Unperformable plays?
December 25, 2007 10:00 PM   Subscribe

What well-known (or lesser-known) plays are written intentionally so as to be unperformable -- only readable as scripts? I'm thinking stage directions along the lines of pulls out a handgun and fires at random into the audience, or that instruct the actors to walk on the ceiling, or specification in the dramatis personae that goats are to be cast in speaking parts. Who's employed this device to the greatest artistic effect?
posted by electric water kettle to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean was long considered to be untranslatable into a movie script (until Charlie Kaufmann made one about just that problem out of it - Adaptation).

I know, not a play per se. just trying to help.
posted by krautland at 10:10 PM on December 25, 2007

This is the book you want.
posted by hermitosis at 10:13 PM on December 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Why do you ask? (I've spent the afternoon collaboratively writing an unproducible play with several friends. I'd like to nominate it, but it isn't even properly formatted yet, much less 'known'!)
posted by soviet sleepover at 10:21 PM on December 25, 2007

"Circe" from Joyce's Ulysses is 200 pages of sheer unperformable dramatic madness (and my personal favorite episode from the novel) Full text here.
posted by whimwit at 11:05 PM on December 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wyndham Lewis' Enemy of the Stars is really actually a novel, but is presented in the form of a play. It is not intended to be performed, contains no dramatic action, but is intended only for reading.

And while technically not unperformable, Tristan Tzara's The Gas Heart (full text available here) defies the notion of translating text to stage and has been referred to as not only anti-text but anti-body. It also contains such Dada stage directions as 'Dance of the gentleman fallen from a funnel in the ceiling onto the table.'
posted by shakespeherian at 12:01 AM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Jean Genet's "The Blacks: A Clown Show" is quite an uncomfortable play, as it constantly blurs lines left and right until you have no fucking clue what's going on. Here's a Village Voice piece on it- article
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 12:25 AM on December 26, 2007

Thomas Lovell Beddoes’ drama Death’s Jest-Book is considered ‘all but unperformable.’
posted by misteraitch at 3:38 AM on December 26, 2007

Alfred Jarry's Caesar Antichrist.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 3:59 AM on December 26, 2007

Your first example isn't unworkable. You could pull out a fake handgun and pretend to fire into the audience. If you take instructions too literally you couldn't even do Shakespeare:

The Winter's Tale: Exit, pursued by a bear
The Tempest: Enter Ferdinard and Ariel, invisible, playing and singing
And where is that horse of Richard III?

And of course all the deaths:

Last four pages of Hamlet: Dies. Stabs the King. King Dies. Dies. Dies.
Romeo & Juliet: Thus with a kiss I die Falls. She stabs herself and falls.
Julius Caesar: Et tu, Brute? - Then fall Caesar! He dies.
posted by ersatz at 4:21 AM on December 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

The Last Days of Mankind, by Karl Kraus.

Citing novels when the question is about plays is not helpful.
posted by languagehat at 5:51 AM on December 26, 2007

I doubt this is what you mean, but some playwrights go WAY overboard with the line-reading stage directions (sadly, wistfully, etc.). Early published drama contained almost none of these, and playwrights like David Mamet have made them unfashionable again. Many actors and directors cross them all out (I do this). But for the bulk of the 20th Century, they were in vogue. The worst offender I've ever see is Edward Albee (who I otherwise respect). Pick up any copy of one of his scripts, and you'll see he doesn't trust actors or readers at all. He tells you how to read every line. And some of his directions are impossible.

Try infusing the following lines with Albee's directrions:

(Very nice, but there is steel underneath)
Stop it, Agnes.

(Lazy, but with loathing under it)
Your wife is a perfectionist.; they are very difficult to live with, these people.

(As if the opposite answer were expected from her)
I wish you would! If you had talked to Tom, or Charlie, yes! even Charlie, or ... uh ...

(Maybe slightly on the defensive, but more ... vague)
Our business; we are all mixed well, we're friends away from the office, too ...

(Retreating into uncertainty)
That's what he says.

(Quietly; sadly; cruelly)
Whatever you like. Naturally.

These are all from "A Delicate Balance," because it's the only Albee play I have on the shelf. I'm curious as to why this line-reading convention popped up in the 20th Century -- after not existing earlier -- and then died. My armchair psych theory is that prior to the 20th Century, most playwrights found a way to write subtext into the text. For instance, Shakespeare wrote monologues for the characters to tell us what they were secretly thinking.

(It's fascinating to read Chekhov, if you read his plays in the order they were written. In "The Seagull" and "Uncle Vanya," he clings to the Shakespearean soliloquy. It makes no sense in his otherwise naturalistic style. I would argue that this gaff makes his plays "unproducable," I the sense that there's no way to make them 100% work on stage. And I say that, having directed "Uncle Vanya" twice and having played the title role. "Uncle Vanya" is probably my favorite play. But the monologues are flaws that you just have to accept if you want to do them. They are beautiful pieces of writing in and of themselves, but they are out of style with what surrounds them. I've seen them done in every way imaginable. As voice-overs in movie versions; as direct addresses to the audience; as if the characters are talking to themselves ... it never quite works.

