Peter Wise
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Why plays are better seen than read

Any student taking English, Drama or Theatre Studies will find that their course features a number of set play texts.

These will almost certainly include a Shakespeare play or two, with typical choices including Hamlet, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. Alongside, these will be other classic plays, with popular choices including The Duchess of Malfi, A View From the Bridge and Dr Faustus.

Titles such as the above are studied throughout the English-speaking world, although each country will, of course, have its own preferences, particularly for drama by native playwrights or anything set in their home country.

A student in the USA, for example, taking a High School Diploma, SAT, ACT, Ap/IB or Bachelor’s degree in English or Theater Studies may well find himself or herself studying The Crucible. A GCSE or A Level student in the UK could have Lady Windermere’s Fan as part of their curriculum. In Scotland, Macbeth is an obvious choice for the Scottish Higher exam. In Australia, The Chapel Perilous is a popular option for Higher School Certificate or Certificate of Education students.

Whatever the stage play, studying the printed texts is the obvious starting point – indeed, it’s essential. There are also many resources online giving the plot summary, key themes, characters and so forth, all of which can be useful.

However, there’s no substitute for experiencing the plays as they are meant to be experienced – in other words seen, rather than read. If possible, students should try and go to a professional production of the play in question – in fact many examination boards specifically advise it.

In the first place, it makes the play, quite simply, more enjoyable. Students who may struggle with comprehension of a written text, or simply lack the desire to learn about it at all, will suddenly see what all the fuss is about. As long as the production is a good one, they will likely take genuine pleasure out of the experience.

In addition, the plot becomes clear. The characters come to life, as does the way they relate to and interact with each other. And, particularly important in the case of Elizabethan or Jacobean drama, the language becomes more accessible.

Not surprisingly, more pleasure and increased understanding is likely to be reflected in much higher grades.

Of course, finding a professional production of a set text play is often easier said than done, as stagings can be few and far between, even in big cities. There’s also the question of cost. A night out at a leading theatre isn’t cheap, and a teacher or professor wanting to take their whole class to a production can find the cost prohibitive.

So it’s also worth seeking out alternate means of seeing stage plays. For example, the BBChas filmed all of Shakespeare’s plays and brought them out on DVD – these are available individually or as a 37-disc boxed set. In addition, Stage on Screen has produced DVDs of stage productions of Doctor Faustus, The Duchess of Malfi, Volpone and others. Both organisations also produce copious background material, including sources, analysis and so on.

Productions such as these also have the advantage of being essentially faithful to the script and of being filmed as they are acted on stage. (While it’s fun to watch a movie like West Side Story, inspired by Romeo and Juliet, or Strange Brew, based on Hamlet, transposed stories, heavily cut scripts and outlandish settings don’t help much with the final examination.)

Although it can never replace live theatre completely, one advantage of watching stage plays on DVD, of course, is that students have the opportunity to watch the play as often as they want, and to look at individual scenes. And by watching a production together as a class, motivating and teaching students becomes more straightforward.

So if possible, see a live production, or one that’s as close to a live performance as possible. For students and teachers alike, it can make all the difference.

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