s speaking my language, loud and clear.

In literature, it’s the plays and poems shouting out for collaboration from an audience of “readers.” It isn’t necessary to gather a whole roomful of people; the audience can consist of just the one. That audience brings out the performance aspect inherent in these written forms, heightening, deepening, enhancing the impact of the words.

Reading poetry can be as contemplative, thought-provoking, cathartic even, as a live performance of a play – but I believe neither form is meant to be read alone. Why else the popularity of poetry events, readings, festivals, slams, open-mic nights? The interactive community aspects of epic poetry, appearing from campfires to castles, certainly requires the aural element. The nineteenth-and early twentieth-century rhythmic poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dodgson and Alfred Noyes demands the inclusion of sound.

Alliteration and strong masculine rhyming are deployed in their hypnotically onomatopeiac stories. I’ll gladly concede that Poe’s often cut far deeper into the psyche than the melodramatic “The Highwayman,” but I’ll still claim the latter as one of my favorite childhood poems.

(And for fun, here’s another version of the Dodgson classic:

Plays are not so easy to “just read” in silence. Their stories are meant to be conveyed by way of collaboration. Words plus the skill of the actors get a real-time response from the audience – an immediate return on investment. The “reader” in that audience is no longer waiting passively for a pre-fab Disneyland experience, but has become an active observer of the drama.

At its best, theatre demands the audience meet the performers and author halfway, imagination fully engaged, helping create a unique-for-that-moment synergy. Everyone breathes the same air. Everyone vibrates to the same auditory waves of the sound of the words.

It comes down to the words and the actors. Masks and robes turned early Greek players into “everyman.” Minimal staging, chairs or music stands as scenery, and street dress for costumes focus attention on the language and make for real-people connections. Do we really need onstage helicopters and dancing plus-sized foam teapots? Too much visual spectacle can distract from the words (or mask the shallow content) rendering the actor redundant and the words an afterthought. There’s no role left for the audience to play. “Well, this is the forest of Arden” is as clear an indication as one needs of what an audience can “see” on stage – whether or not there is any thing to look at.

From a writer’s viewpoint, a play works better when wiggle room is left for the actors’ contributions. This minimal-word approach is obvious in screenwriting (because the visual element is so strong) and even more obvious in an opera libretto (because singing requires more time than speech). Writing a play or a poem is seductive – on paper, it’s the words and nothing but the words – and the temptation to use all the words we know is hard for any of us to resist. Cyrano de Bergerac claims that “Poetry is words, a game of words…” but when push comes to shove, “I shall take all words that ever were, Or weren’t, or could, or couldn’t be, and in Mad armfuls … smother you in them.…” (Anthony Burgess’ brilliant adaptation adheres to the spirit of the original [Cyrano: “Tous ceux, tous ceux, tous ceux…”] while rearranging the letter. Or the letters.)

The art of being actively engaged in one’s reading and listening sports allows for this kind of reinterpretation of words, old and new, to create a meaning that means something, here and now. But it doesn’t mean the reader has to run around like a manic fiend at a football match.

Alec Guinness said he spent the first ten years of his acting life learning how to move on stage – and the rest of it learning to be still. When one has a stack of books waiting for someone to play with, that’s good advice.

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Cyrano de Bergerac – translation by Anthony Burgess / Royal Shakespeare Company 1985 – from a videotape, hence the quality / Derek Jacobi, Sinéad Cusack, Tom Mannion

Illustration by Sarah Mazzetti for The New Yorker, June 9, 2015

Cyrano de Bergerac – original French by Edmond Rostand / film by Jean-Paul Rappeneau 1990 / Gérard Depardieu, Anne Brochet, Vincent Perez