In "Three Sisters," Chekhov finally figures out how to dispense with the monologues. Or rather, he finds clever ways to keep them without making them unnatural. Rather than having a character alone onstage, talking to himself for a really long time, he has a character talk to others who he thinks are hiding in the room; another character he makes so drunk that it makes sense he would rant. But, getting back to my point, even Chekhov, who we think of as a master of subtext, had to resort to literalism -- having characters explain their inner thoughts. He wrote just before (and just a couple of years into) the 20th Century.)

The 20th-Century was deeply influenced by Freud. But when I say "deeply influenced," I mean that the intelligencia was influenced, not the man-on-the-street. I suspect that playwrights had come to believe that people have inner voices, but they didn't trust their collaborators (or readers) to understand this. So they provided directions. In the late 20th Century, inner-voice became commonplace, so writers like Mamet stopped explaining.

Nowadays, the only playwrights I see doing this are new, inexperienced ones. They either do it because they don't yet know how to pack their information into dialog (so they feel the need to explain in stage directions), or they do it because they don't yet embrace the collaborative nature of the theatre. The don't want actors and directors to interpret their writing (which is, sadly for them) what actors and directors do. They want actors and directors to illustrate their writing -- to prop it up on stage exactly as it is on the page. They should quit the theatre and become novelists.
posted by grumblebee at 8:22 AM on December 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Most of the plays in this journal tend to be pretty unperformable. Also check out Mac Wellman's Cellophane

4.48 Psychosis, though produced many times, reads more like a poem than a script.

Also lots of stuff by the Italian Futurists (Cangiullo's "Detonation") seem more like attempts to create ridiculous scripts than any sort of blueprint for performance.
posted by samsarah at 8:45 AM on December 26, 2007

Ring Lardner wrote some fantastically unproduceable plays:

Clemo Uti--"The Water Lilies"

Characters/Cast (Listed)
PADRE, a Priest.
GETHEO} Both Twins.
WAYSHATTEN, a Shepherd’s Boy.
WAMA TAMMISCH, her daughter.
KLEMA, a Janitor’s third daughter.
KEVELA, their mother, afterwards their aunt.

Characters/Cast (Actual)

ACT I: The Outskirts of a Parchesi Board.
ACTS IV, V: A silo.

ACT I: After wondering what has "become of the discs," the CHORUS sings a short song. WAMA enters "from an exclusive waffle parlor" and exits "as if she had had waffles."

ACTS II and III: Deleted "because nothing seemed to happen."

ACT IV: TWO RATS wander in; "one seems diseased." WAMA enters "from an offstage barn," "made up to represent the Homecoming of Casanova." She exits after having a fainting spell. KVELA and PADRE have a brief conversation after which PADRE rides and falls off from a high-wheel bicycle.

ACT V: A COUPLE OF SALESMEN try to sell Portable Houses to the rest of the cast who don't want them. When rejected by the rest of the cast, the SALESMEN leave in hysterics. WAYSHATTEN (the Shepherd's Boy) and a CHORUS OF ASSISTANT SHEPHERDS chide KEVELA for not helping look after the sheep. SETHSO asks GETHSO who their father is; GETHSO doesn't seem to care. WAMA says "Hush, clemo uti (the Water Lilies). TWO QUEELS are overcome by the water lilies and quiver out of control. "They want to play the show over again, but it looks useless.) The play ends with "SHADES."
posted by Gortuk at 8:47 AM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Byron claimed that Manfred was unsuited to the stage. It has a huge cast, scenes on the summit of the Jungfrau, and lots of clambering over cliffs. And more spirits and phantoms than you can shake a stick at. It has been performed though.
posted by Tapioca at 9:12 AM on December 26, 2007

It has been performed though.

That's what makes answering this question tough. Because theatre conventions (conventions that are fairly trivial to get an audience to accept) allow non-literal representation, most stories are stageable.

My theatre company has, for years, performed plays on a bare stage (or close to it) without using costumes (other than street clothes) or lighting changes. I guess it's because working this way has become so natural to my way of thinking, but I'm always surprised when people tell me they can't imagine how I'm going to stage this, that and the other.

Of course, as producer, there's always the danger that I talk myself into believing our methods work when then don't, but audience response has been extremely positive and people come back to see our shows again and again.

Using just text and actors bodies, we've done "exit, pursued by a bear," statues coming to life, someone at the bottom of a tower looking up at someone on a high turret*, ghosts, gods descending to Earth, etc. If you ease an audience into a non-literal world, it's pretty easy to get them to accept almost anything -- that they're seeing things they're not really seeing.

