To read, or not to read, that is the question
September 29, 2021 2:51 PM   Subscribe

I’m off for a play soon (not Hamlet!) but it’s by a playwright I adore. I haven’t read this particular play - it’s kind of brand new. Should I read it before I go or after I’ve been for it?
posted by bigyellowtaxi to Society & Culture (28 answers total)
Flip a coin?
posted by parmanparman at 3:00 PM on September 29, 2021

Since it's a play, and was written to be performed, I'd say watch the performance first!
posted by pipeski at 3:01 PM on September 29, 2021 [12 favorites]

What do you need more right now: novelty and surprise, or familiarity and control? Let that guide your choice.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:09 PM on September 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

posted by DarlingBri at 3:10 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another vote for after. That way no spoilers!
posted by umbú at 3:20 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Flip a coin. When it's in the air, note how you want it to land, and do that. Because life is too short to do what others mandate in terms of fiction consumption, and this method should help you get at what you want.

But it's probably 'read after attending a show'. Plays are traditionally opposite of books in terms of the order of modalities in which they would be experienced by a typical enthusiast.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:28 PM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How frequently have you read the script before watching a film that you’re excited to see for the first time? Or the sheet music for an album that you haven’t heard yet? If your response is “never”, I think you have your answer.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 3:28 PM on September 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

I think it depends on how good your audio processing is. If you feel like there might be subtleties or references involved that you think you might miss then it makes sense to read it in advance so you can enjoy the play fully. But if you go to plays all the time and have no problem picking anything up then it's best to let it take you on a journey.
posted by bleep at 3:39 PM on September 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

Read it first, bring your own bias to it, and risk disappointment or frustration? No.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:43 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

In general, I'd go with "see the play first."

But if you are worried about specific content-- violence, misogyny or specific triggers-- then that would be a reason to read it first. (Or ask a friend to read it and provide content warnings).
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:23 PM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

“ Flip a coin?”

Flip a coin 92 times. If it comes up heads each time, well, I know the play you should go see.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:26 PM on September 29, 2021 [21 favorites]

It would never occur to me to read a play first before seeing it, and I work in theatre. Don't spoil it!
posted by stray at 5:06 PM on September 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

I don't even read the notes in the program from the director and/or dramaturg. I've found out I'm almost always better off not knowing what they think before they show me. I can think of several great plays I've seen that would have been ruined if I'd read the script first, several others my wife would not have been able to bribe me to be her +1, and maybe two (if that) where having read the book first might have helped me make sense of the mess the director made.
posted by fedward at 5:32 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would definitely want to know the general gist of what the play is about before I went, but unless I'm expecting to have difficulty understanding the play, I don't read it ahead of time. So I'd read it first if it were Shakespeare, very abstract or poetic language, echo-y or noisy auditorium, very fast speech, actors have a strong accent, etc.

I would probably not read it before I see it if I were expecting standard English at a normal pace in a quiet space. My ideal would be projected subtitles, but it doesn't seem like anywhere but opera and some movie theaters will do that.
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:59 PM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

It depends! Mainly on the way the playwright writes, I think. Who is the playwright?

Actually, can you just give a link to the play at the theater where you're seeing it?

But also on you, the theater company's approach, your general mood, etc.
posted by amtho at 6:23 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Amtho's right of course, it depends, but I was thinking of this passage when I made my off the cuff comment above - from David Ball's Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays :

"Some well-meaning teachers do their pupils grave disservice by making them to read a play when a student is about to see it in a theater. Do such teachers think plays on stage are better if you already know them? How contrary to playwright's intentions! Or do such teachers believe students can't comprehend words spoken out loud, and might be confused with all the color and movement? Alas poor student! Don't deprive students (or anyone else) of theatre's greatest pleasure: the delicious, often suspenseful thirst to know what comes next."
posted by stray at 6:26 PM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Another vote for after. Plays are meant to be watched. And if it's a good performance, then it can be really satisfying to "relive" the performance by reading the play afterward. But if I'm going to see a play live, I like to just go in and experience it fully first.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:52 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just to add a personal example, I was fortunate enough to see the original Broadway run of the play "Doubt". It was so well produced and acted and really brought things to life in a way that just reading the words wouldn't have conveyed. But I also loved going back and reading it afterwards, because it allowed me to savor and examine it more. And it helped sort of cement the play experience in my brain.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:55 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I understand other points of view but I would 100% read it first. The text is the play, the performance is an interpretation of the play. Start with the original.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:30 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I like reading the novel before seeing the movie
But I prefer to see the play before reading the play. (Am a former professional theatre artist, have seen and read many many plays. Seeing is usually better.)
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:23 PM on September 29, 2021

Read a completely different play first. That way you'll spend the entire live performance waiting for pieces you've read to come up, and they never will, so that's like DOUBLE NO SPOILERS.

Of course this will also completely ruin any enjoyment you might have derived from the live performance by swamping it under a flood of anxious, unrequited anticipation, but that's acceptable; art you don't suffer for is no art at all.
posted by flabdablet at 2:33 AM on September 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's probably too late now, but I just have to say


It had never even occurred to me that someone would do that! I don't even read reviews of plays before I go to them. You have forever to read the play knowing what's in it, you only have one precious possibility to see that play for the first time, unfolding in front of you in the hands of actors who have spent weeks working to make it surprising, fresh, real, to unfold its treats to you in a way that will reveal something new to you, leave you sitting there the whole way through, wanting to find out what will happen next and how these people in front of you will deal with the events coming at them in real time.

Don't read the play first.
posted by penguin pie at 2:51 AM on September 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

When you say you're going "for" a play, do you mean to audition for a part?
posted by kelper at 3:36 AM on September 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: So many excellent and helpful answers! Thank you! Decided not to read it before watching it.

Amtho, the play is Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt!
posted by bigyellowtaxi at 4:06 AM on September 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Either or, man.

I will say that frequently a play is better in live action, though.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:56 AM on September 30, 2021

Best answer: OK so I made a Tom Stoppard joke in a thread that's actually about a Tom Stoppard play. I don't know if that's good or bad.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:38 AM on September 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don't absorb information aurally very well, so I find that having a sense of what's happening -- maybe by reading [most of] a synopsis [maybe avoiding spoilers if it's a suspense thing] -- helps me stay focused on the play.
posted by amtho at 12:13 PM on September 30, 2021

Best answer: Right, so since we're talking about a Stoppard play:

First, I agree with those who say "see it first, THEN read it."

But I would like to note that Stoppard himself fretted over the revival of The Real Thing, because part of what's great about that play (and so many Stoppard plays) are the reveals, especially the first one, and he worried that people would already know what was going to happen and be disappointed.

Turns out, people still loved the reveals and the twists, even if they'd already seen the play before. It's just a different KIND of appreciation of it.

Lots of us watch favorite movies (and plays!) over and over, even once we know them word for word.

It's true that that first time is a wonderous thing, and you can never experience it for the first time again; but it's also true that a well-written work can delight anew many times.

I've seen Arcadia live at least three or four times, and I still grin like anything at all the best surprises, and I still get shivers at the end.

Have fun, bigyellowtaxi! A Stoppard play (as you know) is a magnificent thing.
posted by kristi at 4:44 PM on October 1, 2021

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