People often say things like, "You can't produce uncut Shakespeare plays, because they are too long for modern audiences." We "get around that problem" by ... um ... producing uncut Shakespeare plays. We just do it. I've rarely seen anyone walk out or look at his watch. Along the same lines, Shaw apparently felt his play, "Back to Methuselah" was usproducable because it was so long. Yet I saw a production of it. It was five hours long. Someone just DID it. Sometimes you can overcome a production problem simply by thinking big.

* we had an actor on one side of the stage look up and yell at the person on the turret. We had an other on the other side of the stage look down, as if he was listening to someone on the ground. It wasn't showy or "cool." It was simple and it worked. But this is the kind of thing people look at, on paper, and say, "I don't get it. Since you don't have levels or platforms, how can you possibly do it?" It just involves a certain type of thinking -- thinking within the parameters of a style, deciding that you CAN tell the story within those parameters, and asking yourself how you can best do so.
posted by grumblebee at 9:39 AM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ionesco. He was one of the Theatre of the Absurd giants. Really, you should look at all the theater of the absurd writers.

Also, one of my favorites: Erik Ehn. He's contemporary, and his stuff is impossible to do, although it can be absolutely fantastic when you work with him. Here's a typical stage direction for him:

(A large, folded piece of paper flies out of her mouth and unfolds to a cartoon
speech balloon. It says “woof.” It crumples back up and disappears. Helen hunts
for it, vomiting fans.)

That's from Dark/Silent (Hellen Keller).
posted by nushustu at 9:47 AM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

MRS. SMITH (Falls on her knees sobbing, or else she does not do this) I implore you!

MR. MARTIN Oh, Charming! (He either kisses or does not kiss Mrs. Smith)

-- from "The Bald Soprano" by Eugene Ionesco
posted by grumblebee at 9:52 AM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

(A large, folded piece of paper flies out of her mouth and unfolds to a cartoon
speech balloon. It says “woof.” It crumples back up and disappears. Helen hunts
for it, vomiting fans.)

Three ways to stage this (just off the top of my head):

1. Use special effects. I don't know all the details, but I'm confident it's possible. I've seen magicians seemingly vomit objects, etc.

2. Lights go down on the actor. A spot comes up on the narrator (who you've established earlier), an the narrator says something like, "At this point, a large, folded piece of paper flies out of her mouth...")

3. Lights go down. A slide, like a silent-movie title card, is projected onto a screen. It says, "A LARGE, FOLDED PIECE OF PAPER FLIES OUT OF HER MOUTH..."

Those last two possibilities may strike you as cheating, but it all depends on the effect you're trying to create / story you're trying to tell. Maybe those "cheats" are good enough to compel the audience to feel what you want them to feel.
posted by grumblebee at 10:00 AM on December 26, 2007

Circe from Ulysses was done in audio form over at librivox last year. I did a few drunken soldier singing parts I seem to recall.
posted by sethwoodworth at 10:13 AM on December 26, 2007

This is an actual line from a theater review I received some years ago:

"While the stage combat is universally horrid, Skot Kurruk's deep-throating of an entire cat nearly makes the show. "

This sentence alone should tell you that nothing is unstageable.
posted by Skot at 11:09 AM on December 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

I believe it is JM Barrie's The Admirable Crichton that starts with a long "behind the scenes" narrative describing what one of the characters in the first scene is doing before he gets onto the stage. Although it contains a lot of useful information and character development the narrative is not meant to be performed, it is never referenced in any ensuing dialog, and no one watching the play would ever even know it was there if they hadn't seen an actual script.

It's not "unperformable--" you could certainly stage it-- but it is not meant to be staged. So not quite what you're asking, but interesting nonetheless.
posted by nax at 6:55 PM on December 26, 2007

Try searching for the term "closet drama." They're plays "not intended to be performed on stage, but read by a solitary reader or, sometimes, out loud in a small group." There's a list of examples on that page - Goethe's Faust, which I just finished) fits the bill. Especially part 2, which has scenes like a god raising mountains/revolutionary metaphors out of the ground, among other unstageable delights.
posted by mediareport at 7:56 PM on December 26, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for all the responses! I'm excited to start looking at the plays you all mentioned.

- Your first example isn't unworkable. You could pull out a fake handgun and pretend to fire into the audience.
- Because theatre conventions (conventions that are fairly trivial to get an audience to accept) allow non-literal representation, most stories are stageable.

These things are true, but -- maybe I should have been more clear -- I was interested in the intention of the playwright to create an unproducible script, regardless of what theater companies over the years have decided to do with it. I admit, though, the handgun stage direction would probably have to be rewritten to get across that a real handgun, with real bullets, is meant.
posted by electric water kettle at 7:51 PM on December 27, 2007

My favorite unperformable performance piece is Piano Piece for David Tudor #1. It reads:

Bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onto the stage for the piano to eat and drink. The performer may then feed the piano or leave it to eat by itself. If the former, the piece is over after the piano has been fed. If the latter, it is over after the piano eats or decides not to.

Go ahead, stage that!
posted by Richard Daly at 8:01 PM on December 27, 2007

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